Last week I had lunch with Gabrielle in a little medieval village outside Paris. On the way, we were discussing her recent trip to Washington, D.C. She told me that she and her friend (also French) were amused by going into stores, restaurants, etc. and being treated as though they were long-lost friends. "Hi! How're you doing?" was the typical greeting. In one store, Gabrielle responded, "I'm fine. How's your mom?" and she and her friend burst out laughing.
The clerk was bewildered, until Gabrielle explained she was French and that in France, greeting strangers tends to be more formal. Usually the sales assistant will greet a customer with "Bonjour, Madame" or "Bonjour, Monsieur." Clerks would never dare presume to be so "friendly" with a customer as American sales assistants might.
The last time I was in San Francisco, I took my husband to John's Grill (of Dashiel Hammett's The Maltese Falcon fame) for steak. Even though we had reservations, we were kept waiting for half an hour. Then we were thoroughly annoyed by the young waiter, who kept trying to make conversation. "Where're ya'll from?" he started out. "I live here," I said, to cut him short. But that wasn't enough. He started telling us about himself and persisted in questions about my husband's British accent, etc. etc.
Now I understand that in the U.S. waiters attempt to provide good service and be friendly, to insure nice tips. My daughter made excellent tips when working as a waitress part-time in Savannah. She quickly learned that to get good tips in a town popular with tourists, she needed to be friendly, talkative AND provide good service in a timely manner. In a tourist town like Savannah, restaurant patrons may be more eager to converse with their server, ask questions about sites nearby, etc.
But we didn't come to the restaurant in San Francisco to get to know the waiter; we came for dinner. And when I told him I lived in San Francisco (and I had until the year before), he should have cut the "tourist talk" short, rather than continually interrupt our dinner.
In France, the waiters do their job expertly and efficiently and never ask anything more personal than "how do you want your lamb cooked?" Of course in France, waiters are professionals, not college students or actors working part-time to pay the bills until they can pursue their "real" careers.
The customer isn't always right
French sales clerks do not subscribe to the "customer is always right" theory so popular in the US. I told Gabrielle about an experience I had recently at The Body Shop. I was looking for Cucumber Water, an astringent toner that I've used since 1983. It seems they no longer carry that product in France, although a similar product containing seaweed was for sale. I was content to use that until next I'm in London and can buy more Cucumber Water, but no! The sales clerk argued with me that it was the wrong product for my combination skin. I assured her it would do just fine, but she refused to sell me the product insisting I buy another for dry skin. So I walked out without buying anything.
Another time I went to a hair salon to book an appointment for a hair colour. This was shortly after we'd moved here from London and I was afraid even to venture into a salon. When I told the woman what I wanted, she said, "No!" and shook her finger in my face. Because she was convinced another colour would be better for me, no matter what I wanted. And she was determined to have things her way. Another time the woman cutting my hair refused to shape it the way I preferred. The French tend to think they know best about matters of aesthetics, although they're not always right.
Last month when having dinner with friends visiting from Holland, I told them the one thing I don't like about France is how the French try to impose their will on everyone. If you dress and act politely, as expected according to the standards of convention, you're accepted to a degree (although you will be viewed always as a foreigner). If you dress differently and don't conform to their expectations, you're frowned upon.
It stems from their deep-rooted suspicion of change and their stubborn refusal to be influenced by American or British culture, which they consider vulgar. Mais oui, it's the French you see standing in the express line on the street outside McDonald's - not the Americans or Brits. It also stems from the fact that the French, who don't travel outside their own country as much as other Europeans do, are bascially insecure. And in many ways, the French are insular and sometimes provincial. And if you want to start an argument, bring these topics up in conversation!
That being said, I love the French. The majority of them are wonderful and charming, with hearts of gold. And once you're friends, you're friends for life. Vivre la difference!