Wednesday, June 21, 2006

“Put the dust back where you found it!” or, the surreality of Parisian manners.

Regardless of the four years already spent in the land of the frogs, I experience culture shock daily, especially in my interaction with the shop keepers or public officials. I have come to a realization that Paris is a galaxy of its own, and not representative of the rest of the country, yet it’s easy to sum up my daily experiences under the stereotype classification of French rudeness.
The notion of customer care in France is a pure euphemism; coming from the US of A, where for the mere fact that you might spend you’re greeted with red carpets, it is quite a shock for any foreigner to set foot in any French bank and daring to ask information about opening an account with them! The impression you have, is that THEY are the client, and YOU have to win them over. This attitude ranges from a mere gestual, body language level to some pretty absurd verbal exchanges which often degenerate in altercations. I have had my share, and it is in France that I learnt the art of screaming in public, something I would have never imagined I was even capable of.

Some silly episodes follow to illustrate my point:
  • I enter a travel agency and, after waiting duly for my turn, I ask the agent some information about a trip they advertise in their window; I ask the availability within a month time frame. Reaction: the lady rolls the eyes, begins emitting one of those typical French puffs, and without saying a word, she types nervously on the computer. She suddenly turns around, looks at me straight in the eyes and blunts: “No, it’s not available.” Period. I wait a few seconds, expecting her to probe and find another date or proposing another solution, but nothing, she just stares at me, with an obviously unfriendly attitude…I ask the questions myself, then. She looks at me definitely bothered by my presence, she looks at her watch and then she vomits me the following sentence with the same lucidity of an assassin: “Look, lady, in 10 minutes it’s my lunch break and I have no intention of missing it.” She just failed to add Get Lost!
  • Rude waiters are legendary in Paris, from slamming the food on the table to ignoring patrons etc. The best I had was late on a summer night, out in the center, in a chic but deserted terrace of a trendy cafe; my beau and I sat next to one another. The waiter came as fast as an hawk, not to take our order but to harass us to seat in front of one another, because we were occupying too much space!!! So we left.
  • My favorite moment of negative karma is the weekly cold treatment I get from the cleaners where I drop off my boyfriend’s shirts. They have a subscription system where you can get a discount if you buy a certain number of slots of services. The thing is, they give you these paying vouchers which group the shirts by two. As a result, you should drop off and pick up shirts always in an even number, if not their system collapses and the cleaners’ people go nuts. Needless to say that there are 5 working days in a week…So the first time I went to pick up the 5 shirts I had dropped off, the lady literally screamed at me that it was nonsense and that I should have known better. I tried to argue and find an easy solution, she just kept getting angrier and angrier at me. I was in disbelief, I looked for sympathy in the eyes of other patrons present at the scene, and everyone looked away! Ever since, despite my efforts to keep the drop-off items in even numbers and be as polite as I can force myself to be when I enter the shop, that lady barely says hi or thank you, just handles the transaction as fast as she can without making eye contact. I sent my beau once and apparently she was very nice to him! I know what you wonder, why don’t I simply change venue. Price and location are still two good reasons to suck it up and take their rudeness.
  • Some musea in Paris are very child friendly and even organize children happening and art intro activities (Georges Pompidou, Gare D’Orsay, Palais de Tokyo to name a few), but some others are simply a kid-busting party-pooper venue (and I will mention them: Jacquemart André on top of the list, followed only by the Museum of Modern Art and the Grand Palais). Although these institutions do not mention anywhere in their website or publicity literature that small children are not accepted (it would be too easy), they make children and parents visits a hellish souvenir. The strollers are not allowed in, so you have to check them in and carry your 15-20 kilos of joy all the way. Guards in every room are ready to scold the kids before they even think of approaching the fire extinguisher (currently Milo’s passion) or if they dare climbing on the seats/couches with their shoes on. If kids dare expressing their appreciation of the art verbally (Milo is not shy about screaming “Ooooh, wow !” in front of bright colored canvases), it’s the parents that get dirty and insisting looks, together with a nasty ”Shhhhh!”…and if you think of keeping your toddler calmer by supplying him with a snack or fruit while visiting the galleries, forget about it: "No, No, No!" screams the guard, running toward you alarmed as if you just leaned against a Modigliani!

    Some of these interactions are plain surreal; the best one occurred this week at the park: I was sitting on a bench with another mum and we were chatting away as out two sons were playing with a truck and a shovel not too far from us. The sand box was about 100 mts away from where we were sitting. A park guard came by and uttered: “Sorry Ladies, but the kids are not allowed to play with the dirt here.” We looked at him puzzled, not understanding what he meant…since when it’s forbidden to play with dirt in parks ? Also, the park was filled with kids everywhere… “They should play in the sand box, because we just re-landscape the park and they risk ruining it.” explained the park guard. We barely contained our laughter…I did not even bother arguing, such nonsense it was…but upon leaving we did ask the kids to put the grass back straight on the lawn and to pick up the leafs that had fallen from the tree and try to put them back on the branches!

