Mark Twain, buddy, I know exactly where you’re coming from. What is it about the French that makes them either unable or unwilling to comprehend Franglais, the study abroad student’s mix of classroom French, English words pronounced with a French accent, and pointing? Today at the bank, when I informed the teller that I wanted to “deposer mon argent”, he shook his head to indicate that it was just too much of a hassle to try and understand what I was saying, and then spoke to me in perfect English. I’ve spent years studying French grammar. Don’t these people appreciate that I know the subjunctive?!
The real fun, though, begins when I’ve managed to get the correct combination of French words out of my mouth and then I have to make sense out of the reply. Somehow the words manage to fly by, eluding my grasp, but making a nice whooshing sound as they leave me behind. I like to think that at least I speak perfect French in the metro, where only two words are necessary: “merci”, if someone holds a door for you (which does happen occasionally!), and “pardon” as you shoulder people out of the way to get on and off the train. I make sure to say “pardon”, like the French do, rather than “excusez-moi”, which is what American tourists say when they think they’re blending in perfectly.
Outside of the metro, though, comprehension is a lofty goal always just out of reach. Sometimes this can cause aggravation on the part of the poor French people who are put through the misery of listening to Franglais. For instance, last weekend in a cafe called Paul, the waitress became openly annoyed when my friends and I asked her to explain three times whether we could order sandwiches even though they were not on the menu. This was such a problem for her that she sent over another, more patient, waitress to deal with us. I was faced with a similar reaction later that same day when I asked a server at a chain cafe called Pomme de Pain to explain what was in the soupe du jour. When I didn’t understand his reply, he just glared at me.
In general, waiters and shop clerks in Paris are more likely to show the fact that they are annoyed at the customer than their American counterparts are. While part of this is impatience with Franglais, another important factor is that they just don’t live and work by the motto “the customer is always right.” They are not eager to smile at you incessantly, to apologize for taking too long, or to wait on you hand and foot. It just isn’t going to happen. I think this may be because it’s very hard to fire someone in France. According to my host-mom, a person who is to be fired must have two months advance notice as well as an interview explaining the reason for firing, which can be challenged in court. After being fired, they are guaranteed two months of full pay from their employer followed by two years of almost-full pay from the government. In a system where being fired is very unlikely, people are motivated less by profit or the need to impress their employers and more by the desire to avoid hard work as much as possible.
Let’s interrupt this rant with some unrelated sightseeing photos:
As I was saying, the customer is not always right in Paris because the worker’s primary motivation is not to serve you but rather to avoid work. Everyone is far less profit-minded. Thus, when someone in my program told me that she went to a Orange, a big international cell phone store chain, and they told her they were out of SIM cards that day, I wasn’t too surprised. It reminded me of an anecdote in a book about Paris that I read before coming here, in which the author went to the bank and was told that they were out of cash that day. While stores could certainly make more money by selling more of their products, or by being open on Sundays or after 7 pm, they would rather not because it just doesn’t matter as much to them. The French value their leisure time far more than Americans do and working on Sundays is inconceivable to them. My host-mom told me that she was considering getting a job in Canada until she found out that workers get only two weeks of vacation. She said, “Two weeks?! I am French! I would go crazy!” It’s a different way of thinking about life.
America is very Darwinian. It’s all about competition, making as much money as possible and working whatever hours are necessary to do that. We think that money makes the world go around; it drives us onward. The strong survive, while the weak are let go with no warning and no health insurance. If we have followed Darwin’s principles so faithfully, have we simply evolved past the French? Have we left them behind? I don’t think so. So in a way, the fact that the French care more about leisure than work or the customer is a good thing for society as a whole. I’ll try to think about that the next time a waiter in a cafe is annoyed at me.