It's best to send the bad coffee back

  • 2004-08-19
  • By Doyle Stevick
When I first arrived in Estonia to do some research about education, I was very curious about how people were managing the radical changes in the political and economic systems. I also wanted to know what challenges people faced when they emerged from a half-century of occupation to adjust to democratic government and market economy.

As an American, I had seen some of the problems that arose when advanced capitalism conflicted with democratic governance, and I didn't quite understand why democracies and markets were so strongly linked. Our conservative colleagues insisted that the answer was "freedom," but that sounded more like a cliche than a real explanation.
I found my answers in a cup of coffee, a really bad cup of coffee and a bus ride - a really hot bus ride. To my surprise, the same spirit maintains markets and democracies when they are working properly, and it is a spirit of - believe it or not - caring for other people.
For businesses to succeed, they must be able to make you happy. Some get lucky, and others may have effective psychics; but for the rest, there needs to be communication. When I visited a nice cafe in Tartu and was given a terrible cup of coffee, I told the waiter that it wasn't good, and he should try again or not ask me to pay for it. He was not happy. But what happens if no one complains? Customers remember that the coffee is bad, and they don't go back. Business suffers, and perhaps the store closes.
I can only help him by telling him when the coffee is terrible, so that he doesn't lose the other 10 customers with terrible coffee who won't say anything and won't return. Just the same, I always tell people who work in restaurants or coffee shops when something is very good. If I didn't care about people, I would let them sell bad coffee and go out of business, or I wouldn't let them know when they were really doing something well. And for businesses to succeed, they must respond effectively.
The same holds for government, which is still too often "top-down." I once saw a government official, faced with a room of teachers who know the conditions of the schools first-hand, respond to a concern by saying, "Well, maybe if the ministry says so." The message was that "you're not experts, you don't know. The authorities will tell you what is right."
Government officials are our employees, and they are there to serve us, not tell us what is right and what to do. They must be responsive - or we won't buy their bad coffee anymore.
People should be responsive because it is the right thing to do, and it is a form of respecting others and caring about their concerns. But if people are responsive because they want your money and your votes, that is at least a step in the right direction. But no one can respond to anyone if no one speaks.
Some people think that people who don't speak or do anything are passive, but I don't quite believe that. I think people often care very much but haven't had the experience of responsiveness from government officials or from businesses that shows them how to act effectively. In fact, I believe that one of the great strengths of the Estonian people is their ability to adjust to difficult circumstances, to bend but not break. We Americans sometimes go too far in the other direction, thinking we can and should change everything to suit ourselves. But I suspect that we both could move more closely to each other.
A bus trip I took one day is a good example. It was a very hot day, and people were sweating. I got onto a crowded bus and was amazed to find the windows were all shut. I began to open them and got some funny looks.
But I have no doubt that everyone was a little more comfortable after that. Anyone could have changed the environment for the better, but no one did. I admire their ability to adjust and to survive - I have no idea how I would have done under a Soviet occupation. It once made a lot of sense to keep your head low and do nothing. But in a free market and democratic state, that strength - if carried to the extremes of inaction and silence - can become a weakness. And it can hurt Estonian businesses that are unprepared to be adaptive when they serve foreigners or work in other countries where this common spirit prevails. I have more respect now for markets and democracy than I ever did, because I understand that when they are functioning properly they are rooted in the responsiveness and initiative of ordinary people. And responsiveness and initiative are expressions of caring - caring about yourself and caring about others. That's what real freedom is about - not just doing whatever I feel like whenever I get an urge or impulse, but shaping our lives and world together in ways that suit all who live in them.

Doyle Stevick is a 2003 Fulbright Fellow to Estonia
currently living in Voru.