The French Waiter: Arrogant or Proud or Just Misunderstood?
Recently you may have seen an article in the Wall Street Journal about the “Notoriously Arrogant French Waiter.”
The article was dead on in many ways, but amusing because there were many times in the past I’d say the French waiters were ridiculously rude, but it’s rare now for a variety of reasons. The difference is not so much because of the Office de Tourisme’s campaign to get them to behave friendlier, but because so many things about life in Paris have changed as part of a natural evolution.
The old traditional brasseries once so well-known for their caustic style remain in tact, for that very reason — it’s what the clientele expect and actually come for. The guys who have worked in these establishments (such as Brasserie Lipp and Les Deux Magots) for their entire adult lives aren’t about to become different simply because the City Hall wishes they would. And what would those cafés be like if it were not for their waiters’ arrogance? It’s part of the show and they know it, relishing every moment of torturing their patrons.
Since then though, the average Parisian has changed, including those who wait tables. While it’s still considered a respectful profession, it’s not quite as sacred as it once was. Waiting on tables is still a great way to earn a living while looking for a better, more important job (with high unemployment today)…and much of which is often paid in cash (undeclared and therefore more profitable). These young waiters aren’t quite as experienced as those who made the “Arrogant French Waiter” as iconic as the Eiffel Tower, but they don’t come with the same arrogance, either.
In addition, the young French almost all speak English now — at least at a certain level — and are quite proud of showing it off, without putting you down for not speaking French. Even now, with a respectable level of French under my belt, my atrocious American accent gives me away, so regardless that every word out of my mouth is in French, they inevitably respond in English…and happily so.
This in itself leads to a much friendlier exchange. The old-school waiters were intimidated by their lack of language and what you may have perceived as arrogance is really more a display of their fear of having to deal with a non-French-speaker. As students attending traditional French schools, they were taught never to admit they didn’t know something or couldn’t do it well, so the intimidation they experienced from an early age translated into adulthood. They could never have admitted they couldn’t understand you or respond to you and therefore they hide behind an apron of arrogance.
As a resident, one learns how to play the waiter-diner game and this can result in being treated with the utmost kindness and respect. If you never, never, never take a seat in a café without asking permission, you will be immediately treated like a king or queen as you have shown the establishment you respect their position of control. Try it once and you’ll never return to being so blatantly rude yourself just by thinking that the ‘customer is king.’ You’re not — they are! You are at their mercy, remember that!
In restaurants and cafés I frequent, not only is the service exemplary, but downright endearing. It is not unusual to kiss or shake the hands of the waiters and it’s not unusual for them to know exactly what I want to order in advance of uttering a word. It’s one reason for coming back time and time again and they know that and appreciate it…and me as a customer. In the cafés where I’m a newcomer, I try to joke with the waiters to establish a rapport and it can be very rewarding.
There’s a trick you can use to establish a rapport with a restaurant and its staff that works for me every time. When I call to make reservations, I start off with, “Bonjour, c’est Adrian…” and then continue to request a table for the desired day, time and number in the party. By ‘assuming’ they must ‘know’ me, they immediately think they ‘do’ or ‘should,’ and therefore end up knowing who I am when I walk in! Then, they never forget me and it immediately creates a relationship that becomes solid from the beginning.
Waiters can be perceived as rude when in fact they are not — it’s just the cultural divide that changes our perception. We Americans think our world is ruled by the ‘mighty dollar’ — that perceived tip one will bestow upon a waiter if the service is good, but the French waiter isn’t expecting a tip and therefore simple courtesy goes a lot further. We also have never been taught to humble ourselves to a waiter by saying “please” before every request and “thank you” after every request, which a French waiter would expect from anyone who is “bien élevé” (well brought up/mannered). We also might be prone to ordering our meals ‘out of order’ — because we tend to order our drinks first, not last — and that will foil a waiter who has a protocol to follow.
It’s no wonder we might exasperate a professional waiter to the point of frustration and what we might think of as ‘rude’ behavior when in fact, he might think we are the ones being rude! I’ve seen the cultural clash so many times, it’s almost funny. And still, there are lots of times, even as seasoned as I am now, that they ARE really rude!
Several of the cafés in my neighborhood have been blackballed for this very reason. I won’t tolerate certain typically bad behavior toward their patrons and refuse to return. The moment a waiter starts to argue with me to ensure I know that he is right and I am wrong about no matter what…it’s over — I’m out of there. That’s the American in me saying, “Hey buddy, I’m the customer and you need me more than I need you.” This cultural training will never leave me, no matter how much I’m willing to put up with…arrogant or proud or whatever they wish to call themselves.
Note: Download the PDF and see for yourself what the Office de Tourisme has to say about “Speaking Tourist.”
A la prochaine,
P.S. Yesterday I had the pleasure of “hanging out” with Jeff Steiner of AmericansinFrance.net to talk about my petition to amend Paris’ short-term rental laws. To read Jeff’s summary and see the interview visit americansinfrance.net/DailyLife/Hangout-Adrian-Leeds.cfm or on Youtube.com. And sign the petition!
P.P.S. One of our readers has two tickets to the Paul Simon & Sting Concert at La Villette on April 4th that she would like to sell (Row K, Seats 143 and 144). Cost: €448.45. If you are interested, email: [email protected]