A recent survey done by Skyscanner polled countries in order of rudeness to travellers, I knew without looking which would be number one. It’s true, France gets a lot of bad press when it comes to manners and customer service, but is that the reality? Am I living in the world’s rudest country? And if I am, has it had an effect on me?
Surliness is part of the service
Let’s start with customer service. Making the move abroad does mean you become quite familiar with your host country’s administration system. I’ll admit the French administration, and in particular the service you receive from its employees, has at times made me pull my hair out, caused steam to come out of my ears and following one particular social security number incident, induced a minor nervous breakdown.
However, that’s not the kind customer service a regular tourist will encounter. I’m guessing the Skyscanner survey was based more on the standard welcome and service received in hotels, cafés and restaurants. Here’s a sample exchange between a waiter in a Parisian café and a customer:
Waiter arrives whilst you’re still in the process of sitting down.
Waiter: Oui? [translation: “what do you want?” and be quick about it] whilst staring above your head and into the distance.
Customer: eeermm, umm…
C: err, a kir [white wine with fruit flavoured syrup]
Waiter: What flavour syrup
C: What do you have?
W: sigh the usual ones
C: umm myrtille? [blueberry]
W: Non. Cassisframboisepechemûre.
C : cassis [because it’s the only one you caught]
W : He’s already disappeared
So, the service is pretty abrupt, to put it nicely. Nevertheless, it’s usually quick. Once you’ve ordered, a good waiter will bring your drinks in a matter of minutes and, in France’s defence, there aren’t many cafés in the UK that offer table service. They also deal with extremely high numbers of customers in a short space of time and whilst the service may not come with a smile, it will come quickly.
But why are they so unfriendly? Well, first of all, they’re not working for tips. Service is often included in the bill in France so French waiters do not have the tradition of working for tips. The most they’ll expect to receive from a customer is an extra euro or so. Secondly, and most importantly, they don’t care. If a French waiter is in a bad mood, why should he pretend otherwise?
For all those who have come to Paris as a tourist and had to endure a waiter’s sighs and eye-rolls as he failed to understand your French, or, more often than not, you failed to understand his “English,” I feel for you, I really do, we’ve all been there. I know I make a conscious effort to make my accent as undetectable as possible when ordering drinks, just to be spared the withering looks. But, if you’re anything like me, the knowledge that French waiters are just as surly and unpleasant to their fellow countrymen as they are to you will perk you up a bit. And it’s true! OK, there are no language barrier issues, and yes a Parisian waiter will be marginally less pleased to serve a tourist than a native, but they still probably won’t make eye contact and they definitely won’t smile. Yes, we are all the same in the eyes of the imperious Paris waiter. My very own Frenchman, will attest to this. One of my favourite Parisian waiter anecdotes comes from his personal collection:
He’d been sitting on a café terrace with a friend and they’d already had to wait a good half hour for their coffees. The coffee had finally arrived but without the accompanying glass of water (this comes as standard with an espresso in French cafés), so my boyfriend had stopped the waiter to ask for the offending water. The waiter arrived in a hurry, pushing past another customer to deliver the water and run off for a “pause clope” (fag break) and in doing so tripped and spilled half the glass over my boyfriend’s leg. This is how he describes what happened next: I looked at him, he looked at me, I raised my eyebrows and waited… The waiter finally shrugged, said disdainfully, “ce n’est que de l’eau” (it’s only water), placed the now half-empty glass of water on the table and sauntered off, fag in hand. You have to admire his style!
So grit your teeth, steel yourself and go into that café. Sit where you like, order what you want and if you’re feeling particularly brave, play a game I like to call “Café question chicken,” whereby you see how many questions you can get away with asking the waiter before he starts looking like he’s going to explode. Oh, and always keep in mind this golden rule: a Parisian waiter never apologises, so don’t waste your time waiting for an apology.
Le Client est Roi
“Le client est roi” actually exists as a French expression. The literal translation is the “The customer is king,” yet this translation is often forgone for the more generally accepted interpretation, “the customer is always wrong, belittle him.”
