Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Check, Please—And Other Cultural Differences

When visiting a different country than my own, I try to learn a bit about the culture. I am in their territory after all and I would like to at least make an attempt to play by their rules. I really understood the importance of knowledge as I sat in a café one day. The people sitting next to me
were my fellow Americans. I observed their table, as the father became increasingly irritated that the waiter was not bringing them their bill. “Garçon," the dad screamed followed by in English (of course), “The service here is terrible! Why haven't you brought us our bill?!" I slapped my forehead and nodded my head in shame. No wonder Americans have such a bad reputation in Europe. Forget that we are in a war that nobody wants, we can’t even be nice to people in their own country.

You see, Americans have had the misfortune of learning the word ‘garçon’ from American movies. 'Garcon" is a old-fashioned term for waiter that could still be used if one is deferential with the proper tone AND by adding s'il vous plaît. The truth is that the more conventional translation for 'garçon' is ‘boy.’ Every time this man regurgitated the word, he was saying “Boy, come here.” I don't know about you, but I wouldn't be too pleased is someone spoke to me in that manner. So, unless you are talking to someone about their son, I would simply leave the word garçon out of your vocabulary all together.

In addition, the French and other cultures in Europe as well, take pride in their culinary delights. One is not supposed to gulf down an order in the fastest possible manner. It is more important to savor each bite and each sip of every single course, even if you are merely ordering a cup of coffee. Conversation is also part of the meal, not to mention the art of people watching. That being said, the French want you to enjoy your time at the meal. This is what living is all about to them. Kicking you out to seat the next person, like we do at home is the farthest thing from their mind. They encourage you to linger. It is therefore up to you to tell them when you would like to leave. When asking for the check, you politely use the simple phrase, "L’addition, s’il vous plait,” (law-dee-sea-own see-voo-play).

On another occasion, while sitting in a cafe a woman repeatedly asked the waiter for preservatives for her toast. "Preservatives. Preservatives! Do you have any preservatives?"  Clearly perplexed, the patron could not understand why the waiter looked so embarrassed—but that didn't stop her from continuously repeating (in English) what she wanted. After giggling to myself a bit, I decided to intervene. In the best French I could muster, I explained to the waiter what the woman really wanted. Feeling relief, he scurried off to fill their order. That was when I turned to their table and told the very nice woman and her friends that she kept inadvertently asking the waiter for a condom! There was a reason why this poor guy was a little freaked out. I think he thought he might have to perform for these women.

Clearly, they were mortified by their faux pas, but after their shock wore off, we all had a nice laugh. Just keep in mind that all words do not necessarily translate exactly as we hope they do. By the way, the word for preservatives is confiture (cone-fee-tour).

Along with misunderstandings, Americans are notorious for thinking that if they raise their voice by a few notches that will surely help a non-English speaking person to understand them better. Why people think that is a good idea, I will never understand. If someone yelled at you in Japanese, and you didn't speak Japanese, would you be able to understand them better just because they were shouting? Of course not! In fact, not only will you still not comprehend their meaning, you might get upset for their rudeness. So, just remember when you raise your voice, you are the one being rude, not the other way around. It's much better, to point at the menu or to use a phrase book to ask what you want.

Furthermore, it doesn’t take a lot of effort to learn a few words such as ‘please’, ‘thank you’ and ‘do you speak English’ in someone else’s native tongue. Believe me, the locals will not only appreciate it, they will more than like respond to you in a more welcoming manner.

Another cultural idiosyncracy that an American should know is that cab drivers here don’t have a lot of change. Be prepared to have close to the amount of the price of your ride. We often hand twenties to drivers at home thinking that is a small enough bill for people to have change, but that is not necessarily the case here. It’s not worth having a cab driver become angry at you for not having the correct change. It took a few cab rides for me to realize that I had not just gotten stuck with a rude cab driver, and that having exact change was a cultural difference. So, take note and learn from my experience.

And by the way, hailing a cab is not done here. Unless your purpose is to give your arms some exercise, standing on the corner waiving a cab down won't do any good. You will just get tired as you waive for seemingly forever as empty cab after empty cab pass you by. Instead, walk over to the taxi stand and wait your turn for the next car to arrive. You will know it as it will be marked with a sign that says TAXIS.

In the States, we tend to be a bit more on the informal side. However, while you are here, you will want to be much more formal. For example, when walking into a shop you don't want to just say bonjour, but rather “Bonjour, Madame,” or “Bonjour, Monsieur.” The usage of madame and monsieur are very big here. Surprise a French shopkeeper by using this form of courtesy. They will not expect it from an outsider, but they will certainly appreciate it.

While the French may have a notorious reputation in our country for being rude, the truth is that we are actually the ones being rude to them. Cultural differences are simply that, they are differences. Don’t look at them as a nuisance. This is part of the education of life—to learn how we interact differently. Remember, you are a guest in their country. Play by their rules. Being respectful will go a long way with the welcoming committee.

Thank you for reading and bonne journée!