The following essay was written for “Intercultural Communication” during my summer study abroad program in Paris, France.
“Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.”: A Comparison Between Communication Behaviors in American and French Restaurants
By Marlee Middlebrooks
“Good afternoon! Welcome to Kirby G’s Diner. How may I help you?” “How many people are in your party?” “Would you like a booth or a table?” “Do you prefer to sit inside or outside?” “Okay! Follow me this way. Your server will be right with you.” The previous quotations reflect a similar encounter a patron would have with a host before being seated in an American restaurant. However, should an American travel thousands of miles across the ocean landing his/herself in a Parisian restaurant, he/she would quickly say, “Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore,” or rather, “I am definitely not in an American restaurant.” This paper will address the following research question: “How do tendencies in French restaurants differ from those in American restaurants, and furthermore, why?” Though many concepts may be used to answer this question, I will specifically address Monochronic and Polychronic time, high and low-context communication, and privacy within the self to explain why American and French patrons are considerably confused when dining in a restaurant that does not adhere to their cultural norms.
In order to grasp why cultural norms exist and how these norms can create chaos, it is important to understand what cultural norms are and further how they contribute to intercultural communication. Ting-Toomey (2008) suggests that cultural norms are the general expectations for both proper and improper behavior in a situation. Since these norms are subject to change amongst varying cultures, intercultural communication can be difficult at times. In her research, Ting-Toomey (2008) defines intercultural communication as the “symbolic exchange process whereby individuals from two (or more) different cultural communities negotiate shared meanings in an interactive situation” (p. 16-17). In short, it is when two or more people from different cultures interact with one another and often discuss what is shared and what is not between their cultures. This is how cultural norms become vital because they explain the degree of difference between two opposing cultures (Ting-Toomey, 2008). After arriving in Paris, France for a six-week study abroad program, I noticed considerable communication differences between the French and American cultures. One communication setting where the degree of difference in cultural norms is incredibly large is restaurants. I observed this during my very first dining experience. As time passed, I became increasingly aware of the differences which was helpful because it allowed me to adapt my behaviors. However, six weeks is not enough time to rid yourself of a lifetime of habits, and consequently, many times I found myself to be frustrated with the service I was receiving.
Monochronic Time in America
One of the most obvious differences between French and American restaurants is the use of time. For me, this was the most aggravating difference at the beginning of my time in France. However, during my stay, I grew to appreciate the very different way the French value time. According to Hall (1983), complex cultures usually approach time in one of two ways. The two differing ways never overlap, and Hall (1983) even compares them to oil and water. They are “doing one thing at a time” known as Monochronic time, or M-time, and “doing many things at once” known as Polychronic time, or P-time (Hall, 1983, p. 262). America invariably is the poster child for M-time, and consequently, Americans can be exasperated when they venture into the world of P-time. Hello France! Despite the fact that M-time is not biological within human nature; it is learned, Hall (1983) concludes that people who operate in M-time often believe it is the only logical way to approach life. This ethnocentrism often troubles Americans when in France. In the same way, the French may find American restaurants exhausting as their P-time nature is so often interrupted.
In order to apprehend how American restaurant service is dictated by M-time, specific scenarios must be discussed. The scene depicted in the introduction of this paper is the first key example of M-time restaurant behavior. A host’s two primary jobs in America are to greet patrons verbally and immediately upon their entrance into the restaurant and to seat them. Typically, a wait time ensues, and the party is given a “buzzer.” Essentially, the people are reduced to a number, and they will only be seated in the chronological order in which they arrived at the restaurant. Hall (1983) comments that Westerners are aloof to the degree with which time coordinates everything they do. Scheduling results in compartmentalizing, and Westerners even fall victim to scheduling their social time such as dinner (Hall, 1983). Once seated, the number of times the server attends to the table reflects M-time mentality. A “bad” server only visits a table to care for the customers’ necessities: to take drink and food orders, to bring drinks and food, and to bring the check. A “good” server, however, is very observant and comes to the table often. He/she brings refills on bread and drinks, clears the table as the meal progresses, and comes by just to “check in.” Rebecca Procak, an employee of International Studies Abroad, ISA, has lived in France for 11 years. Previously, she lived in the northern United States where she waited tables for six years. In addition, her French husband has worked in the restaurant business for 18 years. After speaking with her, she confirmed that U.S. restaurant employees are trained to attend to their tables as often as possible. According to Procak, she was trained to do “check backs.” In other words, she was expected to check back with the patrons and ask if everything was okay and what they needed.
