Service ‘sans’ smile

The French have mastered the art of 'le paquet cadeau'

Mastering the art of ‘le paquet cadeau’

You may read the heading of this post and assume it’s going to be another litany of complaint against France and all things French. You would be wrong, although that would be a reasonable assumption. I am about to tell you that there is a service culture in France. What there is not is a smile culture.

The reasons for that are anybody’s guess. Bad dental work? Stiff facial muscles? A refusal to bend one’s anatomy to social norms dictated by les américains? The fact is that the French do not feel a need to smile all the time. When you get over that expectation, you will enjoy surprisingly good service.

Start by putting aside preconceived notions of what you consider essential to good service: a friendly greeting, prompt attention, gratitude for your custom.

Say you enter a small shop in a typical French town. I am talking about a ‘boutique’ not a ‘grand surface’ – a whole different strategy applies for shopping at the super store. Start by saying a general bonjour to anyone within hearing distance. This will help ensure you blip on the radar as belonging to the civilized world. Look around casually and notice there is another customer already being served by the lone salesperson. At this point you need to be patient. The salesperson – whether the owner or an employee – is unlikely to pay you any attention at all until they finished serving the first customer.

“Madame?” (Or “Monsieur” as the case may be….)

This will be your clue that the person is ready to deal with you. Do not expect any greeting beyond this. The salesperson does not know you or want to know where you’re from or how you are.

But from this point forward you may be be pleasantly surprised. French service is:

  • Professional
    The French take pride in their profession, whether as a server or a sales assistant in a specialty shop. Even service sector jobs are held by trained professionals rather than students or casual hires.
  • Informed
    The notion of expertise is essential in France. Whether you are looking for a particular wine or widget, you will benefit from service that is generally well informed and experienced.
  • Unhurried
    Unless you arrive just before closing, you can expect to take your time. Many shop owners or sales assistants will go out of their way to show you different options and take the time to help you choose the item that suits you.
  • Low pressure
    You will not necessarily feel pressured to purchase a more expensive item or even buy anything at all.
  • A little bit extra
    ‘Le paquet cadeau’ is a standard service in the French boutique. Although it has become less of an art in recent years, you will always be offered free gift wrapping. Some of the creations I’ve taken home over the years have been like small works of art worthy of framing.

I’m always amazed at the time people take in shops here. True to my North American roots, I am usually in a hurry. Often I already know what I want and if not I make up my mind quickly. But sometimes I make the effort to slow down a little and take the time, so as not to disappoint the shop owner eager to share his or her knowledge. On those occasions I usually learn something new. And I always go away with a sense of value from the exchange.

Sometimes, as the shopkeeper shows me to the exit, I even take away a smile.

What’s your experience of service in France? Good, bad or indifferent?



  1. cheergerm · February 26, 2015

    Such an interesting difference. We expect a smile with service here but lately I have noticed that there is often no smile and no service! A lose lose situation. To the point where good service of even the slightest degree is a standout! So I could handle no smile, as long as they were professional and polite.

    • MELewis · February 26, 2015

      Agree. If I have to choose, I’ll take service any day. It is nice to have both but sometimes it seems that’s asking the impossible in a world where people are increasingly replaced by machines (although some machines can be warmer than certain folks!).

  2. Kat · February 26, 2015

    Before I came to France, I already knew that sometimes or more than often not, the French do not smile. So they may come across aloof or standoff-ish. Having said that, it’s always nice to see a little smile with service now and then. I hear that people in Eastern Europe & Russia do not smile too..

    • MELewis · February 26, 2015

      Never been to Russia, but living in France definitely helps prepare you for traveling to other countries where smiles are not necessarily included: Portugal, Croatia, Germany…. 😉

      • Kat · February 26, 2015

        Lol !

  3. Albert the Dog · February 26, 2015

    I have not been to France, but my People have been to Paris, and they like the service there. The Lady especially likes the custom of saying “Bonjour” when entering a shop and the “Bonne journee” from the sales person upon leaving. She will not even buy anything from a shop in NY unless She has been greeted with a hello or at least a nod upon entering (it is Her pet peeve).
    I would like to go to France because I have heard that they let dogs go to a lot more places there–even cafes!

    • MELewis · February 26, 2015

      Oh, yes, good point! We do enjoy being able to bring our pups with us to many restaurants and cafés. Usually the wait staff very kindly bring a bowl of water! You would be most welcome in France but the overseas plane travel might be a problem – I would not put my guys through the ordeal! 🙂

  4. midihideaways · February 26, 2015

    I have found that out here in the sticks the wait staff in many restaurants are not professionally trained, and therefore service often leaves a lot to be desired. A smile is a bonus, and politeness goes a long way, but when they just plainly don’t know what they are doing neither will make the experience a very pleasant one, unfortunately. But overall, a lot of the time service in France is good, and I do enjoy the unhurried pace of life :)!!

    • MELewis · February 26, 2015

      I agree that a smile goes a long way especially if the service is not up to par. Where we live in Haute Savoie there is also a dearth of trained French help, but I find that many restaurants hire foreign (Eastern European) staff and they are quite good. You’d think the south of France would have no problem attracting qualified help!

  5. Suzanne et Pierre · February 26, 2015

    Totally agree with you and I must admit that I got used to say “bonjour” upon entering a shop and “au revoir” upon leaving and I miss it now. In Montréal, most shopkeeper will say bonjour when you enter but once they are done with you they move to the next thing so it is difficult to greet them upon leaving, especially in restaurant. I miss this habit of the French customers saying a hello and goodbye to everyone around. So civilized!!!

    • MELewis · February 27, 2015

      Funny how we Canadians have a foot in both cultures (or maybe just a foot in Europe and the rest in North America!). I’d probably miss the personal touch, too, although I find the anonymity oddly liberating. Hope you’re both adjusting otherwise to life back in Montréal – especially the long winter!

  6. Osyth · February 26, 2015

    I’m not very good at the shopping gavotte in any language … I tend to know what I want and to want to be rapid. In England I had this down to an art – I would smile AT the assistant, assure them I needed no help and get down and dirty with whatever I was on the hunt for. A little chat at the check-out and I was away. In the US I was frankly quite scared at the automatic ‘nice days’ etc but it still suited my need for speed. Enter France and I have had to adjust but I now that I have the hang of the ritual I do OK …. except when the lady took 45 minutes helping find a bra for my youngest daughter and I felt compelled to buy the perfect fit whilst needing smelling salts as I nearly passed out at the 150 euro price tag – I live and learn!

    • MELewis · February 27, 2015

      I’m with you, Osyth – far too impatient to really enjoy shopping. I’m a woman on a mission rather than someone who enjoys the process. As for the price tag – it really is ‘buyer beware’ in some of those boutiques – and heaven knows the French put a high price on good lingerie! I always used La Redoute for underthings – at least you know what you’re getting!

      • Osyth · February 27, 2015

        On lingerie … my poor husband shops in the US for a lot of it for me and for the girls because the price is so much better. I order and he goes into whichever store in Boston and collects – thankfully he is bulletproof because some of the shop girls clearly think he is buying for himself!

  7. · March 29, 2015

    A good reminder of what the French do differently, but well. Still would it kill them to crack a smile now and again, said this American.

  8. Pingback: C’est comme ça – FranceSays

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