In the fall of 2007, my dad moved me to college. We spent a lot of time shopping for things to get me started my first semester. One day, I wore khaki shorts and a navy T shirt to Wal-Mart. For those of you unfamiliar, a gaggle of Wal-Mart workers looks something like this:
As my father, sister and myself perused the aisles picking out essential items to get me through the next four years (like my Spider-Man plate set), a woman approached me asking for help finding a particular item. After a moment of disorder, I noticed I had come to Wal-Mart dressed like a common employee. “Oh! I don’t work here.” I explained while my dad and sister pointed and laughed at my clothing. The woman looked confused, gestured down the aisle to my suspected co-worker and said “She just told me to come ask you!”
If I knew then what I know now……
Frequently, my posse and I will indulge in swanky Friday brunches in the 5-star hotels in Doha. In a past life, these fancy all-you-can-eat affairs would not waste my time on a weekend. However, when in Doha on a Friday, put on a sundress, go to the buffet, and do as the expats do. The wait staff at these brunches dress in swanky color coordinated vests and bowties. They pour bottomless 7-up, champagne, orange juice or whatever else you fancy. In theory.
In reality, when you ask one of these servers for a cup with ice cubes or an extra fork or a cup of tea, they straight up panic. Eyes widen, darting nervously from side to side. It’s as if they accidentally wore a vest and tie to brunch. Occasionally, the waiter will muster an apprehensive “okay” before scattering and sending another co-worker to do the duty. Most often, they shrug or stutter, and emphatically state with their body language, “I don’t actually work here.”
This has become the catchphrase of the year. Say it with me:
I don’t actually work here.
These five words are the essence to understanding service culture here in Qatar. When most people are asked something directly pertaining to their job, they either are feigning ignorance, do not have the communication skills to carry out the duties of their job, or really are just ignorant to what they’re doing. A few examples:
The lobby of my building recently installed a display fridge with pastries and ready-made sandwhiches. One day, a red substance in a container caught my eye. I stopped to ask the man at the counter, “Excuse me, what is that?” His hands shook as he inspected the package. After a few moments of silence, I asked “Do you know what it is?”…..”No.” Great. How are you selling something which you probably packaged yourself if you don’t know what it is? <<I don’t actually work here
All too often, the computer system is down in my building and my key card does not work to open my bedroom. This results in a frustrated Laila descending 23 floors back to the lobby to have someone escort me with a master key to let me in. On one such occasion, I asked they key keeper, “When the computer system is working again, do I need to come to the desk to reprogram my key?”…..”I will ask, ma’am.”…..”How will you let me know?”…..”umm…. I don’t know, ma’am.” <<>> I don’t actually work here.
When I go to rigs, the company man is my point of contact for most questions. I ask him things about details in the job scope or program, the current well activity, the well schematic, or even just the well name. The common company man’s response is something of a series of irrelevant remarks which segway into a monologue about my heritage, his glory days, American-Chinese relations, Egyptian politics, or how he doesn’t like the driller’s accent. On one such occasion, the company man responded with “I don’t do logistics” when asking for a request to send more equipment to the rig. (Nothing is sent to or from the rig without his approval.) Translation >>> I don’t actually work here.
While this cultural quirk can be quite frustrating, the aforementioned posse and I have turned it into a sense of humor. We often answer questions to each other by acting surprised, gesturing to our clothes as if we mistakenly dressed as oilfield workers and say…
I don’t actually work here.