Je m’en fous: French Customer Service

A couple months ago my friend Yann-yves O’Hayon-Crosby had shared a tale of French customer service on Facebook that made me chuckle. I said to myself, this needs to be a post. Besides being a talented filmmaker/photographer/videographer Yann-yves also happens to be Franco-American, so it only seemed appropriate that he could provide a more balanced and insider perspective on the topic. Special thanks too to Ana Clara Soares for the accompanying graphic – a “bonus” French lesson! Je m’en fous = I don’t care! But without further ado, French customer service, explained by Yvan-yves.

Today is my birthday [ed. note: today is no longer his birthday], and to my annoyance as a Dartybox customer (my ISP) I woke up without Internet. Yesterday I ran the Paris Half Marathon and was looking forward to today’s recovery while answering my birthday wishes, sending some emails and watching a Scorsese/DeNiro Marathon. I called Darty – and Cedric, the customer service person, was very nice; when I mentioned that it was my birthday he brightened up even more. I got my Internet back in an hour, turns out it was a technical problem in the neighborhood. It seems French customer service was surprisingly generous to me on my birthday.

Unfortunately, this is more of an exception than a rule; good customer service in this lovely country is something to be desired.

I recently went to the Sorbonne on a second attempt to get my sister’s diploma. She’s currently studying in Beijing and because of the Sorbonne’s renowned clarity and organizational skills, she couldn’t pick it up until a few months after she left. My first attempt was in August, when the website said that it was open. Lo and behold, when I got there it was closed. This isn’t the first time the Sorbonne has played me. I once had to get my sister’s [test] results and ended up on a wild goose chase, going from building to building, from arrondissement to arrondissement (3 in total) to finally get the desired sheet of paper. On the bright side, I got a few nice brother points.

One thing I have come face to face with many times in France, whether it was from dealing with administration or customer service, has been what I call the “passing of the flame.” You approach someone who seems appropriate to help you out, and that person – instead of being charming and welcoming – is annoyed or blasé. You tell them your problem, and as you explain it, it feels like the person is being given an immeasurable burden. This is usually accompanied by a strong, distinctly French sigh. In some cases they find the solution, as you can only hope that this uncomfortable encounter finishes quickly for both parties. After all, neither of you want to be there at that moment. In the case where they don’t find the solution, or that they can’t/ don’t want to take care of the problem – but another department/person can – they brighten up because you, the burden, will soon disappear. Suddenly they act as if the sun has come up for the first time, and their spirit rises. The person is ‘vraiment désolé’ [very sorry], with a twinkle of sincerity somewhere in there. Or maybe not.


The person is unhelpful/doesn’t treat you right. You think to yourself, did I do something wrong? But no! I was polite.

 You start thinking that this is the way it is in France, that the word “service” in “customer service” is the idea that they are rendering enough of a favor by just dealing with you and not solving your problem. When the person realizes that they can’t help you anymore, their mood suddenly changes and they become understanding and generally much nicer because it is no longer their problem. 

Then every once in a while you get great service in France. It’s rare, and deserves to be cherished – and even blogged about. You tell friends, you feel good, and it makes your day. Until someone reminds you that that’s how it is in the States or other places in the world, that that’s how it should be. Then you get frustrated again.


  • When you encounter one of these situations, I suggest you to go in expecting the worst but with a positive attitude. Always be calm and smiling (at least in the beginning).
  • If the person clearly hates their job, or would clearly rather be somewhere else, small talk works well. “It’s been rainy, the weather sucks” – the person will probably agree with you and open up just a bit. One thing I’ve noticed in Paris is that the best way to approach a total stranger, or for people to communicate with a total stranger, is if there is a third party that can be blamed for a shared situation. In 2007, when the great Parisian metro strikes took place, I remember many conversations that started because we were all in the same boat, and we all had to deal with the subway union’s temperament. A form of ephemeral solidarity formed. “The weather sucks,” blame the weather for all the miseries in the world; the metro has been late? Then “screw the metro.” I think it’s no wonder how the slogan ‘I love rien, je suis Parisian’ [I love nothing, I am Parisian] organically became a bumper sticker on the capital’s Vespas. Not loving anything isn’t much to work with, but sharing frustrations can be.
  • When I had to renew my apartment lease, I met with the man who takes care of the rentals. I walked into his dark, badly lit office with grey walls. I had a smile on my face – because this was bureaucracy, I wanted to get in and out, but leave a good impression all at the same time. He was on the phone as I walked in, he gestured me to take a seat. I sat down and took the documents out. He got off the phone and I introduced myself. He remembered who I was and looked annoyed: I was another piece of paperwork for him. He started going through the pile of papers, looking for the places to sign. Meanwhile, I looked around the office… On the walls were pictures of old brownstones from New York, each picture brought out one of the characteristics of these buildings. They were nice pictures, lit at dusk with the golden light, bringing the red out of the bricks. I said that I liked the pictures, and asked if I they were his. He lifted his eyes and was obviously caught off guard, then he lit up like a light bulb. He put the papers down, sat back and started to talk to me about New York in great admiration. The pictures weren’t his, but they clearly represented his fascination for the city’s architecture. The French love New York, and I could see it in him. This short conversation had changed his day, and I realized that I had touched upon something he had great appreciation for. I signed the papers and left the room with another atmosphere.

