Rude, or just French? A waiter in a Vancouver restaurant claims he was fired for having a “more direct and expressive” culture than his North-American coworkers.
“The much-maligned and often misunderstood French waiter is an inscrutable breed unto himself,” wrote journalist Cristina Nehring in the Wall Street Journal in 2015. And it appears this view still rings true today. Guillaume Rey, a French waiter working in a restaurant in Vancouver, believes he was fired because of his French “culture.”
He is accused of being “aggressive, rude and disrespectful towards the manager and another server.” In a discrimination complaint filed with the British Columbia Human Rights Tribunal, he states his coworkers were unable to accept his “honest and professional” attitude learned while working in the French hospitality industry.
Should we take this as proof of the cliché of the unfriendly Parisian server? Or perhaps of French snobbery while abroad? “We can only guess as to what really happened in the restaurant, but several factors may explain how his behavior was perceived,” says Canadian journalist and writer Julie Barlow.
A Taste for Contradiction
“The French tend to say ‘no.’ It may sound like they are refusing to communicate, but in fact it is a way of starting a conversation and inviting people to reply. Americans might be shocked by this reflex, as they don’t know how to react,” says Julie Barlow. And according to the Wall Street Journal, the preferred reply of a French server is “C’est pas possible!”
In North America, people look for consensus in conversation. But the French prefer provocation. “We associate good manners with French conversation, but the French actually enjoy lively discussion,” says Julie Barlow. “They tend to say things that border on disrespectful to provoke a response.” Exchanging opinions is appreciated, and disagreement fuels the conversation, although “foreigners may feel a little unsettled.”
The French also don’t change when at work. “People expect to be able to express their opinions on whatever matters to them, regardless of where they are. In a sector with a very defined hierarchy, such as in restaurants, this approach may cause problems.”
Is the Grumpy Garçon de Café a cliché?
Working as a restaurant server in the United States and Canada is often a temporary job, or just a way to pay the bills. However, in France, being a waiter it nothing less than a career that requires real training. Servers are not there to smile, and they never interrupt a dinner — neither to ask if “everything is ok” nor to bring the check.
While living in Paris, Cristina Nehring remembers feeling intimidated by French waiters in restaurants. “I felt they thought I was constantly making mistakes,” she writes. “But with time, I learned to recognize — and even appreciate — the strange way they express their desire to satisfy customers, their expertise, their agility, and the beauty of what they do.”
“There are adjustments that need to be made for French people who come to work in Quebec, and the same applies for Quebecers who move to France. It’s a question of survival,” says Julie Barlow. The sociologist herself learned how to say ‘non’ and ‘bonjour’ when she started living in France. “After four months, I gave an honest opinion on what I was eating for the first time in my life. When the server asked if I had enjoyed my meal, I replied ‘non.’ In North America we say ‘yes’ and then leave a smaller tip!”
=> Julie Barlow and Jean-Benoît Nadeau, The Bonjour Effect, St. Martin’s Press, 2016, 25.99 dollars.