    This one won the gold medal for the Parisian Negative Karma Aggressive Public Behavior, which I hold responsible for the generalized Parisian gloomy atmosphere and for the fact that Parisians are stereotyped as snoddy, rude and not much fun. As a foreigner it is hard to come to terms with that: either you succumb and start acting the same way, replying aggressively and living every single day some sort of confrontation, and entering this karma circle where you receive the negativity and you put it back into the environment; or you build an emotional iron curtain to protect yourself and decide to just laugh about it, which after a while it’s simply very hard and eventually the snoddyness simply gets to you and you find yourself rumbling and nagging most of the day ; either way, it wears you out after a while…unless you resort to irony:

Same park, two days later; an old lady joins me on the bench, with her book. She delves into it and reads. Milo and his friends are running back and forth from the bench to the slide, screaming and making a lot of noise, as the other 500 kids in the park at that hour. The lady turns around and snaps:

"Can you please make your kid to saty silent?"

"Why would I do that?! We take him to the park so he can play!" I reply, calmly.

"I come to the park to relax and read and it is very very hard!" snaps back the French lady, obiously oblivous of the surrounding!

"Well, in that case I advise you the library, it's a much better place!" I said smiling back.

I didn't even have to get mad!


Juliet said...

That kind of rudeness would easily get someone fired at most civilized businesses around here. I'm sorry you have to put up with that.

Alice in Austria said...

Excellent answer, Clo! I sympathize, I am rather terrified of Parisians myself .. ;) When I was in Montpellier for a French course, one of the first things our French teachters told us was that "the Parisians are unfriendly, so beware of them, but we, the people of the Provence, are nice and friendly" teehee ... it was true though, people were very nice to us there, whereas in Paris we had some issues with people because they mistook us for Germans. As soon as they heard German sounds it was over. In Versailles, one guy refused to rent us bicycles, for instance, because he thought we were German. When he found out that we were Austrian, he suddenly was SOOO friendly! And he actually ADMITTED that he was unfriendly on PURPOSE because he mistook us for Germans, but he likes Austrians, and Austrians are nice people! Marie Antoinette was Austrian (never mind that they beheaded her later on). And so forth. It was totally embarassing! We were rather speechless at that.

I also want to say that Viennese unfriendliness is legendary as well. It is a different kind of unfriendliness, a "gloominess" and "grumpiness" which has become a part of the Viennese personality stereotype (speaking of waiters, waiters of COURSE have to be grumpy etc etc). It's very stressful though even though you make a joke out of it.

Will stop now, sorry for monopolizing this thread! But this is a great discussion ;)

Alice in Austria said...

whoops, it's not Provence but Languedoc, of course. It's been a long time since I've been down there ;)

Frog in L.A. said...

Whereas I sympathize with your frustrating experiences, I think it's about time we put an end to that "great customer care in America" myth. Because I live in the States, and I can guarantee you that it's a myth. Some sales people will care of course, but they're rare, and the vast majority doesn't give a damn. Customer experience here sucks, both in terms of the products (cheap junk) and the service. Sure, you'll get your "Hi, I'm Cindy your table manager today", but you'll also get the subtext "And you know what?! I don't care about you, I'm on minimal wage and I hate my job". Or the lunatic salesperson at Macy's who doesn't know what's in store and doesn't care if you can't find something. It's like interacting with frustrated zombies. I'm not even talking about resolving an issue with airlines such as United or Delta, or trying to get the service we paid for with Verizon, or correcting a mistake on the credit card statement, or 800 numbers keeping you on line forever (in the hope that you'll give up), or having to keep at least two routers at home because they're such junk (nothing else available) that they'll inevitably break and we'll have to return them on a regular basis, or the government services such as the DMV, the IRS and social security. Etc. etc. It's a real challenge in the States to find trustworthy quality, everything is so cheap/replaceable, but in the end it's more expensive and time-consuming.

And no, I'm not an obnoxious, impatient customer, I'm in marketing myself and therefore sensitive to such issues, and how people at the other end feel (they're as victims of corporate policy as customers).

But I will say that I prefer customer experience in France. You can better trust the product/service you buy, and even if people are more abrupt, at least they're not such incompetent hypocrites. They'll say no if it's no, they won't waste your time because they're not allowed to say no but it's no anyway.

Sorry for this rant, but I'm sick and tired of people complaining about French customer service, when it's actually much worse elsewhere. More rant on customer experience in England later -- just kidding ;)

Frog in L.A. said...

Three good references on culture shocks and cultural misunderstandings:
- "Culture shock! France" by Sally Adamson Taylor
- "French toast" by Harriet Welty Rochefort
- "Cultural misunderstandings" by Raymonde Carroll.
All have great insights on the differences in customer experience, cultural traits such as frankness and privacy, education, social clues, etc.

Amino said...

Thanks for your post, I feel less lonely now... I can't understand the behaviour of most parisians in fact. They are punishing themselves: being happy starts by yourself, God helps those who help themselves !!

