You may have already noticed that customer service in France isn’t quite like customer service in the U.S.
In fact, most Americans wouldn’t call it “customer service” at all. Especially not in the public service sector.
Well, for one thing, the French don’t really care if you do business with them. In some situations, like at the préfecture, you’re legally obligated to deal with them. There’s no “the customer is always right” philosophy. French public employees have jobs for life, so it’s impossible for them to be fired if they’re rude to people, and it’s very expensive for a company to fire an employee with a CDI contract.
Basically, you play by their rules and hope to get what you want.
No employee is going to give you his name, or let you talk to her supervisor. And you certainly won’t get anywhere by insisting that someone help you. They won’t care. And neither will the boss.
So what happens if you need something from someone in France? You’re going to need a different strategy than you’re used to using in the U.S.
Here are four strategies to use for getting your way in France:
1) Play dumb.
Even if you know what you need, who has the power to give it to you, and that it’s your “right” to have it, the best way to affront French bureaucracy in any situation is to pretend like you have no idea what’s going on.
Pretend you’re a poor, bumbling idiot.
See, if you approach a situation knowing what you need and who you need it from, it seems like you’re telling the employee what to do.
And because of the French principle of equality, French employees generally consider themselves to be your equals, and don’t take kindly to you telling them what to do.
Why does this work? The person helping you will take pity on you and feel better about helping the poor American / Canadian / Brit who has no clue how things work in France.
Instead of YOU telling THEM what needs to be done, the person helping you is telling YOU what they need to do to help you, and will often go to a lot of trouble to get you what you need.
2) Defer to their sense of superiority.
While in France, everyone is technically equal, in human nature, everyone wants to be superior to someone else.
And playing on this desire can help you get your way in France.
When you need something from someone, no matter how small, ask the person for advice on whether you need it and how to get it.
For example, if you need a stamp from the secretariat office in your university, try this strategy instead of asking directly: Tell the secretary that you think you need a stamp, but you’re not sure, and you assume she knows better than you do what documents you need to do XYZ.
Meanwhile, be kind, and value her help genuinely. Again, this will help her to feel superior to you, the student.
3) Be persistant and try again.
Sometimes, you won’t get what you want the first time around.
In many cases, the ONE person you need to talk to won’t be available, or the person who is helping you is having such a bad day that strategies #1 and #2 don’t work.
If the employee treats you like an idiot who’s wasting the company’s time, don’t panic or cause a scene. The last thing you want is for the employees to remember who caused a “scandal” and made a scene in the store / office / prefecture.
No matter how rude the employee is, tell them you’ve made a mistake and you’re sorry to have wasted their time. Be polite. And come back the following day and try to get someone else to help you.
4) Be kind.
The other day, I actually got an email response from Bobigny, one of the busiest préfectures in France, about the status of my carte de séjour.
How did I get it?
Instead of sending an email saying, “I need to know the status of my carte de séjour n°123456789, Thank you,” I started off the email with pleasantries. “Hello, I hope you’re not too cold over in that cement building with this horrible weather we’re having.”
And then I proceded to meander my way to the question. “Listen, I’m writing because I was wondering if it would be possible for you to tell me when I’ll get my carte de séjour n°123456789 for Allison Lounes living at 00 boulevard des Champs Elysées Aubervilliers. I understand you’re busy over there, but I’m waiting to start my company, and I’ll need a copy before I can file my company’s paperwork. Thank you so much!”
A nice introduction and a polite question in perfect French was probably a nice break for the préfecture employee, who is used to being insulted by people who don’t really speak or write French (like many of the immigrants in Seine-Saint-Denis, where I now live) when they don’t get their carte de séjour immediately.
A little kindness goes a long way.