Manners in Paris, France, Versus Manners in Paris, Texas. There's No Way to Get it Right.

Categories: Schutze

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The Regional Tourism Council of Paris (France) has launched a good manners campaign for French table waiters, urging them to be more understanding of the cultural peculiarities of foreigners. Unfortunately, the manual on how to be nice to foreigners lumps all of us Americans together, as if the rules of politeness for Southerners were the same as rules for Northerners. Having lived both places, I can safely say that won't work. In fact the whole idea is wrong.

The manual is in French, of course, but the title is English: "Do you speak Touriste?" It tells Parisian waiters that Americans are very informal, like to be called by their first names, eat dinner in the middle of the afternoon and play with smartphones and Internet tablets while dining. The idea is that Americans can't help being the way they are, so it's not appropriate to throw their food at them and hope they go away.

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Library of Congress
Does the waiter use, "Sir," "Monsieur," "Bob," or "Dude"? Depends on where they are.

In other words, the manual completely misses the sir-ma'am issue, which for the sake of brevity here we will call simply "sirmam." Sirmam is important. It means something. Just what, I've never been entirely sure, but I do know that differences in sirmam are very notable when traveling within the United States. Is it an issue that translates all the way to Paris, France? You tell me. I know it's significant in Paris, Texas.

I had been living in Texas and away from my own native Michigan for many years. During a recent visit back to the mitten state, the absence of sirmam there sort of jostled me at first. I bristled when a waiter came up to me at a table and addressed me as "Buddy." I think I may even have craned around to see if possibly there might be somebody named Buddy sitting behind me. On the tip of my tongue was something to the effect of, "It's Sir Buddy to you, if you don't mind."

But then of course it all came back to me in a flood, and I was embarrassed, even ashamed of myself. I was back among my own people, where sirmam simply is not done. There has always been a certain uncertainty where Michigan fits exactly into the matrix of geographical regions, but in terms of sirmam Michigan is solidly Midwestern.

There, sirmam is considered a dodgy kind of foreign affectation inspiring all kinds of odd misinterpretation. I found during my visit that if I said sir and ma'am to people, they would tell me I was making them feel old, and then they would tell me their first names. I thought to myself, "I don't remember saying anything about your age, and I do not want to know your first name."

In the Midwest, politeness is conveyed through a mannerism of just-plain-folks commonality. Even the most uncommon people, mega-rich bankers and lawyers and the like, affect an attitude of just-plain-folks in order to be polite. So everybody is everybody's "Buddy," even though nobody is anybody's buddy.

In the South, politeness is conveyed through a certain formality which can be wrongly interpreted sometimes as a softness. I have always suspected that in Texas, at least, sirmam was a convention derived from frontier experience and the days when people carried sidearms. The idea was, "We can be very polite and call each other sir and ma'am, or I can shoot you right here."

In both cases the conventions, at least on the surface of them, convey things that are not true -- on the one hand an over-cozy friendliness, on the other an utterly fake respect. At least in restaurants, the purpose is the same: to get fed and not have a rhubarb about it.

That's the goal. No rhubarb. A French waiter once backed away from my table at least four feet, dropped his order pad to his side, heaved a sigh worthy of the damn opera and informed me that I had just asked for a glass of water with the wrong French grammatical construction.

I did not give in to a first impulse, which was to say, "Are you kidding me, Alphonse?" Instead I asked him to instruct me in the right way to ask for a glass of water. He did. Then he required me to repeat it after him a couple times. I did. I admit that if he had asked me to do it a third time I was probably going to start wishing I had a sidearm, but he did not. He took my order. Things went fine after that. So what was that about?

That was his way of telling me, "You're not in Texas any more. I am a professional waiter who, under French law, cannot be fired from my job if you bitch about me to my boss. I earn a good living with a pension. I'm on national health care. I don't give a damn about tips. So you are going to treat me as your social equal, or you are going to have a very unsatisfying dining experience after which I will present you with a huge inaccurate bill which I will refuse to discuss."

The happy traveler learns to bend. It's better that way, in fact, than for the natives to try to bend in our direction. Then it just gets all muddled. In their pamphlet, the French have got us all lumped together as if we were all just plain folks, which we are not at all.

