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Yesterday we finally found out - here in South Africa - who the winner of America’s got Talent Season 7 was. And while there is also a South African equivalent to this show, called SA’s got Talent, you will find one of the most outstanding talents of the South African people not on TV but in real life, in my humble opinion.
I was reminded of this talent as I was leaving a Mr Price store the other day. I was there to return some pants I had bought for my husband a few days previously. As usual, I hadn't been sure of his size and there was only one pair left of the ones I liked, so I just bought them. It turned out that they were two sizes too big, but thankfully my hubby wasn’t upset with me about misjudging his girth in such an unflattering manner. An entirely different story had I been in his shoes, but I digress.
So I took the pants back to the store to ask for a refund. This particular Mr Price store, the one in Fourways Mall, had recently been given a complete makeover. Where before you had to bring a torch to try and see anything in the crammed and dark aisles, there is suddenly space and light. And the tills! What a pleasure. Before there was only a narrow check-out with six sullen employees behind it, four of which invariably chatting on their mobile phones or with each other, but now there is a long counter with modern computerised tills and five employees busy helping clients. And beaming at them.
The wide smile didn’t even fade from the Mr Price employee’s face when I explained I was there for a return. A situation like this always makes me feel a bit awkward; I’m almost expecting to be scolded for being so silly and buying something I can’t use, and causing additional and unnecessary work for the shop and the credit card company and everybody. And if you've ever lived in South Africa, you might know that returning things isn't always one of the easiest exercises.
When he handed me back my credit card, after what seemed to be the end of the procedure, the shop assistant looked at me sternly and asked if I could do him a favour.
“Eh, yes?” I said cautiously. Did I have to go to customer service now and have to queue for hours? Or did I have to fill out a long form?
No, none of this, it turned out.
“Can you please have a lovely day?” he asked me and grinned.
Of course I did, after this. I laughed out loud and kept a wide smile on my face for the rest of the day.
This is one of the many things I love about this country: South Africa’s got humour.
South Africans are always ready to crack a joke. Whether you're in the relaxed atmosphere of a braai at a friend's house, or finding yourself in the seemingly never-ending queue at the local Telkom store, someone is bound to make everyone laugh.
What a fantastic gift! Because aren't situations like the latter much more bearable, or become even sort of kind of almost enjoyable, when you feel you’re with someone who is in the same boat as you? When you can chuckle about someone’s comment instead of staring blankly into the distance and inwardly tapping impatient fingers on an imaginary table? You can't avoid being in such situations, but you can choose how to respond to them. Humor, I find, is often the best response. Everyone is much happier to go through lengthy procedures and follow instructions if they are delivered with a smile and a wink.
So the next time you reach the end of a queue, even if your destination is a sullen employee or public servant who seems anything but eager to help you with whatever it is that you need: Remember, she or he is South African. And as such ready to smile at a funny remark in mere nanoseconds.
Barbara Bruhwiler lives in Johannesburg with her husband and two children. She is an internationally successful author of five books. One of them is the Expat-Living.info Guide to Johannesburg, a handy reference guide full of practical, useful information and advice for expats moving to or living in Joburg.