What Is Politeness ?

Hello and good morning written with chalk on a blackboard

For many years, I ran a study abroad program for American students in France, where I helped students navigate some cultural differences

“Why wouldn’t the saleswoman sell me the shoes?”

One day, a student named Claire shared the following experience, which took place in a Parisian shop: without saying hello, Claire walked into a shoe store, while having a lively conversation with a friend on her cell phone. She picked up several pairs of shoes one after the other from the display shelves, and glanced at them in the mirror to decide if they were to her liking. Deciding that one pair of ballerinas corresponded to what she was looking for, Claire asked her friend to hang on a minute in order to find out if the saleswoman had them in her size. “No,” replied the salesperson quite abruptly, without going to the storeroom to look. Did she have them in blue, Claire inquired ? She received the same negative response. Any other color in her size, Asked Claire? “Non,” continued the salesperson, looking stone-faced. 

After a few minutes of getting nowhere Claire was invited to follow the saleswoman into the store room. She opened several drawers full of ballerinas and looking at Claire disapprovingly told her she had the ballerinas in her size and in all of the colors but she would not sell them to her.

Claire was outraged, and didn’t know what to say. She stomped out of the shoe shop, feeling that she had been mistreated, the age-old stereotype of bad customer service in France dancing in her head. 

Start by saying “Hello”

Good customer service is perceived very differently in France and in America. In the US, the client is usually king ( or queen in this case). She has the money and is there to buy and while remaining mostly respectful, can act as she pleases.

In France, however, politesse plays an important role in good customer service. The customer and the salesperson are on the same level hierarchically. 

Therefore, it’s important for the client to acknowledge the salesperson with a bonjour, and then to treat the store and its contents as the salesperson’s domain. We could make the comparison of going into a friend’s home, and continuing to talk on the telephone without saying hello to our friend or apologizing for being on the phone

In France there are what I call the 5 open sesames of customer service, in other words 5 words that when used make the experience more successful. What might they be ?