I have lived in London, I now live in Paris and the difference is truly noticeable. The main difference is that Parisian waiters discriminate against young people, foreigners and tourists. Given that most waiters in London are not British, they are just friendly or not, but it doesn't change so much according to your face and clothes !

And frankly, I prefer Starbucks if I am served by an angry waiter... sorry for the traditional French café.

giovanni said...

Je suis désolé... quoi faire pour défendre une culture qui m'était tellement proche que, étant encore jeune, j'ai fait un grand effort d'apprendre son grammaire, ce que je n'ai jamais fait avec aucune autre langue, d'apprendre des mots que je ne connus à peine dans d'autres langues inclut ma langue maternelle (le hollandais), et de parler français de la meilleure manière possible pour que... oui, pour que le français, le parisien, aurait eu l'impression que je... oui, que je (et maintenant j'ai oublié le grammaire d'école, hélas !) fuisse... non, non... que je (aide-moi, par faveur, soyez gentille...

... as if I were French!

Maybe there lies the problem -- you have to behave like them. And there you go, screaming in public, loosing your temper... becoming as rude as they are!

Maybe I should stop here and only add that "il sont fous les français" but I like them.

Have a nice day, my dear.

giovanni said...

I'm sorry, non-parisiens, I meant to say, paraphrising Asterix et Obelix, "il sont fous les parisiens"... Je m'excuse

Frog in L.A. said...

I've been an expat for over 20 years, and I take the view that *you* should adapt to the local market/country you live in, not the other way round (the infamous "la France, on l'aime ou on la quitte" -- works for every place).

That doesn't mean that you have to loose your own culture or identity, but that you have to blend in. The frog in me gets upset by a lot of things in yankee-land, but I never loose sight of the fact that I'm the immigrant, and the onus is on me to adapt. The day I can't take it anymore, I'll just move on.

Clo said...

Thank you all for your comments, I see the topic has touched a lot of sensitivity!

Frog in LA, I enjoyed your point of view- just a little clarification to justify my dissatisfaction: I have also lived in the US as a decade, but believe it is more my Italian native side that is culturally shocked: I had no idea that our two neighbouring countries could be so culturally far, on certain issues...the same feels my Belgian companion.Ironically, it had been much easier to fit iin in the US, although I recognize I was much younger back then. I agree with you that immigrants should make an effort to integrate overall, but I think my issues are on a different level, of personal sensitivity; I'm not trying to open a mosque here, I am just fed up of the Parisian vomiting on me their frustration! I imagine you are not from Paris any case, thanks also for the book references, I will gladly look them up (I have also been in multicultural mktg and have for a long time fascinated with the subject).Keep coming back to the blog for more positive entries on Paris!

Lilian said...

Oh My, Clo... I'm glad I my whirlwind 6 day tour of Paris I didn't get to experience much or this rudeness...

But I guess Frog in L.A. does have a point - customer service in the U.S. isn't bad, but it can be pretty awful in certain cases... We have certainly learned to be almost "rude" on the phone on occasion so we can get what we want from the companies... but it's not that bad all the time.

Frog in L.A. said...

Clo, I am parisian actually, but I agree with you: parisians are grumpy. We français are 'râleurs', and the parisians are a caricature of it! (Big city syndrome?)

Yet, somehow I miss that in L.A./the States. Everything looks xanaxed and sanitized on the surface, but the forced "Stepford" smiles don't completely hide the underlying brutality.

It's not in the open like in France, where debate and frustration are part of the culture, and I guess that's why the French are perceived as rude; but I find it more threatening, because the agressivity is there, tangible, ready to burst at any moment. The movie "Crash" denounced it pretty well.

The above is a generalization of course, but the argument is worth the risk of caricature.

Sydney said...

Dear Clo,
I really enjoyed this article and I even laughed out loud. I am a French myself, born and raised int the South East of France and originally from Madagascar and now living with husband (from Normandie) in Scotland with our twins of two years old. I left France 8 years ago now and only realised this behaviour in France. Living among British people, I can tell you that each time I go back to France for holidays I really wonder if French people have forgotten about being civilized. Especially when we go to Paris, but believe me sometimes it can be worse in the South east of France: people don't speak they shout, they don't smile they stare, they push and never say sorry, they don't queue properly, they shove...and so on. For my husband from Normandie, it was a is like people being frustrated of something, of a miserable life or whatever... I was really surprised myself, it is like living in the jungle. However,despite this negativity in French behaviour being part of a culture of revolution, frankness,directness and "ne pas se laisser faire" is somehow good when abroad people try to cheat with you. Let's say, you don't mess with French people. LOL. Regarding restaurants, France is known for having "A good service without a smile", I realised about it when I was a waitress myself here in Great Britain: I learned to smile and being hypocrite and serve food which did not deserve the quality it was supposed to give.
Here in Scotland, locals are very nice. if you ask your way they don't turn their back on you au contraire, they help you with great pleasure, they are very disciplined,they always say sorry, very polite on the road. In shops, if you look for something you cannot find they even give you the address of their main competitor and can tell you : go there it is cheaper... it is like living in another planet...
After it depends on the person you meet.
Very Good article !