- Lions Bay, British Columbia - Before I moved to France, many had cautioned me to be weary of the Parisian service staff. I have to say, it was all rather intimidating once I was in Paris. I found myself too scared to even dare facing one of these servers, so at first, I ate the streetside vendors. I don’t know if I have ever actually felt abused by a server, but I wasn’t eager to present myself as the next victim of Parisian waiters.
“Epitaph for a dead [French] waiter – God finally caught his eye” – George S. Kaufman
My first daring experience, after I worked up the courage, was in a Franco-Italian restaurant just outside of Montmartre, which looked like it was a family-owned joint. I spoke French, while my friend from out-of-town barely spoke a word of French. My experience was pleasant. In fact, nothing like the stereotype that I had been forewarned about. This was early on in my year in France, which led me to wonder what all of the fuss was about. By the time I returned to life in Canada, I dined out at numerous restaurants across both France and Europe and I noticed several concerning things about how one conceptualizes what good customer service is.
In fact, if I may be so bold to say, if there is one thing that the French actually do better than North Americans, it would have to be customer service. Take a moment to pick yourself up off the floor and continue reading. Ready? Okay, great! Here we go!
As I prepared to write this piece, I wrestled with how best to make my argument, since I know that the burden of proof is now on me, since the historical evidence would seem to suggest otherwise.
Let me first begin with the concept of tipping. As someone who worked his way through private school and university as a barista, I can attest to the benefits of tips. Baristas typically do not receive as much as their serving counterparts in restaurants. However, in France, their French brethren often receive little to no tips at all!
There are probably two initial reactions that one might have from this revelation. One, it may be shock and dismay that the French servers must be worse off and paid less, or two, this must explain why French customer service is so terrible; they don’t have any incentive to work hard and give good customer service. Strangely enough, both of these are false.
In North America, customers are to reward good service with larger tips. When I was younger, I felt it was common belief that 10% tip on the bill was the status quo for rewarding good service. Now, I feel bad if I leave anything less than 20% as this seems like it is quickly evolving into the new standard. This principle of tipping has resonated so much that some believe that the word “tips” is actually an acronym for “to ensure [sic] prompt [or proper] service.” This is the case sometimes. However, in France, as a diner, I got my bill and no expectation of a tip is made by the server. French friends would make fun of me for feeling any pressure to leave anything behind. Although leaving something extra from the server is not frowned upon if exceptional service is given, neither is rounding up the bill to next bill denomination, regardless if it amounts to a 1% or 5% tip. Nonetheless, it was rare in my experience.
So why would French servers put up with no tips when their North American colleagues are earning so much? Because servers in France earn a normal fixed income, which includes benefits such as health care and vacation time. When I say normal fixed income, I do not mean “normal” as in normal for North American standards, but a normal income for any worker.
This is made evident by how service positions in France are not relegated to the inexperienced or rejected of society. What I mean by this is that it is ever so common to find restaurants filled with young staff members, who are trying to earn some spending money at low wages, since their lack of experience prevents them from finding a better paying job. As for the rejected of society, let’s not lie to ourselves. There is a reason why McDonalds, Burger King, Subway, and Tim Horton's are largely filled with recently-arrived immigrants. These individuals struggle to find better work for a variety of reasons, such as their previous work experience in their home countries being considered invalid and/or their still-developing English language skills.
Fast-food restaurants are able to staff their restaurants because these individuals are often desperate enough to work for their meager wages (NB: McDonalds does not allow its employees to earn tips!), since no one else will give them a chance. This in turn keeps others in society from even applying for these jobs, since it is disregarded as “second-class work,” or maybe better stated, a stigma exists that anyone who works at a fast-food restaurant is desperate for work. What other jobs are available for high school students? Mowing lawns? Babysitting? Errands around the neighbourhood? Do any of these offer regular shifts or employment? Not usually.
