He introduces himself. He works in the French Embassy in Washington. We talk about this and that, not interesting. Maybe the classic dumb question will put an end to a conversation that neither of us seems to be much interested in. Here goes. “What do you like most about America?” He brightens up. “I love being a consumer in America,” he tells me. “The people in the stores, they are so nice and helpful, everything is possible for them, you know? They do everything to please you. In France, it’s not the same.” My mind begins to wander.
I wonder if he and I have been patronizing the same établissements in Washington and Paris. In the grands magasins, I am startled at how many clerks there are, one every two or three metres, elegantly groomed and expensively dressed, most of the time doing nothing because they tend to outnumber the customers. They stand around and look poised—not poised to run to one’s assistance, although they will approach in the event anyone wants to buy something. Just poised in a kind of decorative way, with a visible distaste for anything I am thinking of buying: in other words, I am wrong. The clerks… no, the sales associates in American department stores are usually hard to find and could, more often than I care to think, use some wardrobe tips. They also tend to point, though not with a lot of precision, in the general direction of whatever I may be looking for. “To the left or the right,” I ask, trying to figure out exactly where the finger is pointing. “Yes.” Wrong again. Some choice, disdain or vagueness.
But the man from the embassy has had nothing but attention, courtesy, and endless back flips through hoops by salesfolk for his pleasure and satisfaction. “You know the expression ‘the customer is always right’? That, to my opinion, is the most American sentence—and sentiment—I have ever heard. We should translate it into French and teach it to our shopkeepers.” Shopkeepers, now that’s cute.
And ironic. Napoléon famously is supposed to have said England is a nation of shopkeepers: “L’Angleterre est une nation de boutiquiers.” Whether he did or not is not clear, which means it can be a subject for endless argument by historians. It certainly is clear that Adam Smith used the phrase in The Wealth of Nations and thought it was an unfit idea for a great empire, “but extremely fit for a nation whose government is influenced by shopkeepers.” Is America a nation influenced by shopkeepers? After the attacks of September 11, the president told us to go shopping, not to buy war bonds or plant victory gardens or join the Army, for that matter. Maybe the French diplomat is on to something that I have missed.
Or maybe he has blissed out on something other than the service. American stores are open long hours, sometimes around the clock, and on Sundays: not in France. Our stores have sales when the proprietors want to have them unlike the French who are limited to certain times for soldes, but do manage to get around the problem with promotions, otherwise known as discounts—and so much for French subtlety. Hardly a store in America closes up during the fermature annuelle for the entire month of August or even for two weeks while mom and pop take a vacation.
And that’s it, of course. The stores are always there, always open, always ready for action. As Woody Allen said, “Eighty percent of success is showing up,” and maybe Woody was being a piker: the stores show up all the time, ready for us to show up and show them the money or, anyway, the plastic. But the service? The customer is always right? As far as I can tell, the customer is an impediment to the conversation a sales associate—provided one can be found—is having with another. I think my new French pal has tripped over culture, mistaking abundance for quality and excess for access.
The underemployed sales clerks in Bon Marché and Samaritaine and the more harried ones in the smaller shops, modest or grand, all over Paris are very good, knowing their stock and the prices of everything, showing their taste. Selling at retail is a respectable profession, like waiting on table, not something to do between jobs or while writing poems or painting pictures or waiting for the next casting call. My diplomat may know this and may take it for granted that the poised clerks pose, but he may not realize that his joy at a dollar that’s worth barely more than six-tenths of a euro is infectious, especially to American salesclerks working on commission. The customer—he does not quite get this—is not the one who is always right: money is, and by traveling across the pond, the money in his pocket has increased in value by more than a third. How much more right can you be?
That is the true American sentence and sentiment, and I agree you find it in Paris, too. The sentence “the customer is always right” was first written in French by a certain Monsieur B. Pain in a book called Confessions of Alphonse. Alphonse, who writes heavily accented and syntactically French English, is a waiter who has discovered a basic truth: “The great success of a restaurant is built up on this principle—le patron n’a jamais tort—the customer is always in the right!” Fascinating, but a bit ticklish and very slippery, because Monsieur B. Pain was not a Frenchman as one was to suppose, but an Englishman, Barry Eric Odell Pain, to fire off both barrels of his name, who was writing a satire on French waiters in the year 1917. To clear up any doubt or suspicion, here is the beginning of Alphonse’s confession:
“I am here, at the Restaurant Merveillux, since ten years. Other waiters stay mostly much shorter time. Perhaps they drink too much, and so the Signor gives them some sacks. Perhaps the temper of the Signor has too much of the pepper for them.”
Even the translation from the French is a joke: “The customer is never wrong” is the literal translation of le patron n’a jamais tort, and not being wrong does not mean being right, either, just misguided or confused or an obstacle to personal fulfillment, like failing to leave Alphonse a generous tip or to take his side against the owner of this “top-hole middling restaurant.” Or failing to choose the tie le vendeur would have chosen for himself or missing the point of the sales associate’s pointing finger. A cynical idea, no doubt about it, but cynicism travels better than most wines and can find a home anywhere and in any language.
The diplomat has been talking all the while that I’ve been woolgathering. Did he just suggest we go shopping? I’m ready to plead agoraphobia or a preference for buying online when he asks me what I like most about France.
“Le pain,” I tell him, “the bread. I love the bread.” And Monsieur B. Pain.
© Joseph Lestrange