A big question on the mind of American francophiles and Parisians who don’t have Stockholm Syndrome is why so many people you meet in Paris, particularly shopkeepers, cashiers and other people you meet in the context of commercial interactions, behave like jerks.
When it comes to understanding France, it seems the rosetta stone of American francophiles is the work of Adam Gopnik, the noted New Yorker writer, and Gopnik has an explanation. Both of my American francophile friends who are currently in Paris, Jim Manzi and Rod Dreher, have separately brought up this explanation, so it’s been in the back of my head.
In “Paris To The Moon,” Gopnik wrote about how Americans focus on customer service, while the French focus on the one giving service. The thought here is that people giving service are there to perform their job according to particular methods and standards. Serving a customer is not really the point; doing the job the Way It’s Done, that’s the point. The method, however mad, must be observed. If the customer interferes with that, it’s the customer who is out of line. The customer is always wrong.
Gopnik tells a story about a 1997 public controversy involving a British tourist and an elevator operator at the Eiffel Tower. The woman bought a ticket to the top of the tower, but for whatever reason decided to get out at a lower level. The elevator operator refused to let her do this, and allegedly manhandled her. She had money and connections and a lawyer, and got the elevator operator fired. The other elevator operators went on strike, and the French public supported them. Gopnik says this episode revealed a basic difference in cultural psychology. For us, the elevator operator exists to provide the paying customer what she wants; for the French, the paying customer exists to allow the elevator operator to practice his metier. As Gopnik puts it, so much misunderstanding and frustration between the French and les Anglo-Saxons comes out of this desire of Anglo-Saxons to get what they want without having to deal with real people, clashing with the French desire to do their professional duty without having to deal with real people. The first, he says, leads to Disney World; the second leads to Paris in July.
Yesterday I was at the big deli counter in the Monoprix on the rue de Rennes, standing in front of the carrot salad bin. Two young employees were standing behind the next counter, doing nothing; they had no customers. Though they faced another way, they had seen me standing there, and held their ground. I thought, “Maybe I have to put my order in at the next counter, where they’re standing.” I walked over and said, in French, that I would like a demi-kilo of carrot salad, please.
The young man who heard me shot me a look of confusion, then irritation. “Monsieur,” he told me, by which he meant you stupid ill-mannered child, “I will help you, but you must know that that is not my counter.”
I told him, in French, to please excuse me, I didn’t know, and not to worry about it.
“No, monsieur, I will help you,” he said, as if he were dispensing charity. “C’est pas grave.”
So French shopkeepers and so on are not rude because they’re rude, non non non. They’re rude, because you see, in French culture, there is this notion of métier, and it’s just that customers get in the way of performing your métier.
I’ve given this some thought, and after mulling it over, I’ve concluded that it’s crap.
Most of the people you encounter in France in the context of these interactions are not actually performing a métier (the English word, I believe, is “craft”).
Sorry to break it to you, American friends, but most of the bread in most of those wonderful, so authentic French bakeries, is rolled off a factory, made with a machine and sometimes frozen. The bakers making and selling the bread don’t have much of a craft. Trust me, I make my own bread. Some bakers are outstanding craftsmen dedicated to their work. (And, contrary to the stereotype of the insufferable genius, in my experience the most talented craftsmen are also the most approachable and nicest…) There is no métier for them to be distracted from.
Rod’s carrot salad people weren’t rude to him because he interrupted them in the process of doing their job. They were rude because he interrupted them in the process of slacking off by asking them to do their @#&§$ job.
Sometimes Occam’s Razor is useful. Sometimes the reason why someone appears to be a jerk is because of a complex cultural edifice. But sometimes the reason why someone appears to be a jerk is because that person is, in fact, a jerk.
I submit that the reason why most French waiters, salespeople, etc. behave like insufferable jerks, is because that’s what they are. They live in a culture where this is self-reinforcing, where there is an emphasis on rules instead of serving the customer, where there is no culture of tipping, etc. But that doesn’t really change anything.
In a way, this reminds me of the media hoopla about the whole “French Parenting” thing. I am grateful for American expat journalist Liz Garrigan for writing about the reality of French parenting:
What’s more, they are much more willing to wage emotional and physical warfare with their children than my friends and I are (and remember, I’m representing not an American perspective but an international one). It obviously can’t be said that all French parents are the same, but what passes for acceptable here as a means to make children compliant is unacceptable to every expat parent, no matter the nationality, I know.
I’ve seen a woman on the sidewalk grab a teen’s hair and pull him to her violently, a woman beating her son in the car seat to make him shut up, and perhaps more damning than anything else, I’ve seen French parents simply ignoring their children. Entire coffee klatschs here are dedicated to recounting deplorable French parenting we’ve witnessed.
There is no doubt that French children are more behaved when they are being judged by their behavior than their American counterparts. French children know their parents don’t mind exercising very unpleasant means of punishment should they fail to mind their Ps and Qs. But here’s what happens — and again, this is such a universally accepted truth among everyone I know that it’s offensive to us to see this style of parenting held up as the ideal: French kids don’t have fun at home, they don’t have fun at school, so when they get to a neutral place like the playground, where their mothers or nannies talk on the phone or take smoke breaks, they are often prone to act like wild animals.
Truly, many Parisian parents regard the park as a place where they can simply ignore their children, and children know that just about anything goes there. They will shamelessly take toys from their peers, assault other kids savagely, literally climb on top of younger children, brazenly disregard the direction of other parents, and look at you with seething hatred in their eyes.
My wife and I are constantly shocked and appalled by what can only be called the casual cruelty parents exhibit towards their children in this country. I wonder what métier the girl who was pulled by the hair by her mother was distracting her from. But hey, maybe the mother eventually produced an exquisite croissant, so it was all worth it in the end.
There’s no métier involved when parents routinely treat their own flesh in a way that I would be ashamed to treat my worst professional enemy.
Here’s the reality: when you have a country full of jerks, these people will be jerks to their children, who will grow up to be jerks to everyone and perpetuate the cycle.