There are a few other significant ways in which Americans follow M-time in the restaurant business. One is the expected amount of time patrons will spend at the table. American customers understand that their waiters are working for tips. Therefore, waiters need to wait on as many tables as possible in order to earn a significant amount of money by the close of business. This, in turn, decreases the amount of time Americans spend in restaurants as opposed to the French. In America, it is rude to stay in a restaurant for a prolonged period of time because one is keeping the server from earning as many tips as possible. Americans’ dining experience is not shorter solely for the respect of the waiter’s job. A shorter dining experience also reflects the Western culture. According to Hall (1983), M-time is tangible, and it is often spoken about through metaphors: time is saved, wasted, lost, or running out. With this mentality, Americans cannot devote extended periods of time to meals without fear that the time could have been “spent” doing something else. Moreover, the number of servers in a restaurant increases exponentially in America. This is indicative of M-time mentality. In order to keep the restaurant operating as orderly as possible and service as quick as possible, it is imperative in the U.S. that the server to customer ratio is high. There must be plenty of servers to account for the high volume of patrons so that patrons are not forced to wait for anything for extended periods of time. Lastly, Americans are quick to ask for a “to-go” box. If they do not have time to finish their meal in its entirety, a “to-go” box will house the leftovers for a later time. Additionally, Americans may anticipate not having time to make dinner that night, so leftovers from lunch will serve as their dinner.
Polychronic Time in France
The way in which time controls a meal at a restaurant in America is non-existent in French culture. As stated previously, the French operate in P-time mentality in every part of their lifestyle, especially restaurant etiquette. Several examples may be referenced in order confirm this allegation. Foremost, the job description of an American host does not exist in France. Typically, there are no hosts in French restaurants. An exception may be at an elegant or larger restaurant. However, in most restaurants, there is no expectation for a host to be present. The main explanation for this can be found in a cultural norm. It is normal and correct in French culture to seat oneself. A bartender or waiter will nonverbally acknowledge that the customer is present through eye contact or a head nod, but he/she is expected to walk in and take a seat without receiving permission. This is true for small groups of people wishing to eat together as well. This practice eliminates waiting in a sequential order for a table. If the restaurant is full, it is up to the patrons to find a new place to eat. The restaurant does not accommodate to the patrons. Further, once seated, the patrons are expected to decide what they want to eat. Once the waiter makes his way to the table, he expects to take the customers’ orders. This is key in French customer service. The waiter only attends to the table for the necessities of the customers: to take drink and food orders, to bring drinks and food, and to bring the check. Procak spoke about this difference. “It is considered enjoyable in France to be left alone once you get your meal because you want to talk to and spend time with the person who you came with,” Procak said. Furthermore, she said it is the patrons’ responsibility to alert the server if they need something while dining in France. French waiters do not need to anticipate the needs of their patrons because the patrons will tell them directly if they need anything. Jean-Phillippe, owner of la crêperie des Canettes, a small crepe restaurant in France, verified this claim as well. Speaking of French restaurant culture, he said, “We aren’t pushy. We don’t train our servers to go the tables unless they need to. The only question we may ask [the patrons] is if they want coffee or dessert.”