Some say the French don’t like to work, that they don’t like doing their jobs. The truth of the matter is, in my opinion, that most of the time they just would rather be somewhere else. Frankly, who can blame them?

Text by Yann-yves O’Hayon-Crosby (@yocsb4 on Twitter). Graphic by Ana Clara Soares (@akaTheBananas on Twitter).  Check out a sneak peek of Ceci N’est Pas de L’Eau, a documentary about cachaça that the two have been working on!

p.s. Don’t miss more insights into living in France + French Lessons!

French Bureaucracy, Explained: Le Récepissé

There are certain situations in France that you have to live through to believe. While I can’t trump my friend’s recent trip to the Prefecture where she went in because after 2+ months she hadn’t heard any updates – only to find out that the person dealing with her account had died, and the boss had been on vacation for the past month and still didn’t know – my adventure this morning is mainly mind blowing for its lack of drama. There’s really nothing like it in America. And the really painful part is that this step can be completely avoided. What can I say? I’m striving to have every possible experience in Paris!

The Backstory
To legally live in France as a foreigner you have a visa in your passport and every year you get a new carte de séjour that validates it. There are different kinds depending if your a student, worker, etc, and jumping between them is another challenge. Alas, after changing my status a year ago, for me it was pretty simple – I just needed to make an appointment to renew my card. Alas, my actually planning ahead to make my appointment 4 months in advance was not adequate. I knew you couldn’t book too far in advance, and actually intentionally held off making my appointment, only to find our that the soonest appointments were a months after my card expired. Hence I needed to go to get a récepissé to temporarily hold me over until my official scheduled visit.

This Morning
I live in the 11th arrondissement, but for getting my récepissé I needed to head to the 14th arrondissement, or one of the least direct places from where I live. The irony of course is that it’s good that I spent an hour on hold trying to find out what to do + where to go when I couldn’t get a proper appointment, because the information on the website would have sent me to the wrong place. Yes, this is typical behavior.

Knowing they opened at 9am, I arrived at 8:15am. There was already a crowd – not a line yet – but figured it could have been worse. Thankfully an older gentlemen caught my attention to have me sign up on the very unofficial notebook piece of paper. I was #62.

I had my copy of Bossypants out, and ended up striking up a conversation with a Canadian because of it. He had arrived at 6am, put his name on a list and then had a coffee until closer to the time. He was already #30-something. Yes, seriously. (Stay tuned, there’s more later).

About a half hour before opening, there was a bit of commotion near the entrance. We were all there for paperwork – either renewals or first time cards. Every day it’s a new group of people who line up, yet it became a fascinating study on leadership. A couple guys grabbed the list and took charge. 30 minutes later we were all in line. Thankfully we had sun for the first time in days, so I got a bit of Vitamin D in my life, despite later losing feeling in my feet. (Above you can see the view from my spot, and the unofficial list to keep order. The guy with the list is just one of us. No authority is around.).

Spoiler Alert
From the point in this image it took me 4 hours and 30 minutes to get my récepissé – a transaction that was highly uneventful and took literally 5 minutes. Can you say “design flaw”?

Read The Rest

French Bureaucracy, Explained {Abridged Version}

Friday’s post explaining French bureaucracy was intense – and long (and your comments were awesome). So today I’m offering you the Cliff Notes version. This video of La Maison Qui Rend Fou (literally, the house/place that makes you crazy) conveniently came to my attention the night I was writing the post thanks to Erin who had experienced her own bureaucratic struggles that day. Astérix is a French classic (I’ve even been to Parc Astérix just outside of Paris, a French version of Disney if you will), and the French get just as much a chuckle out of this as expats. Don’t worry, if you don’t speak French, you’ll still get it! Trust me.

