I’ve been giving this question, asked by the bank teller back in Montreal, a lot of thought. It has long puzzled me that people everywhere find the French, especially the Parisians, rude. Sure, I had experienced hauteur on the part of waiters, but saw it only as that, a kind of game you play in which you have only to be more haut than them and you win. Apart from waiters, I have experienced much kindness and decency here: the hotel clerk who ran after me with a complementary umbrella because it might rain, the flea market vendor who gave my daughter a vintage handbag she liked very much because there was wear on the inside, the food vendors yesterday who gave us avocados for free because they couldn’t guarantee their freshness. That’s nice, no argument.
But here’s my point – it’s also correct. And the French would almost always rather be correct than nice. We Canadians are the opposite. And what I find truly interesting is that this difference -the source of so much misunderstanding – also resembles the two classic positions in moral philosophy. As a former ethics teacher, I see Canadian “niceness” as honouring an Aristotelian, ethics of care, value system in which your motivations and intentions, the spirit in which you do things is all-important.You tried your best, you were nice; if things weren’t perfect it’s OK because you are working on improving. The French are more in a Kantian vein, they want to determine the rules of correctness and carry them out scrupulously. The French waiter has a job to do, he knows the rules and he will obey them. For the French, this is what makes him a good waiter, not his attitude toward you, the customer. The rules include acting with appropriate respect, and not with inappropriate friendliness. Your job is to obey the rules of customer behaviour, which include respecting the waiter, the norms of French dining, ordering your meal with care and enjoying it when it is well-prepared and served. When both parties follow these rules, the mini-society within the restaurant gets along swimmingly.
It’s usually the case that when the French get annoyed, and act with rudeness, it’s because you are not understanding the rules, what is called for on your part. For example, people will be ticked off if you don’t greet them. The rule, when you want to speak to someone, is to first greet them and this goes for bus drivers, sales associates, or people on the street you wish to ask for directions. Greet them, “Bonjour Madame/Monsieur.” You can even go on to ask if you can ask a question. This level of deference always wins points. The last time I did this, the metro guard I wanted to get directions from escorted me all the way to the correct platform. Now THAT was nice.