The clear adherence of the French to P-time can be seen in a few other restaurant norms that differ from those in America. The length of time French people spend eating meals is longer than the time Americans spend. One explanation for this is the way the French value their time in restaurants with their family and friends. Time is not to be rushed. The time set aside for lunch or dinner is meant to be enjoyed as is companionship, so there is not a need to eat quickly in anticipation of a meeting or appointment. In addition, French servers are paid a fixed salary. Jean-Phillipe said that as manager he sets his servers’ salaries; therefore, they do not have to work for tips. Waiters are not frustrated by customers sitting at their table for a long period of time because they do not rely on the amount of tip customers leave. This is normal in France because according to Procak, working in a restaurant is a “real profession” which implies a decent salary. Procak admitted that she still tips in France even though it is not expected. “I have compassion for the servers because I was one for such a long time,” Procak said. Procak did acknowledge that though the French dine a bit longer than Americans, they do not usually dine for several hours. Although the waiter does not necessarily need a high turnover for tips, the restaurant still needs a high turnover for revenue. Therefore, it is expected that people stay for long enough to eat and fellowship but not so long that restaurant cannot seat other customers especially during dinner time. Jean-Phillippe also confirmed that long meal times is a trend that holds truer in cafes. In his restaurant, turnover is high, and people usually do not stay very long. He credits this to his specific business type though because the crepes are known for being made fresh and not being reheated. Since people know this, the restaurant draws a lot of customers who come to eat a freshly made crepe, and then, shortly after, they leave. Another key difference in dining is the small server to customer ratio. The French do not heavily rely on their servers which means that managers are not pressured to hire a large number of servers even for a larger restaurant. Procak said that five waitresses worked in the restaurant she did in the U.S. In the restaurant her husband works at in France, there are only two waiters, and she said the restaurant is at least three times larger. To conclude, “to-go” boxes do not exist in France. It is expected that a meal will be finished during the meal time. This confirms once again the leisurely attitude of P-time. It is not necessary to save parts of a meal in anticipation for the next. Meals and more importantly people and conversation are to be savored in the present moment.
Low-Context Communication in America
The adherence to high or low-context communication creates ample room for misunderstanding specifically in a busy communication setting like a restaurant. First, “low-context communication refers to communication patterns of direct verbal mode” (Ting-Toomey, 2008, p.100). On the other hand, “high-context communication refers to communication patterns of indirect verbal mode” (Ting-Toomey, 2008, p. 101). America heavily uses low-context communication during information exchanges. Messages are often delivered verbally and explicitly. Additionally, the sender of the message is held responsible for the listener’s interpretation of the message. The speaker is to be clear, so the listener can decode the message with ease (Ting-Toomey, 2008). Communication in an American restaurant is overwhelmingly low-context, and once I was a fish out of water in France, I recognized how heavily I relied not only on the speaker but the restaurant to be “crystal clear.”
I now notice low-context communication from the moment I walk into any given American restaurant. “Hello, Welcome to Maritza’s and Frank’s! May I help you?” Now, all I think to myself is “Well, of course you can help me. I want to eat dinner. That is why I’m here.” The low-context communication extends from there. The phrases outside versus inside dining, booth versus table, kid’s menu, and high chair all prompt questions that customers are asked in the first 30 seconds upon entering a restaurant. Of course these are only asked if there is a sign that says “Please wait to be seated.” Otherwise, it reads “Please seat yourself,” and you avoid the one-minute introduction to the restaurant. The waiter then follows the same protocol. He reads aloud the same daily special that was listed on a sign outside of the restaurant. He points to the drinks already stated on a separate drink menu that also includes pictures. He explains the appetizer choices and then offers his favorite even if you do not ask. After returning home from a six week stay in a high-context communication setting, all of the ritualistic questions and statements appear overbearing and a bit insulting. Once dinner is served, the low-context communication does not cease. In fact, it is often amped up. Questions are asked such as, “Can I get you anything else, ketchup, mustard, extra napkins?”, “Would you like a refill on your drink?”, “What was it again, sweet tea?” and “Do you want more ice?” If the waiter does not ask all of the questions listed above, it is because he is acting on assumptions that the customer needs all of the various requests filled. He brings a refill even when the glass is only half empty. He brings extra plates just in case you need them. He points out the ketchup and mustard on the table and then brings both Heinz 57 and A.1. for you to choose between. You can even have both he will say. To-go boxes are brought in anticipation for your leftovers, and sometimes, the leftovers are boxed for you. Of course, you would not know how to do that yourself. Lastly, a waiter would never assume that the entire meal is to be placed on one check. So, he will ask first, and then, he will ask how to split the check between the patrons. Now, it seems a bit excessive the way a waiter acts in America. Customers receive overtly clear messages throughout their experience from start to finish. Fortunately, for the waiter, by adhering to these cultural norms, he will likely be rewarded with a nice tip.
