Relax – glum shop assistants don’t necessarily mean the Hong Kong economy is weak

Paul Stapleton says there’s really no need to fret over the many surveys that purport to tell us something true about people’s behaviour or our society – because they don’t

PUBLISHED : Monday, 11 April, 2016, 4:14pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 28 September, 2016, 8:48am

Another week goes by and another survey pops up and, again, the results cast Hong Kong in a poor light. The latest depicts shop assistants as a sour lot; apparently, they smile the least when serving customers among the 37 countries and regions surveyed. Explaining our poor result, the survey chairman suggested that the weak economy and high turnover of staff played key roles.

The week before, we learned from another survey that our children’s happiness had fallen to a new low. Again, experts and academics were quick to attribute causes: too much homework; not enough sleep; and too much pressure from exams.

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In the next few weeks, undoubtedly, another survey will arrive and make headlines for a day or two. In the meantime, the same tired reasoning about Hong Kong’s stressful way of life or weak economy will be hauled out to explain the result.

The problem with these surveys is not necessarily their reliability. Whether the results are valid is another question. In other words, drawing deeper meaning – such as smiles being reflective of the state of the economy, as suggested by some – is a different matter.

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Let’s consider the possible validity of the survey that measured the smiles of shop assistants. For the moment, let’s ignore how the “trained mystery shoppers” were able to accurately determine the degree to which the lips must curl upwards to qualify as a smile. And let us also assume that in all 37 regions, the shoppers entered similar types of retail businesses. Yes, big assumptions.

How were mystery shoppers able to determine the degree to which the lips must curl upwards to qualify as a smile?

Further, isn’t eye contact from a sales assistant an equally important expression of sincerity? Likewise, expressions of gratitude after making a purchase could also be perceived as more important.

Then there are the cultural differences associated with public displays of emotions. Most people could probably name a place that they stereotypically associate with people who smile easily. Hong Kong may not have been the first choice of many. But this has no bearing on the quality of service in a shop or the state of the economy.

In fairness to the smiling survey, on their website they did not attempt to draw any significance about deeper meanings. However, our media did.

And herein lies the problem. Too often, the media are quick to respond to surveys that purportedly reflect our state of behaviour. Causes are hastily attributed without questioning either their reliability or validity.

In the end, behavioural surveys that compare societies make great headlines. For the general public, they tend to accept it all at face value until the next survey comes along.

Paul Stapleton is an associate professor at the Hong Kong Institute of Education