Nothing has changed since I arrived here three decades ago (that’s not really true, but it’s hot and I’m grumpy). We’re in the middle of a heatwave and people’s fuses are short. But still. Some days the customer service is so bad you want to crawl into bed and pull the covers over your head.
This evening after work I went to three different places, spent my hard-earned cash in each place, and received nothing but headache in return. And here’s another thing you notice in France: they never apologize. You’ll never hear “Toutes mes excuses, Madame“, “Sorry, that was my fault,” or “Apologies for the inconvenience.” Nope. Won’t happen, don’t even wait for it. With an aggrieved look, they’ll turn the story around and imply that it’s your fault.
I was brought up to believe that taking responsibility for your mistakes was a sign of maturity (and decency), not to mention professionalism.
First I went to the SNCF boutique to spend 80 euros on three train tickets: one for me for September 1st, and two for the kids who are coming to my place next weekend. My friend (their father) puts them on the train at Lille, and I greet them at the other end when they arrive an hour later at the Gare du Nord. Once you’ve purchased your tickets at the SNCF boutique, they email them to you. When I got home, I saw that the vendor had only emailed me the September 1st ticket and not the kids’ tickets. I need the kids’ tickets so I can forward them to their phones. I spent the rest of the evening sitting in front of my large fan (because of the heat, it’s 38°C/100°F) ringing the SNCF customer service phone number. You’re charged for the call, it’s not free. Each time I was put on hold for ten minutes before the line went dead. This means that I have to return to the SNCF boutique tomorrow or on Monday. (sigh)
I won’t bore you with the other two incidents. Needless to say, I got home at 8 pm dog-tired. Tired of the heat, tired of the French. Tired of this city.
Here’s a passage from my memoir, due out towards the end of the year –
What was wrong with these people? Not only did they not work, they complained constantly when they did work. And this brought me to a gripe that had seriously irked me since my arrival in France, a major gripe that could be summed up in two words: Customer Service.
Here’s what I wrote to my parents – “Those coming to France from hyper market-driven, service-oriented North America are in for a rude shock. Because the French, in their delusionary notions of grandeur, believe it is beneath them to serve.” And I recounted all the infuriating incidents I had experienced within the first months of my arrival.
The saleswoman at Galeries Lafayette department store who nearly stabbed me with the large and expensive kitchen knife I had just purchased, a German Henckels knife, as she threw it into a flimsy plastic bag and handed it to me. Incredulous, I stood before her and objected. “What? No box? No wrapping paper? Surely this is hazardous to be walking around with a large unprotected knife in a flimsy plastic bag.” If looks could kill. I swear she was ready to grab that shiny new knife out of the bag and drive it through my skull.
The surly supermarket cashiers who fling your groceries down the conveyer belt with Herculean force (Hey! Watch those eggs!) and lift not a finger to help as you struggle to do three things at once: open the flimsy plastic bags they also fling at you, shove the groceries inside, and pay with your bank card, all under the contemptuous eyes of the surly cashier and the cranky customers. “Would it kill you to smile?” I felt like shouting to the entire store, but didn’t. There’s that word again: kill.
The dry cleaner who ruined my favorite, not to mention expensive, silk blouse and insinuated that I was to blame because I hadn’t removed the buttons before handing it in. Remove the buttons … are you insane? When I refused to pay, he held my blouse hostage.
And the entire staff in the butcher shop that burst into laughter when a mouse skittered across the sawdusted floor and ran up my leg. OK, I admit I must have looked comical as I jumped up and down, shrieking, in an effort to expel the rodent. Clinging to the inside of my wide-legged trouser leg, the little critter managed to get as far as my knee. But no-one came to my aid or asked if I was alright. They just laughed. Furious, and with a final shake of my leg that ejected the mouse and had him somersaulting across the floor, I turned on my heel and stormed out.
“In my world the customer is revered,” I scribbled feverishly to my parents back in Toronto, “in France he is reviled.”
Every week at least one argument arose with a contemptuous salesclerk or waitperson. And here’s the thing: why was it that I never experienced such animosity back home or in other countries? Why was it that going to the dry cleaners, the post office or the supermarket back home was actually a pleasant experience involving friendly chats – giggles even – whereas in Paris the same activity was fraught with disdain and ill will? There were days when I felt I should don gladiator gear before leaving my apartment.
I hated them. It’s like they did everything possible to create a mood of tension and hostility.
“What’s their problem?” I’d complain to my French flat-mate, Olivier. “I follow the golden rules of etiquette. I say ‘Bonjour Madame’ or ‘Bonjour Monsieur’ when I enter their shop or before speaking to them. I don’t manhandle the merchandise or help myself to stuff on their shelves. My French might not be perfect and I speak with an accent, but surely they can see that I’m making an effort.”
And here’s what he said – “It’s true that in this country the French sometimes perceive service as servility.”
I just stared at him, an expression of incredulity on my face. Where would they get such a crazy idea?
A decade later France’s Ministry of Tourism launched a publicity campaign instructing the French to be more hospitable to foreigners. In a bid to transform the city’s reputation from being the rudest in the western hemisphere to the most welcoming, the Paris Tourist Board issued a ‘politeness manual’ to all those who worked in the service industry.