Wednesday, March 28, 2018

the rude French waiter

The rude French waiter is as much of an enduring stereotype as the American cowboy and the English aristocrat. However, in the age of neo-liberalism, rudeness in the service industry is being replaced by the service with a smile ethos. In 1981, when I first came to France, the rude waiter was everywhere. But now, in 2018, in Paris, this species is a definite minority.
This, you might think, is one of the more pleasant effects of globalization. From a French perspective, it might be thought of as "Americanization". Yet the rude waiter phenomenon was not confined to France. Just look at the famous breakfast scene in Five Easy Pieces (1970). The waitress, in this scene, makes no effort to please the customer - an attitude that no longer holds sway even at Waffle House.
Arlie Hochschild, in the 80s, shrewdly saw what was happening and coined the term emotional labor. Or I think it was her. In any case, the wind blew from the U.S., and all over the world you seem much more service with a smile - and as a customer, at least, you probably don't think of the smile as work. But of course, it is. It is consistent with that little extra, that surplus value, that Capital requires.
What is interesting is that in France, this ethos finds its place within a larger French ethos of manners.
In America, instead of manners, we substitute an ersatz intimacy. In the client-service person situation, the client might ignore what would be required in France - the pro forma hello, or good morning, etc. But the client and the service person might overflow with too much information. I remember once getting a hotel room in Houston with A., and how appalled she was that the woman at the desk gave us not only our key, but an update on her wisdom tooth situation.
Manners in France, by contrast, are explicitly oriented towards keeping the intimate and the public apart. This can be confusing for Americans. Take, for instance, the institution of tutoyer. Americans really don't distinguish between you as a familiar term and you as a formal one. When you start speaking French, as an American, this is as confusing, at the beginning, as a sitck shift is if you have always driven an automatic. You are going to be in for some bumps and grinding noises. Myself, I mostly remember to vousvoyer, but in the press of the moment I become inappropriately informal, still.
i find "rudeness" a fascinating topic, because it does seem to mark a certain semiotic-seismic fault line between ways of performing the interaction between strangers - and even familiars. I was raised to be "nice", which is a different thing from not being "rude". But this distinction is not something I would be able to articulate in the American (white, suburban) context alone - it needs to be contrasted in order to be seen.
However, one must continually remember that national characters - our stereotypes - are historically constituted, and historically change. And that, y'all, is what I have to say about that.

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