One of the fundamental differences between here (France) and there (the US) is that here, they don’t have to help you.
It’s not that there’s no customer service, but unlike the US where they’re supposed to (and expected to) be nice and helpful to customers, the onus here is on the salesperson, or the person behind the desk: They alone can decide if they want to help you. Or not.
And you’re job is to convince them to help you, any way you can. So the decision is yours.
How are you going to get them to help you?
This is baffling to many American visitors, who stare at me with wide-eyed disbelief, that there are really people out beyond their borders that don’t care if they make money or not, which is what ‘helping the customer’ is presumably all about. That the almighty dollar is worth a lot less than they think (and going down every time I look.)
I explain that this is not a capitalist country or culture, which perhaps explains why the economy here is a tad lackluster right now. But for many of us Americans, we have a really hard time understanding that other cultures are different than ours.
So here’s what you need to get with the program:
No, you won’t get ketchup for your steak just by asking simply because you want it (even if they have it), nor will you get a refund if your credit card purchase never arrives (unlike the US where the credit card companies really, really want to help you…um…I mean, really, really want your 3%.)
I used to think these Europeans were silly being wary of making purchases online, until I realized there’s no recourse here. Then it was me who felt kinda silly. Like I do right now trying to get a refund for something I never received from my bank here.
What was I thinking?
And yes, I did make friends with the woman at my bank. But unfortunately she’s not my bancaire and I can’t switch to her. I’ve tried. That would be too helpful to me, the customer. And chocolate doesn’t work at the bank.
But since 25% of the country is employed by the government, they can’t possibly be fired. And they’ll go on strike in case anyone thinks that perhaps things outta be different. And that freaks the government out, so they always give in.
So for you trying to get by here, you need to give them a reason to help you. And make it a good one.
At first it was baffling and frustrating to me. And still, frequently it is. But sometimes I enjoy it now, and once you grasp the concept of hearing “Non” the first few times (well, actually almost every time) you realize it doesn’t really mean “No” at all. It’s just the starting point for you to try to convince them to help you. It’s a game. You need to make them want to help you…so don’t be above anything—a self-effacing joke (especially if it’s anti-American), a chocolate treat, feigning a compliment, looking lost, whatever it takes, do it. You want to win them over.
And for women who are used to hiding their feminine wiles under the cloak of feminist principles, forget it. You’ve got a gift, girlfriend, so use it (or them)! Want a doggie bag? Smile coyly at the male waiter. Be polite. Be apologetic. Make up a good story (which is part of the fun.) Be sexy (yes, that’s okay too). You can even unbutton your shirt and lean forward a bit when making the request. Any way you can get what you want, work it. If I had them, I’d use ‘em too. But I don’t, so I’m at an obvious disadvantage.
(Once again, shake that Etch-A-Sketch slate in your mind clean of what you think is right and wrong, what’s sexist, or what you should or shouldn’t do to get what you want. If you don’t, you’re not going to get anything. And don’t blame me. I’m just the messenger. I didn’t make the rules around here. I just learned how to play by them.)
And don’t think that if you’re a man you can’t participate in ‘the game’ too. Why do you think every time I go to the fish market, the jeunes hommes shove the grandes dames aside to help me?
Hmmm. Let’s see. It may have something to do with the Dulce de Leche Brownies a certain someone regularly delivers. Don’t believe me? Ok. Go ahead and wait in line like the rest of the losers. And yes, they always toss an extra lemon or two in my bag.
And a big bunch of parsley as well.
When was the last time you got a free bunch of parsley from a strapping young man in blue, knee-high rubber boots? Huh?
And the French have very, good memories. Unlike America, whose history is only a few hundred lame years old, French civilization goes back thousands of years, and any French teenager will be able to tell you the date, historical significance, and which King Louis was in power when any doorknob or lamppost in Paris was installed. Try that on your teens. They probably don’t even know who invented the Sony Playstation they’re glued to.
(Although to be fair, most French kids wouldn’t know that either. But I have heard some on the streets talking about the finer points of a certain bakery’s baguette.)
So take advantage of their acute memories and build good-will. If you come to Paris, shop in the same places every single day. Go to the same boulangerie. Re-visit the same restaurant several times during your stay. If you lived here, it’ll take you a good year or so before the woman at the bread bakery will acknowledge you, or the guardienne in your building will deliver your mail in a timely fashion.
If you’re a visitor, you’ll need to act faster.
After a while, with familiarity, you’ll be part of the ‘in’ crowd. You’ll be able to ask for a baguette cooked however you want. They’ll be happy to rifle through the basket looking for the best, most perfect baguette, no matter how many people are shoving you from behind.
Want to taste a cheese from the fromagerie? Forget it. Sure, they might sell more cheese that way. But they don’t really care if you buy cheese or not.
See what I mean? That’s the American part of you talking. I told you, which won’t do you any good. You need to make them want to help you. So buy your cheese at the same cheese shop each and every day. Do not spend your time in Paris chasing the best. Get what’s given to you and be thankful. But learn how to get what you want.
So as Thanksgiving approaches, I tomorrow I head to the market and go through the negotiations for a turkey. I’ve got a pan of chocolate brownies in the oven as part of my strategy, which I hope works. But I don’t know if the people who sell poultry like brownies or not.
I hope so.
Because if they don’t, we’re gonna be having halibut for Thanksgiving.
With lots of lemon.