The $25 Gift Card Apology

June 22, 2009

Today I had a chat with an ethnic Chinese gentleman who works at the same customer site I do. Our usual habit is to discuss the differences we’ve experienced between cultures. He came from Malaysia, has worked there, and has also been a part of UK academia (having taught at the University of Manchester for five years). I have worked in several international companies with offices in the US and have read extensively on the differences between cultures. We both now work at the main US office of a global energy company, in the most corporate of corporate cultures.

Today we were discussing his observation that Americans are more “respectful” of other people. That was his word, “respectful,” but I think he meant “thoughtful.” Here’s why:

Last week his landlady accepted a package delivery for him. He visited the office to pick up his package after work that day. He could tell she was having a rough day: she looked tired, seemed a bit out of sorts, and could not locate his package. She apologized to him for not being able to find his package, the one she’d already told him she received, and promised to locate it the next day and contact him to confirm.

(He stressed to me at this point in our conversation that she was not at all rude and he was not at all discomfited by the experience because he could see that she was having a bad day.)

He glanced down, under a shelf, and spotted a likely suspect. He picked it up, saw his name on the label, and said, “Don’t worry, this is it. See?” and he showed her the package. She apologized to him again, seeming distressed and embarrassed. He assured her that everything was okay, wished her a good evening, and went home.

(He stressed to me at this point in our conversation that he never thought about this non-incident again.)

The next evening, the landlady came to his door and apologized for the package mix-up again. She said she felt very bad about the incident and her attitude, and proffered a $25 gift card to him as a token of apology. He tried to brush her off, to insist that he had taken no offence and the episode was already forgotten. She insisted he accept the gift card. Finally, when he could see that she was not going to leave unless he accepted the gift card, he finally accepted it to make her feel better.

(He stressed to me at this point in our conversation that this is what he meant when he said that his experience has been that Americans have more “respect” for others – The landlady was distraught over a simple mistake of which he thought nothing.)

Now he had this $25 gift card that he felt bad about accepting for something that was such a small thing. He thought about the situation and hit upon a plan of action. He went to the grocery store the next day and used the gift card to purchase a vased bouquet and box of chocolates, and he left them for the landlady.

This way, he didn’t feel guilty about accepting her apology token, and she definitely wouldn’t have another bad day.



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