I was recently invited to a focus group for North American women living in France. Chanel wanted our opinion on some advertising campaigns, and we were all happy to attend, mostly for the cash payment that was promised at the end of the evening. To get things started, our hostess asked us to introduce ourselves by announcing our name, our hometown, what we loved most about being in France and what we missed most. The results were unanimous: customer service is what we miss. Even more than decent Mexican food.
One of the quirks of the French temperament is that nothing is possible, ever. Those of us who live here run into this attitude daily, from the nearest customer service rep, salesperson or bureaucrat. I was told no, I couldn’t get my citizenship (I did). I was told no, the lightbulb I was looking to purchase, and had in my hand, did not exist (it does). I was told no, I could never get my girls into the bilingual school midterm (they went).
The secret to dealing with all these noes? Don’t take no for an answer. Just keep talking. Talk around the subject, about the subject, through the subject. Stay polite, and NEVER loose your cool, but make it clear you are not going anywhere until you have what you came for.
Every now and again you do lose your cool. Like the time I was sold a very expensive down jacket that 1) was not down and 2) started falling apart within 15 minutes after I left the store. I was tired, cold and had no time for being nice. I went into the store, very nicely asked for a refund, and when I was told no, I simply began to shout. I scared three customers away and felt like a lunatic, but I had the owner on the phone within five minutes and had organized my refund within seven.
These encounters can be rather exhausting, so it is important to pick your battles wisely. Limit yourself to subjects you really care about. My lightbulb? I didn’t stand in the store until it was found. I just took it to the nearest competitor. But I did camp out in the principal’s office for three days to get my girls into their school, and it took me an entire year to get my naturalization file complete.
And, if you are lucky enough to live in a French home, the process becomes routine. The boyfriend who doesn’t even want to look at the CD rack you’ve found and then falls in love with it. The girlfriend who refuses a slice of tart at lunch and then eats three-quarters of yours. And then there are the teens:
“Wow, the Yves Saint Laurent exhibit at the Petit Palais looks cool!” exclaimed our 16-year-old lunch guest, a parisienne who is a classmate and good friend of my eldest.
“Yes, doesn’t it?” I had invited the eldest, but she had said no.
“I’d love if my mom would take me to a show like that. You’re so lucky.”
“Let me see that,” interrupted the eldest, taking the exhibition flyer into her hands. “Hmm . . . Yes, that is cool. Can we go this weekend?”
“I asked you last weekend,” I said. “Why did you say no?”
“Mom, I am French. I will always say ‘non’ first.”
Getting ready for your trip to Paris? Click here for a guide to books to read and films to watch before and during your stay.