The Free 5

One of the keys on my laptop keeps falling off.

It’s the ‘5’ key. I never realized how often I typed the number 5 until every time I tapped that little plastic square, hot damn if that méchant little digit didn’t hop right off my keyboard. Since I’m in the US, I thought I’d head over to one of the Apple stores to see if they could fix it for me.

Within a few minutes, the cheery salesperson diagnosed the problem, returned with a new key, and popped that little dickens into place. For free!

Then he said something really odd to me, something I haven’t heard in a long time.

And it kinda freaked me out.


“Is there anything else I can help you with today?”

Whoa.

Not only did he fix my computer—for free!…but he asked if there’s anything else he could do for me. While that may not seem like much to you, I was basking in a fuzzy, feel-good glow for a good thirty-to-forty minutes afterwards. (Actually it’s been a few weeks and I’m still feeling all warm and fuzzy about it.)

Almost uniformly wherever I’ve been traveling, people are practically tripping over themselves to help me. Sometimes it’s a bit much, like at hotel breakfasts where if you take a sip of your coffee, they rush over with their trigger-fingers on the coffee urn to replace the sip you took from your cup almost before it hits to saucer. Same with the towering glasses of ice water. (Does everyone in America have the same never-ending case of brain-freeze that I’ve had the past few weeks?)

In France, there is customer service, but it’s not a right but a privilege and you gotta work to earn it. They don’t have to help you…and why should they? It’s not like they can be fired or anything, so why should they help you? Remember Oprah getting the boot (and I don’t mean those 1500€ riding boots) at Hermès? You have to make them want to help you. Just showing up, or being filthy rich, isn’t enough. Pouring on the charm works (sometimes) or do what I do and throw yourself at their mercy, whether you’re at La Poste or le Gap.

Case in point: A friend bought a pair of pants at H & M. After a couple of days, she changed her mind and decided to return them. Since all the tags were still attached, she didn’t think there’d be a problem At the store, though, the saleswoman picked up the pants, buried her nose in the crotch and threw them down on the counter in disgust, proclaiming, “Of course, we cannot take these back! These have been worn!”

After a few words back-and-forth, she made the ultimate mistake: she asked for the manager. And if you live in France, I don’t need to tell you where that leads.

A lot of people write me that they had great service in France, and I applaud you all on your successes. Really I do. I, too, have had good service—mostly in the shops that know me. Or ones I enter groveling, willing and content to take any morsels of kindness or assistance they deem to offer me. If I have to return or exchange anything, I spend about a day in advance preparing my speech and getting ready for the big event. I also make sure to choose an outfit that will be pleasing to the person at the service client counter. It takes the better part of the day to work up the courage to make it to the store, then go through the motions and make my pitch. And whether I’m successful or not, I immediately head home afterwards, put on my pajamas and repair to my bed where I stay put for the remainder of the day.

There’s a couple of rules I have in France when trying to get someone to help me.

One is that you just shouldn’t expect anything, so when you get help, you really appreciate it. But beware of offers of l’aide: a favorite tactic in the department stores is to automatically send you to another floor for whatever it is you’re looking for. That’s the oldest trick in the book to get rid of you, and a sure sign that the object you’re looking for is usually just around the corner from where you’re standing.

Another thing to be wary of, one that will instantly kill the deal, is if you interrupt salespeople carrying on a conversation amongst themselves or talking on the phone with a friend. I once had a guest who wanted to buy something, and after waiting a few moments patiently at the counter, when the salesclerk showed no sign of terminating the call or ringing up the sale, he had the gall to lift his hand to get his attention.

It was at that point that I slowly, s-l-o-w-l-y backed away…and pretended to look busy elsewhere, distancing myself before things got messy.

So I’m taking advantage of all the generosity and kindness around here, whether genuine or not. I’m calling all the 1-800 numbers I can and asking lots of pointless questions (just because I can), ordering complex coffee drinks even though I don’t really like or want them, requesting that everything remotely possible be served ‘on the side’, and trying as many pieces of clothing on even though I have no intention of buying them.

But I haven’t tried to return anything yet.
I’m waiting right before I head back home to Paris at the end of the month.

I’m saving the best for last.

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24 comments

  • - I wonder where you got the idea that french people can’t be fired! totally wrong. I worked in the HR department of a big company in Paris for 10 years and I spent my time firing people!
    – What about people in the US entering a store and never say hello or goodbye?! how do you call that?
    – about returning stuff in France, it is not in the culture at all, that’s it. Exactly like the point before of american people not greeting when entering a store, it is not in the US culture.