And, look. Maybe I'm quibbling, but it was their idea in the first place to kiss up to us. I do not believe we asked for that, ever. Did we? I can't imagine it. We're Americans. We don't go around the world saying, "Please don't hurt me."

In fact I'm saying all of this for their benefit, not ours. Imagine a waiter in Paris starting off with a guy from Selma, Alabama, by asking his first name and then addressing him as Bob for the rest of the meal. No way! That's a formula for social disaster. But if the American at the table were from Grand Rapids, Michigan, he might feel right at home with it.

French waiters, if you ask me, are better off just being the officious jerks they've always been. It's part of the experience -- one of those ways in which travel helps us grow. And anyway, we can't even agree on how waiters should behave within our own country.

A part of me would love to see a waiter in Dallas backing away from a table full of Frenchmen, sighing loudly and then telling them, "Gentlemen, gentlemen, gentlemen. Good God. One does not ask for a glass of THE water. In that case, the article is quite superfluous. The proper request is for a glass of water."

But then that would require the waiter to know what an article is, and then he would be fired anyway. We should all just stick to our own familiar ways and let the other guys stick to theirs. Why travel, if it doesn't make you feel foreign once in a while?


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74 comments
observist
observist topcommenter

Whenever I hear someone reflexively use "sir" or "ma'am" I tend to picture them growing up with The Great Santini.   But then, I'm a Michigander too.

As for Parisian waiters, I've never encountered a rude one.  Instead, I've had multiple waiters patiently and politely translate an entire menu for me.  The French service workers I've encountered outside Paris have all been very pleasant and polite - much more than in the UK.  Rudest waiters I've encountered were in formerly state-run restaurants in Czechoslovakia (when it was still Czechoslovakia).

Obummer
Obummer

Yo eyez hopez da Manual tellz demz ta startz bathin’ ever daze.

Michelle Rose Young
Michelle Rose Young

When I lived in Europe, I often pretended not to be American especially when a table of obnoxious Americans were sitting next to me.

Joseph Englund
Joseph Englund

I'm stationed here in Germany and absolutely loved driving through Paris in my truck from Texas... make way Merica!! It's like they were looking at a UFO.. good thing too driving in Paris and well most European countries is battle.

Ken Williams
Ken Williams

When we visited, the Parisians made it clear that they wished that we had stayed home. And we were not boorish just embarrassed that I am half French.

Americano
Americano

I was a waiter many years ago and after a few sarcastic comments to some French guys they asked what my problem was.  I said that somewhere in France a waiter is being rude to Americans, so suck it (paraphrase).  They said that primarily happened in Paris, and they weren't just rude to Americans, but French people who weren't from Paris.  Think snooty NY waiters.  I apologized and two of the guys stayed at my apartment for a couple of days.  They had just gotten out of the French Army and this was their gift to themselves.  My roommate and I drank several, several beers with them and had a great time.  Ya just never know.

RTGolden1
RTGolden1 topcommenter

Interesting observation, when deployed to the Middle East, despite the general apprehension that a large group of armed and armored Americans tends to generate among the locals, they have the best manners.  To be invited into their camp or home is to be a guest of honor.  As a translator, I often accompanied our officers to visit local dignitaries.  It was a difficult job trying to translate the Arabic flourish into American brevity and vice versa.  A simple question from our officers such as "Have you seen this man?" would lead to a lengthy discussion, often involving two or three of our hosts, usually too fast for me to follow completely, sometimes getting quite animated.  My usual translation: "No".

You've never been fed so well or treated so royally as when you are the invited guest in an Arab home, though.

GatoCat
GatoCat

I'd have to go with something like, "Well, fortunately for both of us, I came here to eat rather than learn proper French, and you did in fact understand what I want. So go get it."  Of course, given Jim's list of probable results for being difficult, I'd likely wind up dealing with the French version of the po-leece before it was over.

azimmiza
azimmiza

Well it's all "overseas" anyway . Paris receives about 27 million visitors per year (including 17 million international visitors); or 44 million if the surrounding region is included.[1] . Imagine them people visiting Dallas & then imagine how you would react to all them visitors. Day in Day out. & you can't even deal with 635/LBJ.  