Meanwhile in France, I noticed something strangely different. Very few young people tended to work in restaurants, though I noticed some in fast-food restaurants. Nevertheless, the percentage was far less than in North America. More surprising was the absence of ethnic minorities who worked in restaurants or the fast-food industry. I was left to reflect on why this might be. My best guess would be that the French are far more stingy about speaking their language well, whereas in North America, it is not unusual to speak to someone with a foreign accent. The French have a lot more pride in their language than Canadians or Americans are about their English.
Yet, I still do not feel like I have completely made the case for why French customer service is better. I do not want suggest that I think North American customer service is worse because we have immigrants working in fast-food restaurants. To assume that would be a mistake. Instead, my argument is based heavily on the idea of respect.
One might counter by arguing that respect is fundamental to good customer service, since the server must be respectful to his or her guests. I would agree with this assertion, but it must go further. The customer must respect his or her server as well. Before I went to France, I might have said that I was respectful of my servers. This wasn’t as true as I would like to believe it to be. In France, being a server can be a respectable job. There is such a thing as a career server. One can go to school to become a server. Several servers who looked to be over the age of 45-years old served me.
In North America, however, servers are treated on the same level as personal servants. Some prefer pleasant relationships with their servers, so they are kind and polite, while others expect their servers to answer to their every beck and call, and also to take the fall for their own mistake (ie. “I don’t actually like this dish, could you replace it with something else like a hamburger?”). I have been amazed at how often my own friends have blamed servers for their own mistakes, such as an item apparently being wrongly ordered. If the server protests that a mistake was not made, the server is often labeled a terrible server and the customer tells 5 or 6 of his or her friends about the terrible customer service that they experienced. In France, however, French servers had none of this when customers tried something similar. Why? Because stupid mistakes like this cost their bosses money and this in turn puts the server in an awkward position.
The shameful thing about this is that North Americans often demand that the server take the hit for customer's mistake, or if something goes wrong. It could be the case of a kitchen error or anything. Whereas in North America, the server is a servant; in France, the server is a respectable human being who does not allow himself to be treated poorly and, in my experience, will talk back if one attempts to.
My belief is this: French servers provide better customer service, since it is much more professional and they treat themselves as professionals worthy of respect. If a server does not believe that they are worthy of respect, they are not likely to act like they are worthy of respect. Seems simple? Yes, but many servers are taught to treat the customer as worthy of more respect than the server or his dignity. I don’t think it unusual for anyone to respond less than pleasantly when they realize that the person that they are serving is disrespecting them.
The criticism against the Parisian servers is made worse by a few simple facts: One, most tourists who visit France only ever see Paris, so they judge all Frenchmen from their experience with Parisians. Two, most Parisians are so sick of the tourist masses that they have little patience for them. Three, most tourists barely speak a word of French and expect their servers to take their orders in English (Imagine a French person coming to an American restaurant and trying to order in French and then getting quite angry and flustered when no one in the restaurant speaks French well enough to get his order right!) Four, North American tourists bring with them their own cultural attitudes about what customer service looks like and how they can treat servers. And finally, fifth, Parisians are known among Frenchmen to be the most impatient and impolite in their nation. They are city people, who are just like city people in any other major city of the world. Little wonder that when all of these factors are taken into account, Parisians servers seem so rude to North American servers.
Now, I imagine if you have been the victim of a Parisian server who talked back, you will likely be protesting that you are not disrespectful to your server, rather it was he who was disrespectful. But before you went to France, did you think to look for the cultural differences between North America and France? I imagine you didn’t and you were being somewhat culturally insensitive by failing to learn about it beforehand. Or maybe you tried to speak French to your server and he responded in English to you? Was this rude of him? I don’t think so, because one of two things likely was happening: One, your French was probably, in all honestly, not as good as you like to believe it was, thus it just made things more difficult for your server, or two, your server was trying to be helpful by switching to your native language to make it easier for you as the customer, and also to ensure that he can serve the other tables and not waste 10 minutes taking your order due to linguistic confusion or inability.
Curious to hear any disagreement on this, or if your experience with French/Parisians servers lines up or makes sense to you in hindsight.