Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Cultural Differences

If there is one thing that I have learned since coming to France, it is this: we might all be human beings who share the same planet, but the differences between cultures can be so astounding sometimes!
Last week, when I met my friend for coffee, he asked me what the biggest difference is between France and Canada in the business world. I had to think for a minute, but then it came to me: administration and customer service. Now I've already had my moment on this blog with French administration (which, by the way, continues to be never ending. Our carte de sejour, which allows us to stay in France once our Visa expires, still hasn't come in yet because there is someone new working with the documents and they don't know what they're doing. Don't worry, we get some temporary thing if it's not in on time, but SERIOUSLY!)... so I decided that it had come the time to discuss another little difference which I find bizarre, but which also makes me reflect on my own attitude: customer service and efficiency.
The word efficient? I don't think it is in the French dictionary. Ok, it is, but I don't hear it very often. Things really get done at their own pace... no matter how slow. 2 hour lunch break? Check.
I'm going to write about two experiences I've had, one today and one everyday, and bear with me until I get to the end, because I'm going to reflect on the events and hopefully not sound like an impatient and entitled little North American.
Event #1: Each night, my kitchen closes at 10h30 and reopens at 6h30 in the morning. Every morning I use the kitchen to heat up my oatmeal (oats+milk+peanut butter+banana=awesomeness), usually between 7h30 and 8h30. In Canada, cleaning of public spaces (like kitchens) always occurs when things are closed, so as not to inconvenience the "customer" (for lack of a better word). Here, though, my kitchen is always cleaned right around the times I want to use it, so I either have to go in awkwardly and be in the way and feel bad, or if the floor has already been mopped I have to go to a different floor to use their microwave. This is only awkward when I am still in pajamas... it is so convenient just walking across the hall instead! And I always feel bad, because the cleaning lady is so nice, and she always makes sure she's out of my way, but then I feel like I'm inconveniencing her... anyways.
Event #2: Today, while in line for the grocery store, I finally made it to the front of the line and then proceeded to wait for quite a few minutes while the cashiers took their time switching places (which is understandable) but then proceeded to stand there and talk about what time they were getting off work, what a day it had been, yada yada yada. Meanwhile, I am waiting for them to ring me through. And no apology about it either! That just wouldn't fly in Canada. And the other day my friend paid in cash at the grocery store, with a bill, and they asked if she had 87 cents so that they wouldn't have to give as much change. Umm. Why yes, of course I have 87 cents, let me just dig around for it for a while??? If I had 87 cents, I would have given it to you the first time I paid!
Event #3: My two friends went to go get some train tickets for our upcoming holiday trip. First they went to the boutique downtown, which was closed for lunch and had no sign saying when it would reopen. They decided to go to the actual train station, so they took a tram there and waited in line for half an hour, only to find out that they couldn't do international trains at their present desk, they had to go to a different one. Back in line. Another 30 minute wait. This time, they got up to the counter and began to question about getting their tickets. The first one they tried was from Munich to Strasbourg. The attendant said, "well, there is a stop over on this train."
"Yes," says my friend, "we know."
"Well," says the attendant, " I need to know the stopover."
"We don't know it."
"I'm sorry, I can't do anything. You have to come here with all of your information ready to give to me."
My friends look at each other. They look back at the man. "Well, we found the trains online, can't you do the same?" they inquire, while thinking that it would only MAKE SENSE if the train station, who was selling the tickets, knew all the stopovers...
"No. We don't have internet here."
Excellent customer service, right there.

Which brings me to my reflection part. In Canada, we are always so worried about the customer not getting offended and about whipping people through in the most efficient manner. Cashiers are either completely passive or over the top bubbly. Pleasing the customer is always important... they are never wrong, even when they are rude and complain.We have custodians who clean late into the night or early in the morning so that they don't get in our way during the day. And this kind of system is one that I am used to, one that I've never questioned.
But maybe we're too rushed in Canada? Maybe the fact that I feel impatient and inconvenienced shows that I have been too spoiled with excellent customer service over the years that I've just come to expect to be put first in a business setting. Is it really something to get irritated with? Or is it an opportunity to practice patience and learn how to relax for two seconds? I mean, it is their job to serve the customers...
Who knows!
Anyways, that's my little cultural spiel for the day. Hopefully I didn't sound too entitled. I really do enjoy the relaxed attitude over here, it is just different. I have been learning a lot, but there is still so much more to learn.

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