The worst offenders of this interpretation are, in my experience: all civil-service based French administration organisations, such as the social security offices and post offices, banks, high-street clothes stores, Darty (I would need a whole separate article to explain how much I despise this electrical goods shop, and yet another to explain why I still shop there, must be a masochist!) and take-aways.
In the clothes shops I find the general attitude of the shop assistants is one of, “Why have you come here? You are not welcome.” I have been actually told off on several occasions after, having seen the long queue for the changing rooms, I started trying on jackets in front of the shop floor mirrors. I tried arguing back, tried asking, “but what are these mirrors for then?!” In fact, it’s highly possible that I was a contributing factor in the removal of all shop floor mirrors in the Champs-Elysées branch of H&M that I used to frequent! In any case, protesting is always in vain, I have come up with a new vigilante approach: once the annoying little shop assistant has gone away, having smugly told off their paying customer, I then go and unfold the nearest stack of neatly-folded jumpers, ha!
Take-away delivery services can be some of the most frustrating customer services to deal with, probably because you’re hungry when the “client est roi” cock-up happens and so more susceptible to anger, tears and hysterics.
In France, even at Domino’s & Pizza Hut, there is none of this, if-we-don’t-arrive-on-time,-you-don’t-have-to-pay customer service nonsense. In the past I’ve had a pizza delivery guy arrive, two hours after having made the order, with the wrong pizza. The manager told me there was nothing he could do about this order and could not offer a refund, but would happily give me 10% off of my next order! You have to appreciate the irony really!
Arrête de râler!
When you look back over the numerous “customer-service” experiences/arguments that you’ve had, and there are many, you do begin to wonder, has this changed me? Am I rude?
According to my boyfriend I have become more and more “parisienne.” His main gripe is with my complaining. I appear to have picked up the French fondness for phrases such as: “ça me fait chier,” “ça me soûle,” “ça m’énerve,” and “j’en ai marre,” all meaning, to varying extents of rudeness, “that’s soooo annoying!” One day, we went to see a new exhibition at the Pompidou Centre and ended up having to queue a number of times to get to different parts of the exhibition. I hadn’t realized, but each time we had to queue again I’d start up with one of my favourite expressions. Eventually, my boyfriend could take it no more and exploded with,
“Mais tu peux arrêter de râler?! Tu deviens franchement trop parisienne ! »
(Can you stop complaining?! You’re becoming so Parisien!)
Which brought me up short, considering he is a real Parisien, and since then I’ve been making a conscious effort to “râler” a bit less!
Speaking of queues, this is one area in which I do think the French have got it licked in comparison to us English. A perfect example of the difference between the French and English can be found in the Gare du Nord terminal of Eurostar. It is immediately possible to identify which passengers are English and which are French based solely on their queuing etiquette. English passengers often begin to queue even before boarding has been announced for their train, they line up in an orderly fashion next to the platform gate. French passengers, once the boarding announcement has been made, will stand, stretch, notice that there is no queue barrier keeping everyone in line, so will simply walk straight to the front of the queue and go through the gate. Needless to say, I am proud to have adopted this particular French etiquette and can now queue-jump with the best of them.
I think it would be difficult to remain unchanged and uninfluenced by the customs and culture of your new country. I know that, as a result of living in France, I am prepared to be more confrontational to get what I want. I consider it a survival tactic for living here. I admit sometimes it is a relief going to England and not having to fight for some customer service, but on the plus side, being forced to argue in French from early on really improves your fluency!
When moving to a new country, you always have to adapt to certain ways of doing things, but it’s all part of the adventure of moving abroad and once you know how to play the game by their rules, it can be extremely satisfying when you win the argument and get what you want!
So, just how rude is France really?
Let’s be honest, rude waiters are fairly commonplace in Paris, though I can’t really speak for the rest of France. However, there are also nice ones, quite a lot of them too! I think perhaps the rudeness in France has been exaggerated a little. No, Paris does not welcome tourists with a big smile on its face, but does it really need to?
Here are some final Paris survival tips:
1. Don’t take any rudeness personally
2. Be polite but firm
4. Don’t order take-away pizza
5. And finally, think of surliness as part of the service and part of your real Paris experience!
(Here’s an article on the skyscanner survey, worlds-rudest-countries-travelers-309852)