Ouistiti

Sometimes a word just makes you smile. ‘Ouistiti’ is one of them.

The first time I heard it was when my kids were little. “Ouistiti!” said the little boy who was my son’s best friend in maternelle or preschool. They both burst out in fits of giggles.

I had no idea it was actually a thing. Later I learned that a ‘ouistiti’ is a cute little monkey (much like that little boy). What we call a marmoset. Seems the name in French is inspired by the high-pitched sounds they make in the wild.

What inspires me most about these little guys, aside from their unbearable cuteness, is that they apparently listen to each other. Instead of cutting each other off midstream, they wait several seconds after each sound before making their own. Like a true conversation.

One of my pet peeves is something I have dubbed ‘interruptitis’: people who cut you off before you can finish a sentence. This is one of the many ills of modern life, as everyone seems to be convinced that they have something to say that’s more important than the other guy. Perhaps that’s why I enjoy blogging. I get to complete a thought before anyone cuts in.

I grew up in a family where interruptitis dominated the dinner table. There were four of us kids competing for attention so things often got loud. My dad was the worst offender; he was (and remains) convinced that the best way to make yourself understood is to shout down your opponent, banging your fist on the table for emphasis. Our nightly conversations quickly turned into arguments, some more vehement than others. I think for my father it was a sport. But for my mother it was tough. She hated conflict as much as our father relished it.

I suppose I have him to thank for the fact that I’m not afraid to defend my point of view. I do believe in listening, however. I think it’s important in any conversation to keep things respectful, to truly try to hear and understand other points of view.

In a world where people regularly shout each other down on social media and bully others online, maybe we should all take the example of the marmoset. Wait for a second or two to let the other person’s thought settle before cutting in with our own.

When I lose patience and want to cut someone off, on the road or in words, I will try to think about something that automatically makes me smile. Like ouistiti.

In fact, this is what French people say when taking a photo instead of ‘cheese’.

Try it: wee-stee-tee!

Are you smiling yet?

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?