Andie Hoffman Rathbone
Andie Hoffman Rathbone

As a frequent visitor to Paris, I'd say that the wait staff in most Paris restaurants show remarkable restraint in the face of boorish American behavior.

ruddski
ruddski topcommenter

The French are unnhappy that Americans don't speak French when we visit France and they visit us, not realizing that a lot of Americans don't even speak English.

holmantx
holmantx topcommenter

In Paris, restaurants also allow dogs, as well as Yanks, at the table.  Parisians are truly a tolerant bunch.

And like this old dog I know, as an American, I would have completed the dining experience by dragging my ass along the carpet on the way out the door.

wcvemail
wcvemail

I'll bet there's a Parisian waiter version of, "You ain't from around here, are yew?" to be pronounced impeccably, of course.

ruddski
ruddski topcommenter

I get confused when people diss Americans, do they mean African Americans, Latinos, Asians or what? People from tiny, snooty countries can be so silly.

mcdallas
mcdallas topcommenter

The French would rather have a cigarette than a conversation.  The Texans would rather have a gun than a conversation.  The mid-westerners would rather have a conversation, but only so they can come across as friendly.

Montemalone
Montemalone topcommenter

Je crois qu-on dit "Puis j'avoir un verre d'eau ?"


Myrna.Minkoff-Katz
Myrna.Minkoff-Katz topcommenter

To be fair to our own country, Europeans live in close proximity to other countries and are better prepared for travel across borders.  An understanding of different cultures and having a bit of the language is a big advantage for them. 

cmint
cmint

Jim, are you trying to pull all of us natives offsides? Not gonna happen! 

I agree there are regional differences.  Dan Jenkins onces wrote "Texas is the only place on earth where you can ask 'How's it going' and get a plot"

But.....

Germany, England, Singapore, Japan, Thailand,Malasia, Austria,Czeck Republic, a small corner of france (not Paris), about 30 random US states, Mexico, Various Carribean, and never a problem with rude people defined by geography. Smile and admit your ingorance and most humans are ready to assist.  Having denominations of the local currency certainly helps.

Tim.Covington
Tim.Covington

Mr. Schutze, I think part of the problem is that people view everyone from a foreign country as the same. And, they will also have a hard time understanding differences based on geography of that country. As an example of the geography problem, I have seen German tourists planning visits to Dallas who thought that a visit to the Grand Canyon would be a day trip. They truly do not understand how large and spread out the USA is.

My family found that when we visited France, most people were polite and understanding if we made the attempt to speak their language. The exception was the Parisians. We had more incidents of people being completely rude because we were not from there in Paris than we had in the rest of Europe combined.

wcvemail
wcvemail

In Singapore hosted by a very international Australian, I inquired gently about her perception of ugly Americans. She opined that Americans are sorta clumsily, childishly rude, without malice, but the worst tourists in the world are groups of Germans. Individual Germans? no problem, they just want to go hiking and stuff. But groups of Germans? When they start singing while drinking, time to call for your tab in that pub.

wcvemail
wcvemail

"People are people wherever you find them,
from Paris, Texas, to Paris, France.
They all put one leg at a time,
Into whatever they call their pants."

(Ponty Bone, "Just Like Home")

JimSX
JimSX topcommenter

@RTGolden1 

RT, I'm homing in on you. You're NSA, right? Paid to scramble my messages, right?

epicmale
epicmale

@GatoCat That's when I fall down and fake a bit of regurgitation and a mild gran mal seizure.  It sure rattles those snooty frog waiters.  LOL...

wcvemail
wcvemail

@Montemalone If I could just laugh like a Parisian, snorting through my nose while exclaiming "non - non - non" and tossing my head back, I'd wow 'em in Paris, TX. Or get my butt kicked.

cmint
cmint

@Myrna.Minkoff-Katz Exactly.  We have almost no excuse when it comes to spanish, except when you get to the advantage part.  People learn for economic reasons or to enhance their personal pleasure (fun, fitting in, listening in, etc.).  In the case of Texas, the economic tide has always dictated Latinos learning English.  That is changing aas the Latino demographic makes financial gains and prefers being marketed to in Spanish. Manyof us will be left behind or will not have access to this market.  Plus I can't tell what they are saying about me in the elevator.....

wcvemail
wcvemail

@Myrna.Minkoff-Katz Mexican joke, 3 parts:
"What do you call a person who speaks three languages?" trilingual, of course.

"A person who speaks two languages?" bilingual.

