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French rudeness and Artisanal Pride

Romain Sinclair, Sciences Po Exchange, Fall 2013

The service industry in France, or at least Paris, seems to have fundamentally different goals than that of the comparable industry in the United States.  By service industry I am referring to mostly artisan jobs- think of bakeries, butchers, cheese producers, fishermen- but also restaurant servers and other clerk positions. These posts in France exist in seemingly parallel forms, but they are actually quite different. In this brief blog entry I will try to point out some of these differences, all in the aim of clarifying what are some common misconceptions about French people, French culture.

The main way that the French differentiate themselves from American counterparts in the service industry is via their relations with their product, or service. The critical difference in my view is that French people who are in the service industry consider themselves experts in their field. The bakers that work at the street side bakeries are all creating their products based on their own recipes, independent of the way other people do it. This creates a tight connection between the baker and his or her bakery. This is far more rare in the United States, as bakeries are usually chains and therefore the creations that the workers make are just things they’ve learned from some blueprint recipes. There’s no connection between employee and product. This brings us to the next point.

Americans will not get upset if clients ask for modifications or specific whims, but the French absolutely will. French bakers, called boulangers, will get downright livid if you ask them to heat something up, or even remove the chocolate of an item. This is the kind of reaction that often sticks in the mind of tourists if they encounter it. Perhaps it’s why French are perceived as rude. Spoiler alert: it’s not pleasant. It’s only with extended stay and perspective that one may begin to understand what’s happening. The anger that the artisan unleashes when a customer ask for a modification comes mostly from his pride in his product and passion for his artistic living. When you walk out of the boulangerie with your croissant in hand, what you don’t know is that he or she has been trained for three or more years in making that croissant (and all the other products that boulangeries make). Therefore when you, the client, ask for changes in the baker’s product, you are putting into question his or her three years of training. From his point of view, his expertise is being doubted or critiqued by someone who doesn’t know the slightest about the craft. Some might call it stubborn to put the integrity of one’s product over the customer’s preferences, but perhaps there is reason to do so if the bond between producer and product is so tight.

The service industry in France may please some and deter others, but at the end of it all the grass will always be greener and people will always want what they cannot have. For those who haven’t traveled much outside of home and college, there may come a shock when going abroad. The hospitality levels in France and in Europe will likely not match those of the United States. On the other hand, the quality of product or service, especially when it comes to food, will probably be far superior to anything made in the land of the free, home of the brave.

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