Viva la Différence!
After spending 10 days in California and going through a reverse culture shock having to acclimate to life in the U.S. (even if for only 10 days), now that I’m back and into the swing of life in France, I have reflected on the differences of the two lifestyles. There are plusses and minuses to both, naturally, but the question is: which is preferable?
First and foremost, there is the obvious difference of riding in a car vs using one’s own feet or public transportation. In a perfect world, the public transportation would be exemplary as would the ability to travel by car freely, easily, inexpensively, making any of the choices good ones, but that’s not the reality.
Los Angeles would be a very different place to live if the public transportation was better and the traffic lighter. Even so, with the city so sprawling, having a car (or motorbike) is the only logical form of transportation. With everyone’s need to have a car, more cars are on the roads than the roads can handle, making driving a nightmare (except I discovered during holiday time). On top of that, what bothers me most about living in a car culture, is having to drive, park, pay to park, return to the car, drive, park, pay to park, return to the car, and so on and so forth until the day is said and done and your last trip is to home. This renders you in a kind of bubble, with no opportunity to “commune” with the public…you go from your house to your car, to your destination, back to your car and back to your house, perhaps never needing to rub elbows with anyone except sales people or waiters. And worst of all, you can’t go from Point A to Point B to Point C, etc., without going back to Point A to retrieve the car. It’s like a ball and chain disguised as “freedom.”
Life in Paris (or Nice and most cities in France) is a whole lot different thanks to great public transportation and rarely needing a car. (Except during transportation strikes like this one rendering us all a bit helpless. Even having a car wouldn’t be much help since the traffic is unbearable. This is why the transportation strikes are so effective!) Not owning and operating a car is not only freedom from the responsibility and the danger of driving on the roads, but it frees up an average of about $8,500 a year in costs. “AAA has been tracking vehicle ownership costs for decades, and motorists are often surprised when they learn the full scope of the costs involved. In 2016, owning and operating an average sedan costs $8,558 per year, which is equal to $713 per month or 57 cents per mile.” (aaa.com/)
What I like most about being carless is the ability to go from Point A to Point B to Point C, etc., without going back to Point A to retrieve the car. And one major change is that without that car, I am no longer living in that bubble. When you’re on the street or in public transportation, you are surrounded physically by other human beings of all kinds and capable of interaction. That’s a whole lot more interesting than spending hours on Facebook or cursing other drivers from the inside of your car because they’ve done something to annoy your or slow down your trip.
Customer service is perhaps the biggest difference between the lifestyles/cultures which apply countrywide. In fact, this might be the number one challenge to overcome when coming from La La Land (or anywhere in the U.S.) where every service person is so happy, friendly, accommodating, etc. No one ever says “no” to anything…they just behave as if they’re having a blast doing their jobs, love their customers to bits, and feel rewarded when they can make you, the customer, happy.
It can be a very different experience here in France, but that is not to say you can’t achieve the same level of service…you just have to understand that you are 50 percent of the equation, so you get back what you give out. Let me explain…
In the U.S., customers get treated pretty much equally — with courteousness and respect, since the customer is the one holding the money. The relationship is in place even if you’ve never encountered that salesperson before. There’s no effort to it and it doesn’t matter how you behave — they are trained to treat you well, regardless of how you treat them. It can really spoil you by expecting to be treated this way wherever you go. It was a shock for me in L.A. when they just couldn’t be nice enough. It was almost effusive. One waiter apologized so many times for something very unimportant that I finally had to say, “Okay you can stop now!” That would never happen in France, at least not from a waitperson who has no real relationship with you other than as a server. The truth is you’re more likely to get blamed for having caused the problem, to begin with!
In France, money isn’t what it’s about — it’s about mutual respect, appreciation, and the relationship you build with the establishment, its proprietors, and staff. If you start with the attitude that you are walking into someone else’s domain as the stranger and behave humbly with respect, you will be treated with mutual respect, if not with a friendly attitude. Be demanding thinking that you, the customer, “is king” and I can assure you, you will be treated with disdain. This is not the way to win friends, but to make enemies.
