Last day of the 2019 Movement Disorders Congress in Nice today. It’s really only a half-day, which allows for some time to explore the city a bit — much appreciated, as other days have run from 8am to 8pm, and last night’s Video Challenge ran till 10:30! Very glad I opted for an Airbnb across the street!
One of the great things about these meetings is the chance to catch up with friends and former colleagues. Being in a gorgeous city, like Nice, definitely helps. I’ve been able to go out to lunch and/or dinner with some fantastic people, in fantastic settings, and the food has been uniformly excellent.
What is it, though, about Americans abroad? I’m perhaps more acutely aware of this as I lived in Grenoble for a month as a resident (one of the best experiences of residency!) but so many Americans behave horribly in restaurants. It sounds cliche, but it’s true! People just wander around, sit wherever, don’t greet the servers, complain about the lack of substitutions on the menu (dude, the chef is a highly trained professional and knows way more about food than you do!) and servers not speaking English. People also complain about a notable frostiness in service here, but it doesn’t have to be that way! The French are some of the warmest people I’ve ever met, but they are also the most dignified, and to paraphrase a character on the hilarious Australian show The Librarians, “Their country, their rules.”
So, what are the rules, anyway?
In France, when you enter a restaurant or any other space, the VERY FIRST THING you must do is call out a cheery “Bonjour!” (Or “Bonsoir” if it’s after 5-ish.) Even if you don’t see anyone — the shopkeeper or the head waiter is probably in the back. That single word, even if you don’t know any other French, will get you better service. It shows that you have respect for the shopkeeper, server, whatever, and you are meeting them as equals. I do this reflexively everywhere except Lidl, the discount grocer with the East German vibe.
If you speak French, speak French! It’s so much easier to get your point across, and people will love you for it. Otherwise, apologize for your poor French and ask if English is ok. (“On parle anglais, s’il vous plait?”) It’s quite likely that your server will speak English, especially if you’re in a bigger city, but just make a small effort, for God’s sake. (Of note, Americans who complain the loudest about people in France speaking French are usually the same Americans who insist that everyone in the US must speak English. The degree of cognitive dissonance is stunning.)
And lastly, when you get the bill (“l’addition, s’il vous plait”) you don’t need to add an extra 30-40% to the bill for tax and tip. C’est tout compris! Unlike in the US, servers in France make a living wage, so the price you see on the menu is the price you pay. (Note: this is also why Americans think French servers are distant, because they don’t have to come to your table every 3 seconds asking if everything is ok/begging for tip.) Of course you can leave a bit extra for excellent service, but it’s not a requirement — that may be changing as more Americans go abroad and just assume everything is like it is at home. I was kind of annoyed earlier this week when I went to dinner with a large group, and at the end of the meal, the price per person for our prix-fixe dinner, according to the organizer, had gone from 35 euros to 50. (We’d ordered some wine for the table, but still! Not 200 euros worth of wine!) But we had behaved abominably, and I felt really bad for the servers, and it was getting late, and I didn’t want to wait for the server to bring the actual bill + credit card machine, so I just left cash and walked home, mentally calling the extra 15-ish euros my Uber fare.
So there you go. Three simple rules for getting excellent service in France. It really boils down to one core concept: treat people with respect, and they’ll treat you well in return.