Probably no one in France strikes more fear into the American heart than the French waiter. We all know the stereotypes: they’re rude, they’re impatient, and their service sucks. Actually, none of this is true, with the possible exception of the “impatient” part, and if you see that, it’s probably your fault.
Let’s start with “rude.” This is actually a pretty typical conception that Americans have of the French. In fact, if anything, the French are hyper-polite with strangers. The issue that arises is that every culture has different conceptions of politeness, and unsurprisingly, French and American politeness is different. The key is to learn to recognize French politeness when you see it, and to respond equally politely.
I would love to know enough about French politeness to explain all of its ins and outs, but I don’t. I do, however, know enough to explain how to interact with a waiter.
On to the “impatient” thing: The first thing that you have to know about waiters in Paris is that they are covering far more tables than an American waiter would believe possible. No exaggeration here: if you ever asked an American to cover as many tables as a Parisian waiter covers every single day, they would probably quit.
French waiters, like pretty much everyone else in France, have a métier, and they know how to do their job. In turn, they expect you to know how to interact with them when they are doing their job. One thing that this means is that you have to be aware that if everything goes as it should, you will not see that waiter very often, and he will not be making a lot of trips to your table. So: be ready to order everything at once. Have your drink order, your food order, and your dessert order ready. If you are going to want water, ask for it along with everything else. (If you want to make a French waiter crazy: order drinks. When he comes back with your drinks, ask for water. When he brings your water, tell him that you would like a menu. When he brings your food, tell him that you would like an extra napkin. Then, wait until he brings you your dessert to tell him that you’re going to share it, and would like another spoon.)
Finally, the service: Service is not supposed to be fast in France. That is just not a goal. Meals in France typically take a long time–my friends tell me stories of three-hour Sunday dinners with their families (during which children were expected to sit quietly and listen politely, but more on French kids some other time). One book that I read about French and American differences in the business world said that in France, a three-hour lunch with your co-workers is like a two-week team-building ropes course camping trip in the US. In fact, for your waiter to rush you would be rude. Edmund White points out in his book Inside A Pearl that in France, the more expensive the restaurant, the slower the service. When you go into a cafe and order yourself a cup of coffee or a glass of wine, you have just bought yourself a table for as long as you want it. If the waiter is running to your table repeatedly, he is rushing you out the door–and he won’t. (So, what do you do if you just want a fast cup of coffee? Go into the cafe and stand at the bar. Coffee at the bar typically costs about 1 euro less than coffee at the table, and it’s a very quick interaction–you order, you get your coffee, you drink it, you pay, and you leave as soon as you like.)
And, no, your waiter is not judging you: A fear about French waiters that we rarely admit to in America, but that I suspect we all share, is that they are judging our taste when we order. Really, they don’t care. If your waiter makes a weird face when you order something, it doesn’t mean that he thinks you have bad taste–it’s his polite way of telling you that the chef isn’t really hitting the target with that particular dish today. You should thank him.
And finally, tipping: Tips are included in the bill. However, you should leave something extra as a courtesy. At a minimum, leave the small change to round up to the next euro. If you liked the service, leave a euro or two extra. Leave three euros, and you will be remembered the next time–guaranteed. And, the more often you go there, the closer you will get to friendly treatment, if that’s important to you—strangers can make French people uncomfortable (which makes the waiter’s job extra-difficult), but they can be really warm if they recognize you.
From a linguistic point of view, the interesting thing about dealing with a waiter is understanding the various culture-specific things that they say to you. Here are some useful expressions to know:
- A boire? or A manger?: the waiter is asking you if you’re there just for drinks, or to eat. This will determine whether you get directed to a table with silverware, or without it. You can also use these to tell the waiter that you’re just there for drinks, or that you’re there to eat.
- Vous désirez?: This is roughly “what would you like?” It’s interesting in that it shows a common form of forming a question in the spoken language: normal word order, i.e. no inversions or question words, with rising intonation. This wasn’t taught in the US, in my day.
- Vous avez choisi?: This is roughly “have you decided?” I.e., have you decided what to order? Again, we see the normal word order, but with a rising intonation.
- C’est bon: This is how you tell the waiter to “keep the change.” (Hopefully you will have added a euro or two–see above.)
There are some things that I still haven’t figured out. The big one: how do I tell the waiter that I prefer to sit outside? Feel free to tell me the answer in the comments!