    Difference of culture, that is all what it is about.

  • “I was basking in a fuzzy, feel-good glow for a good thirty-to-forty minutes afterwards…”

    Wow, and I thought that your Levi’s boys did that to you. Be careful of feeling too good at Apple–remember, that’s where all of human suffering started.

    Actually, it’s nice to hear that you are enjoying yourself! You’ve taken such great care of everyone from America visiting you overseas that we should return the favor.

  • So in customer service, France is to America as America is to Japan? No wonder Japanese tourists have nervous breakdowns in France.

  • My first trip to Paris – we arrived late and stumbled into a bistro for a late dinner. At the time we entered – a very loud and obnoxious older american couple was leaving. First she made a comment about soccer only being for little girls and then argued with the waiter over how much tip she should leave. We thought we were doomed. As the waiter received our order my partner apologized for the other couple. We received great service and when we asked for the tab – we received a refill on our drinks and never saw the tab (when we asked he just told us to have a good weekend). Honestly – I don’t have one complaint about any service experience in Paris – as long as they noticed we made an effort (and I memorized a few words) things were fine. I have not had the chance to venture out of the city tho.

  • We, too, have had good experiences in France, particularly the time we took two of our children. One of them was only six months old and the French were tripping over themselves to help us, we got to go to the front of the line for almost anything, eg. the cab line at the Eurostar and the Da Vinci exhibit at The Louvre. The way I see it is, the French are smart enough to know that no one wants to stand in line with little kids as it can turn out disastrous, so they just wave you through! Hilarious! If you are ever going to travel in France, borrow someone’s kid if you don’t have your own already!

    And another thing to remember is if you are treated badly over there to not take it personally…I don’t think the French are particularly polite to one another all the time, either!

  • I’ve always wondered what’s so hard about being nice to people. It’s actually easier than making life difficult, for the customer and for the employee. In Europe you are supposed to say hello when you enter a shop, but not ask questions, not touch anything, not create any work for the employees, etc. Unfortunately, in the US it’s increasingly difficult to find a clerk who actually knows anything about the merchandise he’s selling, even if he is very friendly.

    If you want to return something you’ve bought, shop at Nordstrom’s. Their policy is to accept all returns, no exceptions. Naturally, people take terrible advantage of that. Most stores have tightened their return policies somewhat. Good luck.

    A French friend told me she never appreciated how easy-going Americans are until she went home to France and went shopping. However, in France at least they don’t put ice in every drink.

  • Its very very very hard to get fired in France. Not like in America where you look at the boss sideways and you are history. My friends own a pharmacy in France (good people to know, wink wink) and they cant get rid of an employee who is a complete nimwit, they can’t leave her alone because she will give out cat meds to heart patients, etc. It is entertaining the crazy stuff she does, though.

    I always get reverse culture shock when I go back to America. And I get fat too from eating the gigantic portions. Have some burritos for me!!!

  • oh my god oh my god oh my god Can’t…stop…laughing!!!!

  • Most of the time, people are quite friendly and polite in Switzerland – where I was born and where I still live.

    Although most of the time, you can feel the slight difference in service quality when people do perceive a commission: effort makes a difference at the end of the month. It’s all about money…

    Isn’t it a huge difference between the US and France ? The way people in service business are paid ?

    But let me look like and old (or old fashion) woman (I’m 30!) … two things are driving me crazy: young people sitting in the bus, while older people are standing up near them …
    the other one is the people – young or not – sharing their private mobile phone conversation with the rest of the world!

    but -sorry – this is out of topic!

  • In Italy you get exactly the same customer care scenario (especially when I compare it to the uK). It must be something in the water…

  • Yup, French customer service
    whada laugh!
    Like when I tried to return a book still in it’s cello wrapping 2 days after purchase at the bookstore next to Angelina’s.
    That’s first time I heard the French say,
    o-ma-GOD, o-ma-GOD!
    Not pronounced correctly either with emphasis on the last sylable..
    I’d the insane idea I might get my $$ back.
    The “supervisor” pointed to a very small piece of paper on the countertop where no one would notice, informing costomers of no refunds, only exchanges.
    And written in very small text in French at that.
    UGH

  • As an avid shopper who lived in Paris on and off for five years, I feel your pain. I used to dread the frosty interactions with the shopkeepers. I also never understood why I couldn’t just be looking around. I will be back in Paris this summer after several years of no visits, I was hoping things may have changed..alas..plus ca change..

  • Your posts are always so entertaining.

    I made your dulce de leche brownies this week and brought them into work, everybody loved me, they were phenomenal!

