What I Wish the Internet Had Told Me About Customer Service in France

After living here for 7 weeks, I am beginning to see why Americans think the French are rude and why the French think Americans are obnoxious.  Neither is the case, but I think the stereotypes are result of misunderstanding the differences in customer service between the two countries.

In America, the customer is always right.  Not in France.  Here are some tips for Americans based on my experiences shopping and living in France.

Know what you want before you approach the counter.  

In America it isn't uncommon for a customer to be next in line and then stare at the menu board as if they just got there.  That doesn't fly in France.  If you don't know what you want, they will immediately look at the person behind you and ask them what they would like to order.  Additionally, if you do know what you want, don't wait for the cashier to acknowledge you so that you can approach the counter.  People will cut in front of you in line if you do.

Try to order in French, but not beyond your ability.

It's true, the French appreciate it when you try to speak their language.  But not to the point where you are wasting everyone's time.  They like to hear Bon Jour, Merci, and Au Revoir, but they don't want you to thumb through your whole dictionary just to find the word "fromage."  If you are that lacking in your French vocabulary, just point to what you want or say it in English.  Together the two of you can figure it out.

Don't assume that they want you to get the best deal.

In America we are used to the upsell.  "For just 30 cents more you can get an extra large coke instead of a large coke."  In France if you order a large coke, they will give you a large coke.  It is your responsibility to look for any advertised deals or specials, not theirs to point it to you.  Note:  Sometimes they would point out a better deal to me, but not often.

Slow service is not bad service.

In America it seems like we want everything fast, fast, fast, even a nice sit-down dinner.  In France and Belgium, I noticed that dinner is an event to be savored, not a meal to be rushed.  Restaurants seem to be quite pricey but I think it's because they have a lower table turnover.  Servers give you plenty of time to look over the menu, sip your drink, savor your food, and nibble at your dessert.  You aren't just paying for the food, you are paying for the ambience, so they won't make you feel rushed.  What would be considered bad service in America, in France is time to enjoy the evening.

Note: Tipping is not expected although Americans do have a reputation for tipping.

Be patient, you'll get your turn.

In America I have seen customers continue their cell phone conversation while making a purchase.  I have NEVER seen that happen here.  Actually, I shudder to think what would happen if I approached a register while talking on a cell phone.  They would probably just help the customer behind me.  Additionally, several times I have approached the counter while the cashier was talking on the phone.  They would continue their conversation as if I wasn't there.  At first I thought this was incredibly rude, but I have come to realize that no matter who they are talking to, that person gets their full attention.  When it is my turn, I will get their full attention.

One time I was checking out of the grocery store and discovered that I was supposed to weigh my peach before I bought it.  Do you know what the cashier did?  She left her register, walked all the way over to the produce section of the store, weighed my peach, printed out the bar code, and then walked all the way back to her register to continue my purchase.  The lady behind me in line kindly explained to me what I had done wrong and what I should do in the future to avoid this problem.  No one got angry.  No one sighed and looked at their watch.  Everyone behind me in line just waited patiently because they knew that when it was their turn they would get the same kind of service.

I had lots of funny experiences with customer service here in France but most of them are the result of my "the customer is always right" mind set clashing with the "the customer is not always right" mind set.  I've learned that as an American consumer, I need to be way more considerate to those who are serving me.