mardi 15 mai 2012

At the intersection of expectations and reality

Cross-cultural confusion can be the greatest where expectations meet reality. I saw this clearly when reading some comments on one of David Lebovitz's blog posts which focused on Speculoos but also wove in a good chunk of Monoprix insanity. Both Lebovitz and his readers cited the refusal of the Monoprix clerks to provide change (to use the photocopier, or break a large-ish bill when purchasing a small item) as an example of French rudeness.

Yes, it appears to be rude. But the thing is, these folks were looking for change in the wrong place. In America you can ask a supermarket cashier to open her drawer and break a bill for you. In France, you can't. You have to go to the [poorly-named, one must admit] Customer Service desk, situated near the entrance to the supermarket, to get change. That's where you go to get an item refunded or exchanged as well. Not the checkout lady. But because the supermarket setup looks the same as in America, we expect the people working in the French supermarket setup to have the same job functions as back home.

This is always a source of frustration when traveling, and especially so when traveling to Paris because Parisians are by nature not warm and cuddly to Anyone Different, nor are they information-sharers.  So when we (Americans) go to, say, the French hairdresser and expect to have our hair shampooed before it is cut, because that is normal procedure in our country and we find out that that will cost extra (as will the cream rinse and the styling and blow dry after the cut), we think how odd. The place looks the same but the people don't act the same.

When I first moved to Paris, there were a million things that appeared similar to what I knew in America but which tripped me up until I learned the new cultural code of operations. The neighborhood café...I didn't realize, until a waiter told me so, that there was a three-layer price scale in that place: cheapest at the counter, mid-level seated indoors, and most expensive if seated outside. Where I came from, all prices/seats were equal in a coffee shop. So the first time I paid more for my coffee when sitting out in the sun compared with the cost the previous day when I had sipped it at the counter, I complained loudly to the waiter that he had overcharged me. His reaction was not customer-friendly. But it was I, in my cafe-price-scheme cultural ignorance, who was at fault.

One of the most-essential lessons I've learned as an expatriate is never to assume that things will work as they do back home, even if they look the same. From the way the post office functions (you can bank your money there) to how to eat a hamburger (with a fork and knife), it is always prudent to stand back and watch the natives first.
In France they don't serve you water automatically when you sit down.
But they will serve it to you automatically when you order ice cream.

5 commentaires:

  1. Great post. It is more helpful than you realize. Never been, but I hope to go to Paris this year and I take special note of information like this. I go to India once in a while and getting smaller bills there is a never ending problem and source of frustration. Shop keepers & rickshaw drivers live on the edge and will only take small bills. In a place like that expectations are quickly thrown out the door and you deal only with reality. So you bloggers do a great public service writing such details of the supposed small things that in reality are big things.
    Alison Ryan, on her blog wrote a great, useful, need-to-know tip on how to use an ATM in europe. I saved and printed that one too.
    Thanks again

  2. What a gorgeous picture of ice cream...
    I'm trying identify the logo..the cups look so familiar too.
    I went near crazy tracking down those bistro waterglasses in an Asian resto supply joint on bd Richard Lenoir. Then I stayed next door in March.
    You have to buy a dz. Impossible to buy just 1 or 2.
    I didn't know that a verre d'eau comes with a glace, but I never have a problem changing a 50 at Carrefour.
    Please do a post on banking at the post it easier than getting a bank acct in Paris?
    It must be...

    1. We were enjoying the rapturous flavors at Bertillon on Ile de la Cite in that photo. You know, the ICE CREAM PLACE which closes in August, because that makes so much sense!

      Not only can you bank at the post office, you can take out a cell phone contract there as well. Makes as much sense as closing an ice cream shop in August, imho.