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Meg writes about her confusion with understanding the rules in France. Here's the secret, based on the whole of my about 2 1/2 months spent there over three trips, the most recent two years ago: the Europeans just don't give a goddamn bloody hell about customer service, and we do. Restaurant staff have their own agendas and lives and we barely intersect with them, depending on the place.
This isn't universally true where I've gone in Europe, but it's often the case. (I'm not saying we have perfect service in the U.S., but we have an expectation of it here, and we know what to do when it goes sour; we also can tell when service personnel are entirely ignoring us.) I've talked to Europeans about it, and had a variety of hilarious responses, all of which agree with my thesis. One Italian woman I know who lives in the Seattle area described how she can hardly stand to go home, not because of her countrypeople, but because it's so damn hard to shop or eat. The slightest service can be an ordeal.
One of the explanations posited by my cosmopolitan acquaintances is that Europe went through a different sort of social revolutions in the 1960s than we did in the States. Here, it was about oppressive moral ideas that prevented emotional and sexal expression (among other things), which then morphed into a disgust for political suppression and imperialism. In Europe, apparently, and I'm happy to refuted, they already had a fair amount of emotional and sexual expression in many countries, and the 60s represented a more radical shift in the young person's generation towards socialism and communism (or even the flip right-wing side).
So what I've been told is that it's considered incredibly bourgeois to offer good service. It's a lessening of oneself to be subservient in that fashion. This may be an interaction of culture problem, as the best service I receive in the States is service of equals: it's a salesperson or server who acts as a partner in a transaction, neither currying my favor (although friendliness is part of what I want), nor pushing me into decisions I don't want to make.
In any case, Europe is a foreign nation (most of it being one nation these days), and it's the little things that make it so. I had a few different experiences in the lovely city of Basel that still baffle. My wife and I were trying to buy some food for the train, and my German is okay, not perfect. I accidentally asked for two of one thing instead of one of each of two things. The woman reached for them behind the counter and I very apologetically (sehr höflich, as they say) explained my error. Man, was she put out -- and she hadn't even done anything yet.
An American expat friend in Paris told us a story about accidentally ordering 1,000 grams instead of 100 grams of mushrooms at a nearby market. She corrected her error, and the grocer refused to reduce her order even though he hadn't filled it yet! She backed down because she knew she'd be going to that market several times a week. What th'?!
It's not that Europeans aren't polite and charming, but the workplace is such a small part of their lives. It's another reason to find family joints instead of larger operations in which to eat, and it's another mode of gaining insight about other people's lives.
Posted by Glennf at November 28, 2002 7:53 AM
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It's interesting to see the US-European cultural divide from the "other side". I'm European (British/Swedish national, grew up in the Netherlands and living in France with a Polish wife - guess that qualifies me as a true European!!) I agree that the expectation is different in Europe - socialism is much more prevalent, and is a direct response to the heavily structured Europe in the earlier parts of the last century. However, when it comes to service, we do expect good service, though it should be honest good service.
I think that is one of the things which we feel is different in the US. The service is excellent, but doesn't seem honest! In France and in the neighbouring countries we regularly visit, I have my favourite places. In each of these places, I expect to be treated courteously, and honestly. In some places, the brusque service is a "feature" (try Bofinger in Paris for good food, exquisite surroundings and hideaous service - it's almost like a culinary theme park!) However, if I were to feel that I was treated badly, like many Europeans, I would start griping straight away.
One major difference is the speed of service, however. Especially in France, Northern Europeans can go through a tough readjustment because the pace of service is so different. I remember wanting to start screaming for attention when wanting to pay the cheque - it always takes ages in France. However, ask a Frenchman how he feels getting the cheque presented without a decent wait (or, heavens forbid, before asking for it), and he'll detail how deeply offended he feels (and I have to admit to being this way now, myself... It's catching!)
It is different, but not worse, in the same way that we should tell ourselves that the service in the US is different, but not worse! A classic example of a culture gap.
BTW: Europe is definitely not mostly one nation! The United States of Europe is some way off - it terrifies enough of us as a concept alone!
Posted by: David Shirley at December 9, 2002 12:37 PM
On our two-month trip through Europe some years ago we've had a few similar experiences, but also many good ones. Oddly enough, while I'd heard bad reports about France (and specifically Paris), we found French service personnel quite corteous and charming - especially once we explained we were from Brazil.
Overgeneralizing for the sake of brevity, we found people in Madrid to be the least polite, and in Barcelona the most.
In Switzerland, Holland and Belgium everybody was extremely friendly, and most spoke more languages than I do, so it was easy to communicate.
I'm somewhat ashamed to admit that the most negative experiences were in Germany (where I was born). In the Schwarzwald we stayed for one night at a pension where parts of the bathroom were walled off with yellow tape on the floor ("Don't step beyond the tape!"), and when my wife sat on the bed she was snarled at ("This is an expensive mattress!"). We also were amazed that one isn't allowed to touch fruits at the market.
On my own frequent trips to the US and Canada I found service personnel to usually be overly formal and reserved - one has the impression that most had some sort of training and know _what_ to say, but have no idea _why_ . I suppose this is why most of my American friends comment on the quality of service here in Brazil, where the reverse is usually true.
Posted by: Rainer Brockerhoff at December 8, 2002 4:36 AM
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