"A person with only one language?" That's a gringo.

wcvemail
wcvemail

@Tim.Covington A Frenchman (good ol' country boy, actually) told me that Parisians not only don't like tourists, they don't like other French people, and they don't even like people from other neighborhoods in Paris.

JimSX
JimSX topcommenter

@wcvemail 

Was in Orly Airport many years ago, jammed wall to wall with people going to the Middle East, a group of young well-dressed Germans invented a game of pushing so that women and children were pushed down to the floor, which they thought was hilarious. Can't forget it. 

RTGolden1
RTGolden1 topcommenter

@JimSX @RTGolden1 Look man, we got your sidewalk fixed.  Are you sure you want to keep going deeper into the rabbit hole?

Myrna.Minkoff-Katz
Myrna.Minkoff-Katz topcommenter

@JimSX @Montemalone The French take their language so seriously that there's been an institution called L'Académie Française in existence since the mid-1600s which attempts to preserve French in its purest form.

"Je voudrais de l'eau" or "je voudrais un verre d'eau" is correct.

BTW, watch out for traps when translating, like "I will have the lamb".  Say "je prendrai l'agneau", not "j'aurai l'agneau".

wcvemail
wcvemail

@cmint @Myrna.Minkoff-Katz The Spanglish itself is evolving faster than ethnolinguists can study it. It's not yet as bad (poorly pronounced, localized abbreviations) as Puerto Rican Spanish, but it's almost unique. The future of advertising is in hyper-local appeal, so you may hear a Texas Valley commercial that's linguistically different than a commercial pitched to newly arrived Mexicans.

TheCredibleHulk
TheCredibleHulk topcommenter

@wcvemail @Myrna.Minkoff-Katz

That's funny enough in the border towns and resorts, but far from a universal truth. I think Americans have gotten a bum-rap on this whole "You need to speak another language to be well rounded" thingy.

Don't get me wrong, I think that people should be encouraged to learn another language as it is beneficial in myriad ways, and in our changing demographics of the 21st century Texas, f'rinstance, maybe a career necessity.

But, I do just want to point out that in the recent past, (say the latter half of the 20th century) the vast majority of Mexicans, much like that vast majority of Americans, were rather provincial and would likely never have much of a reason to learn to speak the language of their neighboring country, unlike Europe where that skill has been a necessary part of day-to-day life since . . . ?

cmint
cmint

@JimSX @wcvemail I was going to call overgeneralization, but then I remembered WWII and all that.  Really, I think you can find douchebags in any population.

TheCredibleHulk
TheCredibleHulk topcommenter

@RTGolden1 @wcvemail 

My wife studied classical Spanish in high school and college and spent time in Mexico as a student as well, and often commented on the differences between spoken Spanish in Mexico as opposed to her classroom Spanish.

She returned to school at age 38 to complete her intercultural communications degree and retook some courses she felt she needed and then took additional courses to further her understanding of the language. Then she spent a year studying in Chile. I remember her first tearful phone call home. Because of the regional differences, she was terrified because she couldn't understand about 50% of what people were saying to her and was afraid she wouldn't be able to cope in the classroom.

Inside of two weeks, she had picked up on the regional dichos and was happily conversing with the Chilenos, the gypsies and event the indiginous Mapuche.

wcvemail
wcvemail

@RTGolden1 @wcvemail In Galveston the ten-dollar bill waives barriers when you wave it. And that's a heckuva story, glad you survived even if the Spanish language was severely wounded.

RTGolden1
RTGolden1 topcommenter

@wcvemail It's interesting that you compare it to Puerto Rican spanish.  I grew up speaking a pretty weird mix of spanglish and married a puerto rican.  Our first trip to Mexico, ex-wife and in-laws in tow, ended at the first border checkpoint.  The Mexican border guards and my Puerto Rican in-laws couldn't understand each other, except when they were insulting each others' Spanish comprehension and pronunciation.  Having just returned from Jordan, I made things worse by mediating in Spanglish with a midwestern Arabic accent.

We wisely turned around and went to Galveston instead.

TheCredibleHulk
TheCredibleHulk topcommenter

@wcvemail 

I saw a great example of this just last evening.

My wife speaks Spanish quite well and often watches Spanish language television to maintain and reinforce her abilities. During a commercial break, a company was marketing some communication service that they called "Text Mex" which I thought was a very clever appeal to latinos living in TX.

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