Back home we demand friendly service with a wide smile, we promise tips, and we want to be treated as though we, as customers, are always right, so we have allowed our waiters and waitresses to act as flirts, best buddies, and doting mothers. The French, meanwhile, demand efficient service, maintain a clear distance between client and staff, and believe that the customer may well be wrong, so they’ve wound up with service people who don’t want complications: cordial career waiters, disinterested servers, not a buxom waitress in sight. A culture often gets what it asks for.
The Hollywood Sitcom Writer’s Handbook instructs writers that one sure way to show your character to be an ordinary, fun-loving guy is to place him and his girlfriend, wife or in-laws in a French restaurant, direct the waiter to look down his nose at the guy, have someone say “Grey Poupon,” then turn up the laugh track. Yuck, yuck. Everyone loves to make fun of French waiters, but some travelers seem to get special pleasure from returning home with stories about rude maitre d’s and pompous waiters, stories that they hold up as certified proof that the French hate Americans.
Bad or snooty service is indeed the most common complaint from overseas travelers in Paris. I’ve got my own horror stories. But travelers who repeatedly find themselves in such situations have to share the blame: either they haven’t figured out that they’re not at Hooters or they’ve been following the wrong restaurant advice.
This isn’t an apology for either surly service or for the waiter who ignores your table, just a warning that the American notions of good service and the French notions of good service are not the same. Understanding the fundamentals of French, more particularly Parisian, service – efficiency, discretion, professionalism – is the best way to benefit from rather than clash with it.
Efficiency. Efficiency means nothing more nor less than this: Dishes are properly served and cleared and if you want something the waiter will get it for you, without undue hesitation.
As a foreigner you will naturally have more questions about dishes than the average French person would, besides which you may be asking them in English. Answering questions is naturally a part of the waiter’s job, and many waiters are indeed accustomed to responding in English. But from the point of view of a waiter striving for efficiency the foreign client can come across as slow and demanding, even if he’s simply a client in need of assistance. Your waiter may or may not enjoy the frustration of trying to explain the difference between an entrecôte, a faux-filet, and a rumsteack. In either case, since French waiters are not good at faking a smile, yours may not have the facial reflex to hide his impatience.
An efficient waiter has nothing against you taking your time when ordering, he just doesn’t like you taking his time, and so he will be quick to leave your side so that you can reflect on the issues of the day without him.
An efficient waiter isn’t necessarily friendly, charming, or cheery, nor will he stop by frequently or even occasionally to see if everything is alright. As a general rule, if you need an efficient waiter he will come, if you don’t need him he will not come, and if you need him too often he will ignore you.
Discretion. Some travelers start off on the wrong foot by trying to get a waiter to laugh at their jokes. Big mistake! Unlike the tight-bunned flight attendant in business class who will open her heavily painted mouth in exaggerated delight to every dull-witted comment an upgraded client may make, Parisian waiters do not laugh. They don’t laugh in French and they don’t laugh in English. Kind and amiable French waiters do exist, but don’t expect even those to be overjoyed to see you or attempt to impress you with their outgoing personality.
Many Americans believe, wrongly, that the lack of expression of a French waiter is a result of their livelihood not being dependant on your gratitude since the gratuity in France is always included in the bill. But tipping is almost equally obligatory in the U.S., the only real difference being that in the US we do the math badly and in France they do the math automatically. So it isn’t exactly the tip that makes French waiters appear or act cold or aloof to us. It’s French culture, one of whose prime tenets is discretion: don’t ask, don’t tell.
Discretion is a guiding force in business and service and neighborly relations in France. Discretion involves a combination of reserve, detachment, disinterest, and politeness. In a restaurant, this implies a certain distance between the staff and the customer. The French restaurant-goer is accustomed to that distance and often demands it. The French waiter is not expected to be a part of the entertainment.
A discreet waiter keeps his distance, speaks minimally, answers your questions succinctly, and takes your order. When he approaches the table he does so in the least obtrusive way, so that you may continue your conversation as he clears or delivers plates. One naturally expects and receives greater attention from waiters as price and space between tables increase, but such attention generally leads to glasses that never empty rather than to increased dialogue with the staff. (Actually, in finer restaurants you will encounter someone interested in an engaging conversation with the table: the sommelier or wine steward.)
Otherwise, forget any preconceived notion that good service means service with a smile. Service with a smile is rarely on the menu here. Do not feel snubbed by your waiter’s lack of expression. Au contraire, discreet French service means gracious dispassion.
Professionalism. In France, waiters are not hopeful actors, part-time students, nurses with a second job, job-hunters who haven’t yet found something better to do. French waiters are professionals in the restaurant business. Their career ambitions likely involve owning or managing their own restaurant or café. And they get employee health coverage. Sometimes their very professionalism leads them to approach the table like a surgeon with no bedside manner; you need some veal kidneys, you’ll get veal kidneys.
As a service professional, your waiter expects to serve, but he also expects to be treated like a professional. A request for a waiter’s attention should begin with S’il vous plaît. If you wish to address him by title you would call him monsieur—madame or mademoiselle for a woman.
Your professional, efficient, discreet waiter would like to believe that he is very much in tune with the rhythms of your meal. In theory, then, you should barely have to instruct him at all once you’ve ordered. As the meal proceeds you may then find that your waiter is so accustomed to French rhythms (e.g. coffee served after dessert rather than with dessert) that he may unintentionally (we’ll give him the benefit of the doubt) ignore a request that goes against the cultural grain.
Do not take this (or any of your waiter’s reactions) personally. If you do, and if you approach the French, particularly French service people, with the attitude “If not for us they’d be speaking German,” you may be setting yourself up for a bit more confrontation than is called for.