In the States, we’re taught that the customer is always right. No receipt, no problem. Weird taste, send it back. Our emphasis on service means that we Americans get used to being pampered and fawned over. “Can I help you with anything?” sales people are trained to parrot as they spring towards the store entrance to greet you, putting cross country athletes to shame. And if a waitress doesn’t come around to confirm that “everything tastes good,” four to five times, we feel irrationally neglected.
In France, it often feels like the customer is always wrong. If you try to grab your waiter’s attention during the entrée, they might saunter over in time for your post-dessert café. And I can recall only one occasion where a shopkeeper smiled and offered to help me find an outfit.
When I initially moved to France, I attributed frosty customer service to the fact that I was American. I soon came to realize that my French companions also had trouble getting waiters’ attention, let alone service with a smile. It boils down to a simple fact: being overly helpful simply isn’t in their job description.
The discrepancy in service stems not just from cultural differences, but also pay structure. In America, waiters and waitresses are paid under minimum wage, with the expectation that gratuities will make up for the difference. Many department stores and other sales positions also rely on commission-based models, meaning that there is always an incentive to interact with customers, build rapport, and ultimately sell a product.
In France, all wait staff and employees earn the SMIC, or minimum wage, meaning that they don’t need tips or commission to supplement their income. The tipping culture in France reflects that wage difference—customers might leave a couple euros for a good meal, or a five to ten percent tip to applaud especially impressive service. But it’s not necessary, as the service fee is already included in your bill.
So don’t be offended the next time you’re inevitably ignored at a restaurant or store. You go to Paris for the haute couture, and not for shopkeeper confirmation that you look good in it. Don’t worry, you do.