Consumerism In France And America (Part Three)

by Kelly · 5 comments

in Notes On Culture,Series

This post is part three, of a three part series on consumerism in France and America. You can find part one here and part two here. Last week we looked at use of credit in the two countries, but what about the culture? How do the two cultures view the phraseThe customer is always right’?

Here’s an excerpt from a NY Time article that sums up the French attitude towards customer service pretty neatly:

It is hard for French merchants to admit they are wrong, and seemingly impossible for them to apologize. Instead, the trick is to somehow get the offended party to feel the mistake was his or her own. I’m convinced the practice was learned in the strict French educational system, in which teachers are allowed to tell pupils they are “zeros” in front of the entire class.

A doctor I know told me he once bought a coat at a small men’s boutique only to discover that it had a rip in the fabric. When he tried to return it, the shopkeeper gave him the address of a tailor who could repair it – for a large fee. They argued, and the doctor reminded the shopkeeper of the French saying, “The customer is king.”

“Sir,” the shopkeeper replied, “We no longer have a king in France.”

Unfortunate but true. Eight years of being a customer in France can be described by this anecdote. I can’t count the number of times I’ve waited at a counter while the clerk finished up a telephone conversation about her great need for chocolate. Not to mention the general rudeness. The adjustment can be a great shock to Americans, accustomed to a different level of familiarity and friendliness in the check out line. The first time I went to visit my mother after the birth of my oldest child she took me to the grocery store to show him off to her favorite checkers- no joke!

On the other hand, we treat shopping of all sorts as a hobby in America, while in France it’s a means to an end. When we partake of a favorite pastime it’s a choice, therefore the argument could be made that customer service with a smile is part of the added value that we’ve come to expect. It’s almost guaranteed that to be treated rudely in an American store means that you will leave, never to return.

Shopping in France, even in the grocery store, is a different experience. We expect to be able to get the job done as efficiently or quickly as possible (including bagging our own groceries) and the clerks are simply there to provide a service. They are not there to be our best friends and there is a line that simply is not to be crossed. While almost all forms of formal interaction in the United States begin with the scripted dialog of ‘Hi, how are you?’/ ‘Fine, thanks, and you?’, a French person would never dream of so intruding on the intimacy of a stranger. A simple ‘Bonjour‘ is mandatory; adding ‘Ca va?*’ crosses the line.

This lack of public interaction with others was one of the hardest things for me to learn how to do upon moving to France and it still doesn’t come naturally. I must admit, however, that I am starting to appreciate not needing to share every intimate detail of my grocery order with the woman ringing me up.

I hope you have enjoyed this series; I liked writing it. One of the most interesting things about living in a country other than my own is the opportunity to take a step back and look at my culture through a more objective lens. I also appreciate learning about another country’s culture and I hope you did too.

I would like to do a side by side comparison of the percentages of income that people spend in various categories; no specific numbers involved! Are there any five people families living in medium size cities who would be interested in participating in this project? Leave your answer in the comments!

*How are you?


1 kokok May 21, 2008

I loved reading this “trilogy”!
I would like to react about this last one.
I agree about the fact that french sellers are often rude, and more than once I wanted to leave everything on the treadmill. But, is it really more valuable to be greeted by a “How are you” which sounds to me like a form of politeness more than a real desire from the seller to know what’s up in your life?
For my part I think it’s too much, and I do not prefer hypocrisy to rudeness.

PS: I’m french (that could explain my english mistakes!) and I recently discovered USA with a great pleasure 🙂

2 Kelly May 21, 2008

Hi Kokok and welcome! I’m glad you’ve commented as it’s always nice to hear the point of view of a French person!

You’re right, ‘how are you?’ is really just asked to be polite- no one cares about the answer, but they do care if you don’t ask the question! It just shows that what is polite in one country is rude in another. That’s what I enjoy about living in France- seeing the world through a different pair of eyes!

3 kokok May 22, 2008

You are welcome Kelly, actually it has been a couple of months that I read regularly your blog, and I really like the way you write your articles, and the subjects you write about.

By the way, I would be pleased to be part of your comparison survey, if ever I correspond to the criteria you need.

4 Kelly May 22, 2008

That would be great. I’m looking for a family of four living in a medium size city. We can talk about it via email- email me at kllycat at yahoo dot com.

5 SavingDiva May 27, 2008

Wow! I would miss the smiles and small chats…

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