One trick I always use is that I never, never, never take a seat in a café without first saying “Bonjour” and then asking politely if I can take the seat I want. You would not believe how that improves my status immediately in their eyes, even when they hear my obvious American accent and smile jokingly to themselves. Take this a step further and become a loyal patron. That will gain you queen or king status that will carry you a long, long way. (One of my friends here calls it getting the “badge of honor” to be accepted as one of them.)
As many know, my habit is to lunch at Café Charlot almost daily. One reason, besides the fact that the food is pretty much unbeatable, and besides the fact that there is a “plat du jour” every day that makes every meal a different experience, is how they treat me…like royalty. The waitstaff secretly calls me “Madame Plat du Jour” (my daughter discovered this), tries to reserve the same table for me every day, and allows me to substitute things to suit my crazy diet without question. The chef knows I love his food (because I often send my “compliments to the chef” via a waitperson) so in turn, he often sends over an additional something special for me, like what we call in New Orleans, “lagniappe” — “a small gift given to a customer by a merchant at the time of a purchase (such as the 13th doughnut on purchase of a dozen), or more broadly, something is given or obtained gratuitously or by way of good measure.” (Wikipedia.org) (The word is from the Louisiana French brought in to New Orleans by the Spanish Creoles.)
This past week, I ordered up the “onglet aux échalotes” plat du jour without substituting the “pommes de terres sautés” and what arrived was all that plus a big honker plate of “salade des haricots verts” (that he knows I love). This special treatment is a sign of how customer service in France can go beyond the norm once you’ve established the relationship. (BTW, I’m going to get fat if I keep having lunch there and they keep treating me so well!)
I have also become quite loyal to an optical shop that has kept me in great-looking specs for 15 years: Optique des Vosges. From the first moment I stepped into the shop in 2005 and the owner, Sabine, asked “Are you just looking or are you serious?” and I answered, “Well, I suppose I am serious,” I have been treated beyond the norm. Just before Christmas, Eric, Sabine’s brother, called me up and said, “Adrian, nous avons a petit cadeau pour toi.” (Adrian, we have a small gift for you.) Hmmm…I had ordered up two new pairs of eyeglasses this past summer, so what could it be?
He and Sabine both got on the phone and explained that the lens manufacturer had made a mistake and made two pairs of my lenses (value: €850!). Normally they would have tossed them, but in this case, they made a point to call to give me the good news. Eric went on to say, “You don’t have to get the frames here. This is not for me to make a sale. Go find some really wild frames…like at L.A. Eyeworks or wherever you like and we’ll make them for you free because we love you.”
And now you see why I am loyal to them, too. Did I go to L.A. Eyeworks? No! I went to Optique des Vosges and I chose new frames. Of course, I did. This mutual respect and loyalty have paid off time and again…and it feels very different from the way we do business in the U.S. where every customer is treated equally.
Now, I know you’re going to argue that these relationships can be built in the U.S., too. And you would be right. If I were to behave the same way in the U.S., by taking the attitude that I am the intruder in their domain, showing respect for their authority, and loyalty, I’d get back what I was giving. But, I contend that because we get treated so well from the outset without having to earn it, we as customers don’t make the same kind of effort as we make in France.
We all have stories to tell and we all have our little moments with French merchants and suppliers that fuel our affection for this culture, as tough as it might seem from the beginning. The point is, not to simply believe that customer service in France is bad and that it’s good in the U.S., but to fully understand that you can’t expect to be treated well if you aren’t giving the level of respect you expect to receive. It’s actually easy in France to achieve once you develop a relationship! It’s all about the relationship you build with these people, not about how much money you spend. And I’m not convinced you can do that as well in the U.S. as you can here in France.
Viva la différence!
A la prochaine…
Adrian Leeds Group
(in her new glasses, thanks to Optique des Vosges)
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