“French waiters. If you’re nice, they treat you like sh#@*
Treat them like sh#@*, they love you!”
Kate (Meg Ryan). American tourist stranded in France.
French Kiss, 1995.
Let’s take a test. Google the following words: French waiters. Can you believe the number of links popping up on your screen? Further investigation reveals that arrogant waiters, ubiquitous dog poop and bureaucratic hurdles are visitors’ and expats’ main peeves about France. Granted lucky ones may not have to deal with the last two; but it is difficult to escape the first one while living or vacationing in Paris. Interacting with French waiters may very well be one of the most challenging, aggravating, entertaining, and ultimately genuine experiences a foreigner may encounter in France.
I have browsed through all the articles published online on this topic. To save you some time, I will try and summarize what many journalists, bloggers, and travelers seem to agree on: First impressions are hard to change. Unfortunately, many visitors’ first impressions are that French waiters are very different from their American counterparts, and not in a good way. They do not greet their customers with a big smile. They are not particularly friendly. They are not patient. Some can be plain rude. There is an air of seriousness about them: French waiters always wear the traditional waiter “uniform” (black pants, black vest, white shirt, bow tie, impeccable shoes).
Fortunately, foreigners (noticeably those who have lived in France for extended periods of time) also report on more positive traits: French waiters are professional and knowledgeable. They are good at multi-tasking and very efficient. They may or may not write down an order but hardly make mistakes. They are discreet and never rush or interrupt their customers. They love offering recommendations and talking about the day’s specials. Many comment that the language barrier is as frustrating to the waiter as it is to the foreign visitor. All too often, the waiter’s wonderful sense of humor gets lost in translation. C’est dommage!
Perceptions aside, some interesting facts about French waiters include: They are highly trained. In France, you go to school to become a waiter. A good waiter knows how to work behind the counter (mixing drinks or pouring wine.) He or she also knows how to serve food elegantly and efficiently, carrying heavy loads on the ubiquitous round tray. Waiters are proud of their profession and they have high standards. Serving café au lait with lunch absolutely horrifies them. They might let you know. Waiters respect their customer’s privacy. They will not interrupt a conversation; won’t hassle you to try and sell you another drink; won’t rush you by bringing the check too early (a huge faux-pas in France.) Since a 15% service charge is automatically added to your bill, the waiter does not work for a tip. Whether you decide to round off the bill and leave a few coins behind, don’t expect him to grovel for a tip. He won’t.
Since there is already so much information (and controversy) out there about French waiters, I wondered if I could still provide some valuable advice on how to interact with them. The answer is Mais oui ! After all, theory is good, but how do you survive on a daily basis in France where you have to eat out at least once or twice a day? The most important thing you need to know when stepping into a French café or restaurant is how to catch your waiter’s attention. After all, these guys are often best described as “professionally distant”. They will not rush to you, greet you warmly, fuss over you when you arrive. Period. They may not even look at you as you are trying to decide if you should sit yourself or wait. Now what?
First things first.
You have to learn and use the magical word that opens many doors in France. That word is: Bonjour (listen to the pronunciation here). It is a lovely little word, France’s finest greeting, and you want to throw it out there in a lively, uplifting voice. If that is the only French word you ever learn, make sure to say it well, and say it often. Every time you enter a public place (une boulangerie, une boutique and of course un café,) every time you approach a French native because you need help, always start with Bonjour. Consider yourself warned. I (and other unfortunate souls who have occasionally forgotten to say Bonjour before asking a question,) have learned the lesson the hard way. It does not matter if nobody answers, or if you did not make eye contact. You did the right thing. You greeted the natives.
As soon as the waiter turns around, try and make eye contact. Wave at him if he is standing on the other side of the room. If he is closer, say: “Monsieur, s’il vous plaît” (muss-YUH see-voo-PLAY) but do not, under any circumstances, call out: “Garçon“– that’s if you expect a reaction. True, garçon de café is the traditional name of French waiters. True, it was used many years ago to call a waiter’s attention. Not anymore.
Once the waiter has acknowledged your presence, say Bonjour, then start ordering or ask your question. Often, you will get lucky and will be served by an excellent waiter, swift, attentive, courteous and professional. French waiters do professional like no other waiters in the world. But there are all kinds of waiters, and all kinds of people. Do not be turned off if your waiter does not smile, or seems brusque (abrupt) and impatient. Nothing personal. He acts the same way with everybody else around you. There are other customers waiting, and he is trying to serve them all. Occasionally (ahem– I am looking at you, Paris,) you will bump into the rude or indifferent French waiter. When that happens to me, I do not try to set him straight, or teach him a lesson. He does not really need my tip, nor is he interested in becoming my friend. I just leave and take my business somewhere else. Fortunately, there are cafés at every street corner in France.
Now that you have read all this, look at this picture. If you do not like the way this waiter is looking at you, do not take things too personally. Remember, this is how he would look at everyone, including his French customers.
Handsome fellow, but why the frown? Maybe he is in a bad mood. Maybe the sun is in his eyes. Does it matter?