French culture and customs: Are Paris waiters rude or is it you?

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In matters of French culture and customs, the Paris waiter has, fairly or unfairly, often been singled out as the poster child for the rude-French stereotype. But what you may think of as rude may be nothing but poorly communicated cultural differences on both sides.

Did you know that, interestingly enough, the same people who find Paris waiters so unbelievably rude are usually the ones Paris waiters consider unbearably obnoxious? The link could not be any clearer.

Not to say that they aren’t any rude waiters in Paris, but consider this. In Los Angeles, California where I live, a “bad” waiter is one that ignores your table for a long period of time, is late in providing you with what you need, doesn’t come around frequently enough to check on you, and makes you wait for the bill.

In Paris, a “bad” waiter is one you see too often, who doesn’t have the know-how to check on your table with just a quick glance or from afar; One that brings your bill too quickly, which in French social customs is extremely impolite, and equivalent to trying to get you to vacate your seat fast.

While in Los Angeles they may in fact want to clear your table as soon as possible for a new paying customer (“You’re still working on that?”), in Paris, the restaurant experience is not a speedy one. What you think of as “being ignored” for long periods of time translates in French culture and customs in you being welcome and expected to stay for a while.

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Unspoken Code

In French culture and customs, there is an unspoken code in communicating with your waiter. For instance, everybody knows that to indicate you’re ready to order, you close your menu and lay it face down on the table. Your waiter will immediately pick up on that. Imagine not giving this signal to your waiter but instead giving him the attitude for “ignoring” your table. Let me just take a wild guess that you’re not going to be the best of friends! Just a hunch…

But you don’t have to know all the ins and outs of French culture and customs to get along with your waiter. To get your waiter’s attention just seek eye contact and raise your hand or index finger.

French social customs are adamant about one thing: Interacting with a person without first exchanging greetings is ill-mannered. Having lived in either French or American cultures my whole life, I know first hand that one thing we do in America without thinking anything of it is for example, to go up to a gas station attendant and just blurt out “$20 on number 4” without a simple hello. Not everyone does it, but it is common.

In France, it’s an impolite and flagrant lack of respect, and one that workers in the service or hospitality industry, such as waiters, are particularly incensed by.

Your waiter will be even more annoyed by you if you assume he understands English and start barking orders. Although many of them have at least a basic level of English skills, picture how you would feel if you were a waiter in Hometown USA, and a bunch of impolite French tourists came in, insisting in ordering a meal from you, loudly and in French! I’m willing to bet that you too would be a bit miffed…

In keeping with French culture and customs, don’t expect your waiter to make frequent stops at your table, asking you if everything is okay a hundred times. They consider this pestering you during your meal. As professionals, they take pride in having a pretty good idea whether everything was served okay or not.

When you’re ready for the bill, it is at your leisure that you decide it is time to go. Simply get your waiter’s attention and they will accommodate you. They will never rush to present you with a bill, as in French culture and customs it is considered poor etiquette.

There are a few exceptions, for instance in cafés. Here, you may only be in for a quick cup of coffee, so the waiter might place the bill on your table right away and update it later if you decide to order something else.

If you happen to be in a hurry, just make yourself more visible to your waiter by “hand-talking”. An example is to mimic holding a pen and “air-writing” on the palm of your hand to signify you’re ready for the bill. In French culture and customs, this is perfectly acceptable. Do not get up and try to speed things up yourself, as you might ruffle your waiter’s feathers. In their mind, this says you don’t believe they’re doing a good enough job.

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Paris Waiters’ “Attitude”?

Being a waiter in Paris is a very old profession and craft in the same vein as a shoemaker or a baker. It goes back for generations, is generally a male profession and comes with a certain tradition and way of doing things. For instance, a Paris waiter’s knowledge of French wine is practically second nature.

In recent decades, laws have been enacted to make waiters in many parts of Europe less dependent on income from tips. This combination of facts makes Paris waiters a completely different breed from their American counterparts. Is the main difference that Paris waiters are not after your tips?

That is certainly part of the equation, but the perceived rudeness is also clearly rooted in some differences in French culture and customs notably vis-à-vis American popular comportment. Is the waiter a rude person or someone simply put off by certain customers’ behavior he cannot bear?

Beyond the realm of French culture and customs, Paris waiters perform a duty the same way a clerk at the Department of Motor Vehicle would. They’re not fishing for tips, so the fake smiles are strictly optional. We certainly don’t make an issue of it at the DMV. So, is it that the expectations are somewhat different when it comes to someone who serves food and drink for a living? Could be…

There are certain rules in French culture and customs to which if you adhere even remotely, you would be surprised as to how friendly the French truly are. Parisians in particular, may not initially be as openly gregarious as Americans. But under that initially reserved veneer is a very “sympatique”, jovial and genuine people.

On a side note, the U.S. media-fueled stereotype of the rude, American-hating French is truly utterly ridiculous, and only propagated by people who have no idea what they’re talking about. Myself, all my friends and everyone I know in France grew up LOVING everything American. There is a big difference between being put off by certain Americans, and hating Americans in general. France and the U.S. have always been enamored with one another, even in disagreement and in spite of cultural differences.

More on French culture and customs: Speaking French

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