Sunday, May 17, 2009

American Relativism, French Formalism

A recent book by a French sociologist begins with contrasting anecdotes. The first is a report by a Frenchman visiting the U.S. “Those people eat like animals” is his judgment. Why? Just look at them lined up at the cafeteria counters like pigs at the trough. Some of them are even wearing hats. They eat what they want, down it quickly, then leave. Others, horror of horrors, eat while sitting at their desks.

The second anecdote involves an American visiting France. “Those people eat like animals” is his judgment. Why? They have fixed feeding hours. It’s like they have to wait for their keepers to bring out the food. Everything is highly regimented, not only when to eat, but the order of courses, the limited options, even what wine goes with what food.

Two visitors, two anecdotes, two stereotypes? Well, stereotypes exist and the two anecdotes do touch on different dominating patterns in each country. Americans lean heavily in the direction of relativism. There are no general rules to be followed. “It’s up to the individual” along with “the customer is always right” are widespread slogans. For the French, formalism is more dominant. Certain forms of behavior just are better than others. Good and bad are decidedly not “up to the individual.” These depend on certain patterns rooted in nature and approved by tradition.

Over the years we have faced situations in which we, the customers, were definitely not always right. One involved a Parisian restaurant specializing in the north African specialty couscous. The waiter took our order, couscous with chicken. For beverage, it being a hot summer day, I asked him for beer. Well, I might as well have insulted his mother. He immediately went into a harangue about how the beer/couscous combination was unthinkable. O.k., having once heard about the white-wine-with-chicken rule, I changed my order. Once again an unbelieving, appalled waiter. Non, non, non, pas de vin blanc avec le couscous! Fortunately for me, regrouping was simplified by the situation being a sort of multiple choice exercise. I settled on the only remaining option: red wine. Ah, good selection, said the waiter.

About a decade later, we were living in Lyon and friends came to see us. They had a taste for Italian food. We ordered, and, as is our American habit, asked for some parmesan cheese. Pause. Steely look in the eyes. Unlike the Parisian waiter, this one was evidently having an internal struggle about whether to let loose or not. Finally, he could not help himself. Did we not know how much effort the chef put into getting just the right blend of flavors? Were we so insensitive as to insult the chef by smothering the tastes he had worked so hard to prepare?

Another occasion occurred in a wine store. This was not a fancy place. It was, in fact, a chain. The location was Strasbourg. The season was Christmas. Strasbourg has a lovely and famous Christmas market set up all around the Cathedral. Many stalls sell mulled wine. Since our hotel was equipped with a kitchenette, we decided to make some vin chaud ourselves. To the store clerk’s question about how he could help, I said we were looking for a bottle that would serve as the base for mulled wine. The result was almost another “you have just insulted my mother” moment. “Monsieur, we do not sell such a product here.” Every bottle in his store was meant to be savored for itself. Wine to be adulterated with sugar and spices had no place in an enterprise like his. He could have thought to himself “these are some dumb customers, but, what the heck, they want to spend some money so I will gladly take it.” Instead, formalism ruled. Pride in produce easily outweighed his desire to make another sale.

The most recent of these anecdotes is almost a decade old. Things are changing. Old-style formalism is more and more rare. One sign: ketchup is now widely available as a condiment to be slathered over food. Another sign: at a restaurant several months ago we were seated next to someone who runs a school preparing individuals for work in the hotel and restaurant trade. He told us that his students are imbued with the slogan Le client est roi, “the customer is king,” or, as American relativism would have it, “the customer is always right.”

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