I have to admit it was an unlikely moment for a flash of understanding. To be frank, I always thought revelations were more momentous. More dramatic. Mine happened on the British Airways flight from London to Washington. I was staring out of the window, fascinated by the cloudless azure sky and lost in reverie.
"It's quite stunning, isn't it?" I turned to find an airhostess at my side. "I can suggest the perfect drink to go with the view. I recommend a Kir Royale."
Champagne at any time is a delight and with a touch of crème de cassis it's a treat. It was the perfect choice for the moment. But more than the cocktail, what really caught my attention was the thoughtfulness behind the offer. I hadn't asked for anything and, as far as I could tell, the regular drink service for the rest of the cabin was not underway. It seemed a kindly airhostess, with a talent for the mot juste, had taken the initiative on her own.
Is this what makes service special, I asked myself? Efficiency, promptness, dedication or, even, politeness we take for granted. But thoughtfulness, consideration, personal attention and, yes, old-fashioned kindness is something more. Something special.
In my case a caring hostess had spotted a passenger lost in thought, as he peered at the deep blue yonder, and said to herself he should have a drink to savour this moment. And then she came up with a winner.
Now I'm not the sort of person who lingers over such reflections for long but the next two days in Washington kept bringing back the same thought. And it was America's deliberate, some would say artificial, verbal courtesy that did it.
It's this business of 'have a good day'. In some shape or form every American seems to say it. When you leave your hotel the doorman wishes you a good day. When you return he asks if you've had one. When you pay your taxi fare, or the bill at the restaurant, or simply pick up your groceries 'have a good day' is the thought with which you are sent on your way. Even when its miserable and pouring you'll be wished a good day!
If you're phlegmatic and insular this could feel intrusive, even unctuous and hypocritical. After all, you ask yourself, do they really mean it? Do they really care? On top of that the bright bonny cheerfulness of the American-accented delivery makes it seem saccharine sweet.
In contrast, the surly grunt of an English (or Indian) shopkeeper, who's only too happy to see you leave, seems more honest and real. Or so I used to think.
But give yourself a day to get used to American courtesy and you'll discover it makes human encounters easier, even a little nicer. It's like someone saying "you're welcome" in response to your thank you. It just feels nice.
American courtesy may not always be sincere — how could it be? — but it does make you feel good. It's better than silence and far preferable to surliness. And even the broad, cheesy smile or the silly lilting voice is cheerful and uplifting.
Like the airhostess on the British Airways plane, the intention behind this verbal courtesy is to cheer you up. To make you feel special. And, often, even if not always, it works.
Maybe the Americans overdo it – which the airhostess did not — but I'd rather that than the opposite.
Views expressed by the author are personal.