Mastering the art of French waiting

May 17, 2010 in Philosophy,Travel

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Confession: I hate waiting. I am the girl who is constantly checking her watch, annoyingly tapping her foot, scowling at the person who is holding up the line. I despise being late, wasting time, not having things go my way. It is not my finest quality, and despite years of yoga and zen breathing, I’ve come to accept that impatience is just a part of who I am.

Because in America, we expect things to be done now, pronto, ASAP. The good ol’ U-S-of-A is not known for doing things at a leisurely pace. We invented fast food. We can’t bother with even sitting down to eat. We’d rather DVR our television shows than wait out a commercial break. We drive everywhere, even when it’s within walking distance. Surely, the American ideal of instant gratification has fueled my inability to wait patiently.

In my service marketing class in college, we learned about the psychology of the queue (for Americans: that’s the fancy British word for standing in line) and how to eliminate negative waiting time for customers. We literally spent weeks learning about how to get rid of wait times or distract people from thinking about how long they’ve been waiting (i.e. magazines in waiting rooms). I don’t think French business owners took the same course–or would even see the value in it.

To the French, waiting is just a natural part of life. Whereas Americans expect things to be done now, the French expect things to get done…later. Whereas a line is a sign to Americans that a business needs more staff/better procedures/automation, a line is just what’s expected when you go to the post office, bank, grocery store. No one scowls at the customer taking forever at the register, because they realize that they’ll get the same attention (or incompetence) from the employee when they reach the front of the line.

Surely, the French don’t like to wait anymore than Americans do. It’s quite boring, no matter what culture you’ve been raised in. However, when you stand in line in France–and you surely will at any store or business you go to–you won’t see the French tapping their feet, checking their watch, asking the clerk what exactly is taking so long. I’m not going to attempt to explain why the difference exists–I’ll leave that to the anthropologists–although I have a strong hunch it correlates to much older traditions and culture. 234-year-old America is still just an impatient, whiny adolescent next to the older and wiser France.

So next time I head to the post office, I’m going to try and blend some of that sage Gallic wisdom with a bit of yoga breathing as I attempt to patiently stand in line. Oh, and I’m leaving my watch at home.

  • Kate Brennan

    I know this Christine… I have waited on many a lacrosse road trip with you. Sometimes being 'efficient' is really nice… but I'm sure you'll learn to sloooow down soon enough and enjoy the French pace, is the reverse (coming back to the US) that is tough :)

  • SoloFriendly

    That's one thing I've got to get used to in other cultures. I, too, hate waiting in line. I'll do almost anything to avoid it. It can be alleviated somewhat if the people around you are friendly and you can chat with them, but if all you're doing is staring at the back of the person in front of you…BORING.

  • camorose

    You have to admit, Kate, that our lacrosse road trips were epic adventures in waiting. An ammonia spill comes to mind…
    But yes, I'm trying to slow down and stop worrying so much–as there's really not much to worry about in my life here! I'm sure coming back to the States will be quite the adjustment, and then I'll be looking to you for advice again!

  • camorose

    It's awful! Usually you can commiserate with someone, but here everyone just takes it for granted and stands there patiently. No one to shake heads with!

  • http://www.travelyourself.ca Cailin

    Great post Christine! I find it the total opposite in Australia! Australia made me think that things in America are too slow! One time I was waiting in line at a McDonalds (hangs her head in shame) and an employee walked up to me with this palm pilot thing and took my order. By the time I got to the front of the line to pay they had my food ready and bagged already, they took my money and I was on my way!
    Also in restaurants there I find the service is crazy quick! Here at home if I go to eat at a restaurant I expect to be there for 1 or 2 hours but Australia you can sit down, drink, eat, in and out in 30mins!

  • Katelyn

    Spain's the same way! However, I actually enjoyed living at its leisurely pace; and I definitely got used to the siesta everyday :) Soak it up now because when you come home you'll be surprised at the things you miss, even if it's annoying now!

  • camorose

    You would be right at home in any restaurant in France! I have a really hard time slowing down when I eat or drink something, but here they can make meals stretch for hours. It's a really difficult habit to change, but I'm working on it :)

  • camorose

    If we had a siesta, I would totally be OK with waiting in line. Unfortunately, long lines + no siestas = annoyance.

  • magicant

    I'm horrible at waiting. While traveling, it doesn't bother me as much, though. I've come to understand that it's part of the cultural difference. It's like going to a theme park – you know there will be waiting, so accept it as part of the mindset to minimize the frustration.

    Personally, I hate lingering over a meal when I'm finished so if the check's not at the table in 3 minutes, it frustrates me. But part of my goal is to change that – to slow down and not push to get onto the “next thing” – appreciate the sounds, the smells and the people around you.

