The Regional Tourism Council of Paris (France) has launched a good manners campaign for French table waiters, urging them to be more understanding of the cultural peculiarities of foreigners. Unfortunately, the manual on how to be nice to foreigners lumps all of us Americans together, as if the rules of politeness for Southerners were the same as rules for Northerners. Having lived both places, I can safely say that won't work. In fact the whole idea is wrong.
The manual is in French, of course, but the title is English: "Do you speak Touriste?" It tells Parisian waiters that Americans are very informal, like to be called by their first names, eat dinner in the middle of the afternoon and play with smartphones and Internet tablets while dining. The idea is that Americans can't help being the way they are, so it's not appropriate to throw their food at them and hope they go away.
In other words, the manual completely misses the sir-ma'am issue, which for the sake of brevity here we will call simply "sirmam." Sirmam is important. It means something. Just what, I've never been entirely sure, but I do know that differences in sirmam are very notable when traveling within the United States. Is it an issue that translates all the way to Paris, France? You tell me. I know it's significant in Paris, Texas.
I had been living in Texas and away from my own native Michigan for many years. During a recent visit back to the mitten state, the absence of sirmam there sort of jostled me at first. I bristled when a waiter came up to me at a table and addressed me as "Buddy." I think I may even have craned around to see if possibly there might be somebody named Buddy sitting behind me. On the tip of my tongue was something to the effect of, "It's Sir Buddy to you, if you don't mind."
But then of course it all came back to me in a flood, and I was embarrassed, even ashamed of myself. I was back among my own people, where sirmam simply is not done. There has always been a certain uncertainty where Michigan fits exactly into the matrix of geographical regions, but in terms of sirmam Michigan is solidly Midwestern.
There, sirmam is considered a dodgy kind of foreign affectation inspiring all kinds of odd misinterpretation. I found during my visit that if I said sir and ma'am to people, they would tell me I was making them feel old, and then they would tell me their first names. I thought to myself, "I don't remember saying anything about your age, and I do not want to know your first name."
In the Midwest, politeness is conveyed through a mannerism of just-plain-folks commonality. Even the most uncommon people, mega-rich bankers and lawyers and the like, affect an attitude of just-plain-folks in order to be polite. So everybody is everybody's "Buddy," even though nobody is anybody's buddy.
In the South, politeness is conveyed through a certain formality which can be wrongly interpreted sometimes as a softness. I have always suspected that in Texas, at least, sirmam was a convention derived from frontier experience and the days when people carried sidearms. The idea was, "We can be very polite and call each other sir and ma'am, or I can shoot you right here."
In both cases the conventions, at least on the surface of them, convey things that are not true -- on the one hand an over-cozy friendliness, on the other an utterly fake respect. At least in restaurants, the purpose is the same: to get fed and not have a rhubarb about it.
That's the goal. No rhubarb. A French waiter once backed away from my table at least four feet, dropped his order pad to his side, heaved a sigh worthy of the damn opera and informed me that I had just asked for a glass of water with the wrong French grammatical construction.
I did not give in to a first impulse, which was to say, "Are you kidding me, Alphonse?" Instead I asked him to instruct me in the right way to ask for a glass of water. He did. Then he required me to repeat it after him a couple times. I did. I admit that if he had asked me to do it a third time I was probably going to start wishing I had a sidearm, but he did not. He took my order. Things went fine after that. So what was that about?
That was his way of telling me, "You're not in Texas any more. I am a professional waiter who, under French law, cannot be fired from my job if you bitch about me to my boss. I earn a good living with a pension. I'm on national health care. I don't give a damn about tips. So you are going to treat me as your social equal, or you are going to have a very unsatisfying dining experience after which I will present you with a huge inaccurate bill which I will refuse to discuss."
The happy traveler learns to bend. It's better that way, in fact, than for the natives to try to bend in our direction. Then it just gets all muddled. In their pamphlet, the French have got us all lumped together as if we were all just plain folks, which we are not at all.
And, look. Maybe I'm quibbling, but it was their idea in the first place to kiss up to us. I do not believe we asked for that, ever. Did we? I can't imagine it. We're Americans. We don't go around the world saying, "Please don't hurt me."
In fact I'm saying all of this for their benefit, not ours. Imagine a waiter in Paris starting off with a guy from Selma, Alabama, by asking his first name and then addressing him as Bob for the rest of the meal. No way! That's a formula for social disaster. But if the American at the table were from Grand Rapids, Michigan, he might feel right at home with it.
French waiters, if you ask me, are better off just being the officious jerks they've always been. It's part of the experience -- one of those ways in which travel helps us grow. And anyway, we can't even agree on how waiters should behave within our own country.
A part of me would love to see a waiter in Dallas backing away from a table full of Frenchmen, sighing loudly and then telling them, "Gentlemen, gentlemen, gentlemen. Good God. One does not ask for a glass of THE water. In that case, the article is quite superfluous. The proper request is for a glass of water."
But then that would require the waiter to know what an article is, and then he would be fired anyway. We should all just stick to our own familiar ways and let the other guys stick to theirs. Why travel, if it doesn't make you feel foreign once in a while?