High-Context Communication in France
The above scenarios may seem a bit extreme, but it is ludicrous to say that these scenarios do not happen in America because not only do they happen, but they happen often. In contrast, French waiters strictly adhere to their role as a high-context communicator. The initial and expected greeting of “Bonjour!” is the only verbal cue given and received until the waiter comes to the table to take the customers’ orders. A waiter may acknowledge the peoples’ presence through a non-verbal channel, but it is the patrons’ duty to seat themselves whether inside or outside. There are no signs that say “Seat yourself” because this is not necessary. You already know to do this. This very specific rule was the cause of much embarrassment for me for the first two weeks of my program. I walked into any restaurant and expected to be catered to immediately. However, after a long awkward stand still, I realized that no one was stopping for me. It was not until I looked quite puzzled that a waiter would say, “Sit where you would like.” I am positive this was followed by snarky remark in French that I could not dare comprehend. The encounter grew more awkward once the waiter came to the table. He did not talk me through what was on the menu written in French in its entirety. I was left to play a quick game of eeny, meeny, miny, moe before my finger made my decision for me. I was given a glass of water, and though I had finished drinking it before my meal was served, I never got another glass until I asked. Then, once my meal was put in front of me, the waiter disappeared, just in time for me to realize that I had French fries and no ketchup. It was another ten minutes before I got the attention of my waiter, and another ten before he brought the ketchup. My fries were already in my stomach and the ketchup was useless. When it was time for the check, my friends and I waited, and waited, and waited until we got up ourselves to get the bill from our waiter. Was it split? Of course not. So, we stood in the middle of the restaurant sorting out euros and making change amongst ourselves until we paid what we owed. The experience was a disaster.
After writing about both experiences in detail, neither appears productive. Where one experience seems domineering, the other seems unobservant. Each can be critiqued endlessly. However, after experiencing both, I admit that the experiences match the cultures, and they are in fact productive. Each style perfectly aligns itself with the expectations of the customers and their cultural norms. American patrons are led by their waiters in restaurants. As a foreigner, this has the potential to be extremely helpful, and as an American, this is what we are used to. It is not until we are taken outside of our home that we begin to ponder a different style of restaurant service. In France, customers are never led, so to be led would be considered rude. From both scenarios, I conclude that high and low-context communication is neither right or wrong. It is a difference in preference and a difference in cultures.
The Self: Privacy in America
If you found yourself ordering a peach in an American restaurant, you would align yourself correctly to a metaphor often used to describe Americans with reference to privacy and the self. In the same way, ordering a coconut in France would perfectly describe the personality of the French customer. Although this sounds a bit absurd, and it is quite unlikely that a customer would ever order a peach or a coconut in a restaurant, these foods are how Asselin and Mastron (2010) contrast the American and French cultures respectively in their research. “The peach is soft and inviting but has a hard core that is difficult or impossible to get into” (Asselin & Mastron, 2010, p. 55). The initial aspect of this metaphor may be observed in the relationship between the American waiter and the American diner.
The following examples will display the forthright nature of most Americans. I am not going to discuss the later part of the metaphor, the hard core within Americans, but I will cite multiple examples of restaurant behavior in order to confirm how privacy in America is more of a suggestion rather than a need. Usually, the initial statement from the mouth of an American waiter is, “Hello, my name is Brad. I’ll be taking care of you today.” It comes as no surprise that Brad will be sporting a nametag across his chest labeled “BRAD.” Brad is not shy to share his name with diners. In fact, he is certainly expected to so that the customers may call for his attention during their meal. He invites the patrons to refer to him as if they were on a “first name basis.” Despite the waiter’s need to attend to his other tables, he may participate in small talk. For example, he may notice that someone at the table is wearing a t-shirt from his alma mater and spark a casual conversation. This reflects Americans’ willingness to be open. Asselin and Mastron noted an example of this open behavior by referring to people’s instincts on domestic airplane flights. According to the researchers, Americans are more likely than the French to participate in friendly conversation even if the subject matter is rather personal (Asselin & Mastron, 2010). The level of noise in an American restaurant is also indicative of Americans little concern with privacy. Restaurants are incredibly loud as a reflection of the loudness of the customers. People talk at high volumes without much concern for whether or not other patrons can hear their conversations. It is likely that other patrons do not overhear others’ conversations because they are speaking just as loudly. Once lunch or dinner is nearing its end, customers will receive their check. It is normal and anticipated that if paying by card patrons will leave their cards on the table for their waiter to retrieve. Then, the waiter will proceed to a separate location to charge the card for the amount of the meal. This cultural norm displays the level of trust that Americans give one another. Private information i.e. credit card numbers are allowed to be handled by a stranger such as a waiter. Once finished, the waiter will return to the table with the patrons’ cards, and if lucky, they will be gifted some mints.
