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I’m back in Boston with mixed feelings.

I’m looking forward to the challenges of my junior year as a business student at Boston University, yet it would be a lie to say that I won’t miss the lazy summer days in Bulgaria.

I finally have the anecdote that perfectly illustrates a cultural shock that every foreigner lives through when it comes to bureaucracy in the States.

Public service in the States is usually at a good level: waiters smile all the time, desk attendants answer all your questions, etc. But behind this seeming politeness lies an iron policy of no compromise.

On Thursday I went to the Office of Housing at 16:20 to rent a vacuum machine to clean my new dorm apartment. I had asked a friend to come help me carry the vacuum to my room.  We were going to clean and go buy new furniture with my roommate. In short, it was a busy move-in day.

And then, the student-employee at the office tells me that I cant rent a vacuum right now. Why not?! They rent out the vacuums only for one hour. They close the office at 17:00 for a break, so they rent them out at 16:15 the latest. I have to come back at 19:00 when they will reopen the office and rent a vacuum them.

I could not believe it. So many rules for just one of the 20 vacuum machines they had there?!

First I told the girl I live next-door and will return the vacuum in only 20 minutes, before 17:00. She said no. Then I told her I will rent it now and give it back at 19:00 when they reopen; they would keep my ID as a guarantee anyways, so I’d surely not steal the vacuum. She said no. I asked her if she could make any compromise for me because I had made so many arrangements and really needed to vacuum. Again, nothing. The girl was a student like me and knew that mine and her tuition had paid for all the vacuum machines on campus, but because she was behind the desk, she thought she had some super-bureaucratic-powers.

The love for rules and restrictions is very typical for the American culture. Not surprisingly, non-Americans call the US a “police state”. The interaction between service staff and clients is polite but very reserved, distant, and even hypocritical.

In contrast, service in the cultures of Southern and Eastern Europe always has a human touch. Most of the time, you can achieve compromise. Rules are more like guidelines that can be tweaked and evaded.

For example, the international restriction for luggage weight is 23 kg, but the ladies at the desks at Sofia airport always allow passengers to check in bags that are 1-2kg more. Americans might be shocked, but we believe that such minor adjustments don’t harm anyone. On the contrary! Why should someone have to throw out their clothes or pay a huge fee for just a few kilograms more?

Of course, my culture’s tendency to use human judgment over rules may result in more serious situations such as paying a cop 20leva instead of paying a 50-leva speeding ticket to the government. I realize that corruption and evading the law are dangerous crimes. Still, on a small scale, when it comes to making a compromise or a gesture for a client, I prefer the Bulgarian little accommodations to the American hypocritical policy of no compromise.


For the sake of objectivity, read about my surprisingly pleasant experience at the Social Security Office (compared to the horrors of the Bulgarian Traffic Control Office).

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September 2010

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