French Customer Service

Before you scoff and say there’s no such thing, read on. It’s not the American brand of “the customer is always right,” it’s quite different, and it leaves you feeling tingly. If you’re a girl, that is. Pretty sure guys don’t get this one.

My first experience with it came when I was a fresh-out-of-college backpacker in Paris. I’d run out of clean clothes and had nothing left but a short pair of shorts to wear. As a naïve young thing from the deserts of Arizona, I had no idea that wearing shorts in Paris was an affront to civilized society. Especially during a pouring rainstorm. I walked down the streets, becoming more and more self-conscious of the stares I was receiving. I ducked into a pastry shop in search of my new favorite treat: a croissant. There, I was greeted by the incredulous stare of the shop’s owner.

“You are walking around like this in the rain?” he said in English; making the obvious assumption that I was Not-From-Around-Here. He pointed to my shorts.

I said, face flaming in embarrassment, “It’s not that cold out.”

He offered a smile and nodded. “Well, yes.  And I suppose with legs like that, you can get away with shorts like that anywhere. With legs like that, you should wear shorts.” He wiggled his eyebrows at me.

I bought a couple of croissants, and a quiche. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I’d just been subjected to (or bamboozled by) my first round of French customer service.

Years later, I was in France with my husband, spending Christmas and New Year’s with his family. I came down with a horrible cold – every orifice on my face was stopped up. We popped into a pharmacy on the Champs Elysees and I instructed my husband to let me do the talking as I needed to practice my French. He agreed and stood behind me while I approached the counter.

A young male pharmacist stepped forward and I described my symptoms and asked for his suggestions.

He glanced at my husband and smiled at me. “You are so sick, yet you still have a beautiful smile on your face.”

He pulled out some decongestants and fever reducers and advised me on dosage and what to expect. He also counseled me on nutrition, fluid intake, and to go to the doctor if my symptoms did not get better in a few days. (Side note: this is typical of a French pharmacist; they have a much greater degree of autonomy, and often usurp the need to go to a doctor for many of the more common ailments people encounter.)

All of this he delivered to me intersperced with a smile here, an arched eyebrow there, a compliment on my French and my accent, and another compliment on my smile. My husband, true to his word, allowed me to complete the transaction without interfering. As we left, he smirked at me.

“He was completely flirting with you!”

“Was he? That’s kind of funny.”

“I think he assumed I didn’t speak French, since you were talking and you’re obviously foreign. He thought he could get away with it.”

I smiled, feeling a little smug that I could still entice some flirting, even with a ring on my finger and a few crinkles around my eyes. On a recent trip to Trader Joes in the eternally youth-obsessed southern California that I call home, I watched as a young cashier joked and flirted with the two college girls in front of me. As I pushed my cart up for my turn, I smiled genially, expecting the same treatment. Instead, his face grew serious, and he said politely, “How you doing tonight, ma’am.”

Ma’am?

Ma’am!

I’m thirty-incoherent mumble, for crying out loud! And I’ve been relegated to ma’am status? But in France – I’ve hardly reached my prime.

On another trip to Paris, I decided I wanted to get flowers for my mother-in-law. I entered a flower shop behind a stooped older woman. The shopkeeper, dark hair flowing to his broad shoulders like a hero from the cover of some bodice-ripper novel, came out and pressed his palms together, looking back and forth between me and the older woman and said, “which of you beauties can I help first today?”

We both smiled, and I indicated that the older woman had arrived first. He turned to her and proceeded to compliment her lovely scarf and then the flowers she had selected. He took his time to wrap them in three layers of different colored but complimentary tissue paper, and then finished it off by tying ribbons around it with a flourish. He tossed her one more compliment and she left with a smile.

He turned to my husband and I, and then spoke to my husband. “If I had a woman like that, I would buy her flowers, too.” My husband rolled his eyes at me, and I smiled and told the shopkeeper that we were actually there to buy flowers for my mother-in-law. He clapped his hands together. “Oh, what a beautiful daughter-in-law you are! So nice. And a great accent. Where are you from?”  We chatted, or he chatted me up, while he put our arrangement together. While we spoke, a mother pushing a stroller entered the shop. He called to her that he would be with her in a moment, then returned his full attention to me and my flowers. He took his time with our arrangement, and when he was done he handed it to me with a wink and a smile.

As we left, I heard him say to the mother, “I saved you for last so I could be alone with you!” It was so over the top that this normally cringe-worthy comment came out sounding charming and I couldn’t help but burst out laughing.

Even though, at this point, I knew the flirting was all part of the game – all part of French customer service – as I left, I felt a little lighter on my feet, and my skin felt warm all over. I was a beautiful woman and a beautiful daughter-in-law. That shopkeeper made my day. And next time I need flowers in Paris, I’ll go straight to his shop. He’s found a customer for life. If that’s not the result of excellent customer service, then I don’t know what is.

4 thoughts on “French Customer Service

  1. It is a sort of old-fashioned charm thing. In this country, it could be construed as offensive, but over there that kind of flirtation is still so nice. And i LOVE croissants.

  2. Pingback: La Politesse, and a Few Tips on How to Get Along With the French | A French American Life

  3. Pingback: Ten Things I Love About The French | A French American Life

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