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/wenzday01/ Wendy

    Very interesting post. The way you wrote about the French is the way I felt about Americans when I first moved to the US from Hong Kong. My family and I were used to a much faster pace of life, but people in the US just didn't seem to be in a hurry at all. Who cares if you have to wait two extra minutes at the supermarket checkout line? I wish I could get in that mindset to slow down, but I also feel that if I'm going to “waste time”, I'll do it on my own accord (because I do plenty of that on my own!).

  • http://www.thejetpacker.com/ The Jetpacker

    Meals in France are nothing like I'm used to in America. We sit, we eat, we're asked to pay and leave as quickly as possible so the waitress can cram in a few more tables and make more tips.

    In France, lunches take three times as long. You have to ask for a refill and the check. They don't hound you, constantly interrupting your meal to ask questions, or starring at you with that look like, “Eat faster!” At first I perceived this as rude.

    But it's not. The French are more respectful of your time. They want you to enjoy the food, the company, the atmosphere, not rush and check another “to do” off your list. It's all about savoring the moment, the experience.

  • camorose

    After the comments on this post, I'm definitely going to write a post on difference just in restaurant styles! Being a waitress in France has definitely changed my perspective–as the goal here is to have a social and gastronomic experience, not just to shove your food down and leave! Really hard for me to eat and/or drink slowly though…

  • camorose

    How funny! I can't even imagine how fast life is in Hong Kong if you think the United States is slow! You should never come to France if you're not willing to wait for-ev-er in the checkout lines :)

  • camorose

    I'm definitely writing a post on this–I'm learning a lot about the cultural differences in eating since I'm waitressing at an Irish pub with about equal amounts of English-speaking and French clientele. It's definitely not about turning tables here!

  • http://officechairtraveller.posterous.com/ Rudi

    Wendy's comment re Hong Kong is spot on. I'm from Ireland (where queues are made bearable by conversations with fellow sufferers) and have lived in China for years. Now I spend half my time in Hong Kong and the other in mainland China and the contrast is striking. In Hong Kong, if you stall for 30 seconds to find the right change at a 7-Eleven, you will hear tuts and sighs from the people behind you. If the subway train is a minute late, there will be profuse apologies announced. And bars and restaurants are constantly on your case to order more or get out. Cross the border into the mainland and things slow down a lot. It's normal to spend hours over a meal in a restaurant and you always have to ask (often several times) for the bill (although I find standing up and walking towards the door tends to do the trick if you are in a hurry to get it). The thing is, the longer I spend in Hong Kong, the shorter my patience gets. It's never fast enough. Luckily, I get the antidote by going back to China every week. I think most people will adapt to the pace of their environment eventually.

    But comparing Hong Kong to the US might be difficult because the former is a city and the latter is a vast and diverse country. I'd imagine New Yorkers are every bit as fast paced as Hong Kongers. But people in Louisiana, say, are probably more laid back.

  • camorose

    That is so crazy to me! It's the exact opposite of France–I don't know if I'd be able to handle Hong Kong, but it would definitely be interesting to check it out!
    I do agree with your assessment of the cities. I think that New York is probably just as fast-paced, but in most of middle America, you're unlikely to find the same haste.

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/wenzday01/ Wendy

    You're totally right that it's faster-paced in the cities, but I still think busy US metropolises are still nothing compared to Hong Kong. You're so lucky to be living half-time in Hong Kong! I'm totally jealous!

  • http://delana-dujour.blogspot.com Delana

    I just found your blog through Taste of Garlic. Yeah, Keith! Oh yes, the lines. It's a mystery to me…but more of a mystery that nobody seems to get their undies in a bundle. I still am the only one rolling my eyes and sighing loudly. But I love the leisurely restaurant experience. I was back in the states at Christmas and went to a high-end steak restaurant (because I can't seem to get a good steak here!) in Minneapolis. The waiter, after telling us his name, and probably the details of his last date and his grandmother's birthday party, brought us a steak the size of my head and deposited the check with the dessert. I was flabbergasted by the whole affair…and afterwards realized how much I've assimilated here in France. Except for that line thing! Great blog.

  • camorose

    Thanks for reading! I'm glad you enjoyed this post. Even though I said I would try, I still can't stop rolling my eyes when stuck in a ridiculous line–especially when one register is open and a bunch of employees are just standing around! (Happened yesterday in a bookstore. Crazy.)
    I definitely think it's going to be a rough adjustment eating out in the States when I return–it's so nice to be able to eat a leisurely dinner here and not feel guilty about taking up a table!

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  • Apolline

    This article is true and hilarious! I’m definitely French, but waiting lines kill me. I don’t mind waiting at the farmers market or bakery, because if I’m there, it’s because I have time ahead of me and no reason to rush. But, waiting at the post office drives me crazy, I’m like a 4 years old… I have ants in my pants!
    Also,  I got so used to the fast American way of life that I’m not sure if I’ll be so patient or even pacifist next time I’ll stand in a slow French line.

  • camorose

    Haha I went to a French post office today and waited in a ridiculous line…was so hard to deal with!

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