  • The story about the saleswoman burying her nose in the crotch of a pair of pants being returned: hilarious!!! Eewwwwwwww!!!!! I’m shocked by that and yet I can’t stop laughing over it!

  • Some years ago a few friends of mine and I decided to spend 4 days in Paris. First evening there, we found a lovely cafe very near Sacre Coeur and ordered a few beers as it was a hot night. The cute waiters asked where we were from, and my naive friend said instantly without thinking: “Sweden”.

    “So you like to f**k?” he asked.

    Needless to say, we didn’t go back there.

  • Sophie: Thank goodness for cultural differences. Otherwise I wouldn’t have anything to write about!

    Nan: I know, I wonder, “What was she thinking?” Ick…(Although at least she knew they were never worn since the tags were still attached, so there wasn’t much danger there.)

    Brilynn: That’s one of my all-time favorite recipes too. Glad you & your co-workers are enjoying them.

    Rianna: Sadly, I’m definitely coming home with a burrito-belly. I’m in Austin and we’re heading out for bbq…can’t wait : )

    Kharina: Well, for some people, that would be reason to go back!

  • I have to say that I found everyone in Paris (with the exception of one bistro waiter near the Eiffel Tower) to be perfectly lovely and the customer service to be as good as in the US. Same with Nice and Aix-En-Provence, where I stayed with my family for a little over a week one summer. I found that if I was nice and not the American tourist that is expected, people were genuinely nice right back. Of course I was quite apologetic about my atrocious American schoolgirl French, that might have helped.

    The rudest person I ran into in all of Europe was a bank worker in Lucerne Switzerland. (On a complete tangent, I have to say that I found Lucerne to be beautiful but a little too pristine for my taste. It was just a little too perfect.)

  • how come it’s hard to fire someone in france?

    as virginie said, it also irks me about young ones sitting in buses or trains, while the elderly stood. happened when i visited singapore. and while i stood to give my seat, the teen seated in front of me scrambled to occupy my place, leaving the higher and harder to reach seat to the petite elderly lady. geez!

  • A friend went to Paris and after several days of experiencing the humiliating rudeness as a young American with no French, he broke down with “Paris Complex’ of his own: he was in a cafe full of French people who were triggering all his newly created insecurities. He had had a bit too much wine to calm his nerves and suddenly jumped up after a particularly withering glance from someone (he is a very quiet, elegant, well-behaved and respectful guy, normally) and just SNapped. He ran around and grabbed carafes of wine off of each table and just swilled each one, standing and raving after each glug, things like, ‘ Oh, you all think you’re so superior??? WELL, HA!!! ” etc… He drank like four carafe’s and then marched out of there, fuming mad. Hee hee. Horrible, but true and so hilarious if you know his real personality, which is Com-plete-ly generous and gracious. I must say, I had to respect his refusal to be psychically bullied!

  • David, you are the greatest.

  • Your writing and your stories just get better and better.

    Okay, so you’re coming home with a burrito-belly–but more importantly, will you also be lugging enormous suitcases crammed with all kinds of goodies from Target? : ) Glad to hear you’re having fun back in the good old U S of A!

  • Even though sometimes I can be totally intimidated by the French, and be reduced to feeling like a mere crack in the floor, I love their “kiss my ass” attitude, and actually prefer it to the American “let me kiss your ass” one.

  • In my few visits to France I’ve found the French attitude and customer service just fine. The one exception was the night I was at an out of the way theater and the cab we had the management call for us did not come. There were two French women there waiting for a cab, too. Theirs came and I asked if we could take it and have them call another. It was obvious that we did not speak French and that they had a cell phone. It was also obvious (and I also told them) that my friend was not strong — she was going through chemo and quite bald. They refused and left us there alone on a deserted, dark street, a long walk from any Metro. My friend wasn’t strong enough for the walk. Luckily there was a small hotel across the street and the desk clerk went out of his way to call us a taxi and take care of us until it came.

    There are thoughtless people everywhere, but also kind ones.

    By the way, my worst customer service experience overseas was in Prague in 2001. The worst of the worst almost resulted in me missing a train to Vienna. My absolute worst customer service experience though happened here in America.

  • A French friend who worked at Bon Marche once told me that the hardest part in dealing with Americans was the fact that we smiled too much. He said the French refer to Americans as grinning imbeciles because we think that if we just smile hard enough, our American charm will be irresistable and charm them into being nice. The French hate foreigners trying to be chummy. Actually it has just the opposite effect–so now I try to be serious and respectful to salespeople and waiters & it’s much better.