Nostalgia For Greatness

Citizens of Paris had in general (and quite often) been accused of being aloof, cold, unfriendly, detached, even arrogant, and sometimes they’ve been almost reviled as being rude. Not only are such accusations wrong on the account of painting the picture with a very broad brush, they tend to quickly dissipate as soon as one spends some time living in this city. Still, there are people who like to fantasize how Parisians are most of the time on the defensive, pushing against the Americanization of their culture, and so on. I recently ran into an interesting study, published by a fellow Canadian, where such accusations seemingly get supported by a few allegedly ‘revealing’ anecdotes. This rather short sighted study is titled FACTS & ARGUMENTS: Behind the hostile demeanor of your typical French waiter is nostalgia for greatness, which doesn’t make his behaviour any more appealing to this expatriate.

Carrie Mandel, the author of this short essay, bases her thesis on the imaginary fact that the so-called American Cultural Invasion is inevitable in its ever-powerful presence. According to her, Paris is undergoing a strong identity crisis and its citizens are taking it out on Americans. This dubious ‘diagnosis’ becomes a bit more understandable once we realize that the above essay was written 18 years ago. Many things have changed in the past 18 years, least of which is the ever present dwindling and downward spiralling of the American Cultural Inovation. Almost 20 years ago, America was a different country, with a completely different image. Today, any imaginary or fact based fears that America might take over in a sweeping cultural hegemony are mostly laughable to anyone who lives in France, especially in Paris. As the world is its witness, American squeaky clean, previously very desirable image, is taking a serious nose dive. No one in their right mind would envy that image today. And things appear very bleak as far as its future is concerned.

“I have a theory.” Carrie explains. She continues: “Unlike most Americans, Parisians identify themselves not by what they do, but by who they are. Strong cultural and family identification explains both why the French appear to place less importance on job performance than Americans do, and why, in the event of a crumbling culture, the workplace might serve as an outlet for negative energy and malaise.” So here we have it, an artificial construction of imaginary antagonism between Parisians on one end, and Americans on the other. The above theory reads like wishful thinking, as it’s been introduced to support another theory, the one where, in the words of the author, the service sector philosophy is based on the premise that “the customer is king”. What she seems to confuse in the above equation is that the starting premise that “the customer is king” is based on the expectations that the customer (i.e. the king) is going to get the best possible quality product for their money. It’s primarily the product that matters, and the maner in which that product is delivered to the customer is always of secondary importance.

It’s no use experiencing friendly, cheery and chirpy delivery of the product, if that product is terribly crappy. And that’s where the Parisian and the American vision of customer service are at odds. Americans expect to be titillated while paying for the product they’ve ordered, Parisians expect to first and foremost receive a stellar product. Crappy cheese burgers that most Americans gobble up in McDonalds restaurants are somehow acceptable to them because they get prompt service and are entitled to complain to no end. Meanwhile, Parisian customers would never put up with such terrible product quality, and would rather go to a place where staff knows how to make quality product; the delivery of that quality product is an afterthought, and no one dwells on it.

Seeing how things really play out vis-a-vis Parisians and their alleged nostalgia for greatness, we see that it’s a completely fabricated issue. Parisians do not have that nostalgia for greatness, because they already have that greatness at their disposal, available every day on every street of their magnificent city. They do have the best quality products one can buy, and are happy to continue living that way.

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