The Self: Privacy in France
In stark contrast, the need for privacy in France is in fact a need because the French have “a tough and not very appealing shell” (Asselin & Mastron, 2010, p. 55). Their shell cannot be easily cracked especially not in a social setting such as a restaurant. The resistance to frequent unreserved communication displayed by French people is something learned throughout their lifetime. Asselin and Mastron (2010) describe a specific characteristic of French people in reference to their communication behaviors: pudeur translated as “self-restraint” in English. “French people learn early on that personal information should not be revealed to just anyone and that a certain degree of intimacy must be reached before a person can open up” (Asselin & Mastron, 2010, p. 55). This evidence is key to explaining why a French waiter will never be caught wearing a nametag. Not only is a nametag not included in a French waiter’s uniform, but he will approach a table and ask for the customers’ orders immediately after greeting them. The customers will leave the restaurant with better odds at winning the lottery than knowing their waiter’s name. Procak said that across the span of her 11 years in France, a server has never revealed his name. She said that if a customer is a regular, then he/she might ask for his/her preferred waiter’s name. “Even then, they would ask the manager for the waiter’s name. They wouldn’t ask the waiter directly,” Procak said. Moreover, small talk is nonexistent between the French waiter and patron. School and work are considered private life matters, and “a French person who reveals details about his or her private life to un inconnu (an unknown person) would be considered promiscuous” (Asselin & Mastron, 2010, p. 55-56). This also clarifies why the environment in a French restaurant is much quieter. In the same way the diners do not wish for the waiter to know anything about their personal lives, they do not want other patrons to overhear their conversations. The information is meant to be exchanged solely between one another; therefore, the persons will speak in a tone so that only their friends or family members can hear. Lastly, as the afternoon or evening meal approaches its end, and the patrons are ready to pay via their credit cards, the server will come to their table with a hand held machine. The patron will be responsible for inserting the card and signing for the correct amount. The server will never even hold the card. This exemplifies the lack of trust French people have in one another. Not only is it absurd that a server would ever need to take a patron’s card away from him/her, it is unnecessary and disrespectful.
It is difficult to fully convey in a single research paper the true differences in the American and French cultures. Restaurant etiquette only touches the surface of the opposing communication behaviors in these distinct cultures. However, restaurants are a wonderful place to begin when inquiring just how communication varies between the U.S. and France. Time orientation is arguably the largest difference in how restaurant customer service is approached in these countries. Whereas, Americans strictly abide by M-time, doing things one at a time, French people free themselves to view time as a leisure suggestion. They adhere to P-time. Additionally, low-context communication behaviors like giving explicit messages are held in high regard in America. On the other hand, the French communicate via high-context communication which consists of many more indirect messages. Finally, Americans do not treasure privacy like the French do because in France “privacy is at the core of the French culture” (Asselin & Mastron, 2010, p. 57). Through much research and ample scenarios, I fully explored both how and why restaurant tendencies differ so vastly in America and France in hopes that Dorothy will be better equipped to recognize when she is no longer in Kansas anymore.
Asselin, G. & Mastron, R. (2010). Au contraire: figuring out the French. London, UK: Intercultural Press.
Hall, E.T. (1983). The Dance of Life: The other Dimension of Time. pp. 42-54. NY: Doubleday.
Ting-Toomey, S. (2008). Communicating Across Cultures. Ny: Guildford Publications.
Jean-Phillipe, owner of la crêperie des Canettes, June 20, 2016, la crêperie des Canettes
Rebecca Procak, International Studies Abroad, ISA, Housing Services Coordinator, June 23, 2016, ISA Office