In America, a grown man will bury his house underground and arm his pets with flame throwers because he believes the government is out to take his freedom. So before we judge Parisian waiters, let’s keep a little perspective.
But, yes, the French government is asking its population to be nicer to tourists, especially French people who work in the tourist industry. In terms of pride and culture this is a significant emotional step for France, and from a PR perspective, it marks a mature and very business savvy move in the right direction.
The world has suffered through a debilitating recession for years now, and the tourist industry has been hit hard—which means the populations who make a living from tourist dollars are struggling. There are many things about the horrible economy and financial strife that are beyond our control as people, but being nicer to people who give us money isn’t one of them.
The French government—knowing that increased competition from other foreign destinations, especially in Asia, will increasingly entice travelers to bypass France and Paris—is being prudently proactive. It has already passed out 35,000 “Do You Speak Touriste?” pamphlets to tourism industry professionals, taxi drivers and café workers, with 20,000 more on the way. The pamphlets offer tips on how to be culturally sensitive to people from different nations including the United States, Japan, and Spain. Fighting stereotypes with more cultural stereotypes? Uh oh.
This is where common sense and common decency come into play. If you are smart and sophisticated enough to have enough disposable income to spend a week in Paris while much of the world is living off of canned tuna fish, then you certainly have the intellectual (and if not, financial) means to learn how to say “Bonjour.” That one word goes a long way into having your waiter like you. It shows effort. It shows respect.
And if you’re a waiter in Paris who scoffs at a foreigner who is respectful enough to forego personal embarrassment by trying to speak the French language, then you are in the wrong business. You are not in the hospitality business; you are in idiot business. They want to give you their money and enjoy themselves, and you would rather make fun of them for being human beings, though not French human beings. There is a word for that, you know, in every language.
As with most cross-cultural dilemmas in life, harmony is achieved by mutual respect and a willingness on both sides to be vulnerable and helpful. Sure, the French government is doing the right thing by asking its citizens to be nice; the mere gesture is good public relations. But tourists need to meet them half way. We are all—the French and the rest of us—better than the stereotypes this effort is designed to ameliorate.