I was on honeymoon last week in Paris, a beautiful city with wonderful architecture, art, sights, sounds and smells.
But the one thing which really struck me was the politeness of many French people. I had not been to Paris before and was told by many people in advance that Parisians were rude and determined never to utter one word in any other language other than French. This was just plain wrong on multiple fronts.
Firstly, Parisians are very much aware that millions of Euros are ploughed into their city every year by tourists, the vast majority who are not French. In fact many are, you’ve guessed it, Americans. So English is very much a language spoken in restaurants, hotels and museums. I know a little bit of French to get me by, learnt from GCSE French back in the early nineties, and I like to show respect for the cultures and countries I visit by at least attempting to speak the local language even if I fail miserably, which of course I tend to do on occasion. But from my experience, if you at least try and make an effort, the local population will reward you by switching to English to make communication easier. English really is a universal language. The ease in which Parisians switched to English was a delight.
Secondly, it was quite eye-opening to witness local French people always exchanging pleasantries when being served in a shop or greeted by waiters in a restaurant. Every single time we visited the local “corner shop”, or the Boulangerie or Tabac, I heard the customer in front greet their server with a “Bonjour”, “Merci” and “Au Revoir”, which the shop assistant reciprocated with politeness and smiles. Not once were no words exchanged or greetings made.
Contrast this with a trip to my local Co-op in Ipswich when I returned back from France. I said “Hello” to the lady behind the till, as I usually do, and said “Thank You” as I collected my change. On both occasions, I heard a grunt in response with no attempt at eye contact by the Co-op employee. Unfortunately, this is a common occurrence in shops across Ipswich and the UK and is not something experienced just in the Co-op but the contrast between how the French people behave and respond to each other compared to us Brits was stark!
We Brits brought civilisation to much of the world but we have become quite a rude nation over the last 20 years. Perhaps we should get our own house in order before criticising other peoples and nations first, as many people were quick to do before I headed to Paris?
I am not too sure why there is this rudeness and indifference in customer service, especially on the high street, as being pleasant to customers is both rewarding to the customer (and encourages them to spend money) but also to the shop worker as it makes them feel good and it costs them nothing. But there is something which prevents politeness from shining through most of the time, as it should. Is it a poor work ethic, poor parenting or a case of “why bother, I still get paid whatever my attitude”. I suspect it is a mixture of all three. Governments can do a lot to change this attitude, and for all its flaws, the Big Society is one such policy which David Cameron is trying to use to garner a sense of community and respect for one another but I fear the tide cannot be turned back.