Isn’t this plan from the clip so symbolic of French bureaucracy? (It reminds me of Je Parle Américain’s flow charts of his visa process) … Just think, you could map French bureaucracy and your own experiences in my Skillshare map making class! No need to be a designer + all ages welcome.

// Thanks, Erin! //

French Bureaucracy, Explained

One of the things about having a social media presence and clearly being an expat in France is that people can easily find me. Hence I get a lot of questions and emails that go something like: Dear Anne, I want to move to France. I’ve sent dozen of email responses which I tend to never hear back from (I fear it’s because what I say isn’t always what people want to hear). After numerous blog posts on the topic as well, I thought it was time to pull together a mega post with all my ideas, insights, and resources on the topic. Life in France is everything – amazing, humorous, inspiring, frustrating, invigorating, amusing, and … nonsensical. So here is my attempt to make sense of it for you.

First things first: think about if you were France. You have this large, beautiful house which is rich in history. It is also is where your job and welfare takes place. Everyone sees pictures and stories from vacations and “knows” how awesome it is and comes knocking at your door wanting to enter your house. Ok, so there’s an application process, and you need to pay the people who manage it. You also want job security, so you make sure there is plenty of paperwork to keep them busy. Internet age? That will be another 10 years until the service provider can have this house fully wired.

But who do you actually let into your home for more than just a visit? That awesome but poor struggling artist type who is trying to figure out life and can’t really pay rent or that boring rich guy whose going to pay taxes and contribute to the economy. This is by no means to say that this is always the case, but it does start to shed some light onto why it can be so convoluted and frustrating to live here no matter who you are. (There is a Competences et Talents 3-year visa aimed directly at creative types – although I have yet to meet someone who is on said visa). Status is important (more soon), but social influence in terms of internet clout doesn’t count, as it did not exist in the time of Louis the XIV. French society doesn’t want promises, it wants to see something measurable and tangible of how you are going to contribute to this fine house (ahem, show me the €€€). Ultimately, this house is a house rooted in tradition.

Systems are in place and change comes slowly. France had the minitel long before the internet, and hence was slow to adopt. Digital pictures at the Préfecture? Pmph, that’d be too simple and would take a job away from the Photomaton repairman, and we can’t fire him because labor laws are very strict and extremely expensive when letting someone go. Besides, c’est comme ça, it’s always been la programme to take ugly, non-smiling pictures with hair out of your face and glasses off in a way that really looks nothing like you, and get a set in bulk for all your official visits (or to get a 3-monthly pool pass). It’s just another step in the scavenger hunt to prove that you are suited for life in France. It’s like a real life pop quiz in attempt to weed out the weakest links.

Even people + machines have to go through certain hoops to get to the level of being honored by bureaucratic measures. It is by no means a “less is more” approach to design. Birth certificates must be translated by certified translators who have jumped through a lot of hoops and paid a chunk of money to earn their status. Often theses birth certificate translations run 50€ and are composed of words learned in French 101. Similarly not every photo booth or shop can give you regulation photos. You must follow instructions to the T. This is your mission should you choose to accept it.

So now that I’ve painted a glorious picture of what the House of France looks like, let me remind you that my home, and the homes of most of my friends look more like this.

Given that we are talking about Houses, with a cameo by a king, it only appropriate that we bring status into play. Conveniently the French word has a similar ring: statut. Here, it is not just us étrangers (foreigners, with a literal translation of stranger) that have a statut, but the French do too. In fact, just last month a French illustrator friend “launched” a second status for herself so she could now sell stuffed dolls. Despite having a highly illustrative quality that looks much like her work on paper, there are even limitations for truebloods as well. Her existing status as an artiste (under La Maison des Artistes – yes, the house of artists!) specifically defines what forms her art can be created in. (And no, I cannot make this stuff up). So she created a new société under the Auto-Entrepreneur status to test out this business. Yes, there is a lower tax rate, but any savings is lost in the time you could have been used creating. She will then lance a proper French business should this endeavor succeed, where once again she will lose time in bureaucratic measures making sense of her new status and getting all her ducks in a row rather than generating income to contribute to society economically.

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New Year, New Look

I started this site on Bastille Day 2007 as a personal project to get my creativity going in a way it wasn’t being fulfilled by my day job. That was 5.5+ years and 1,241 posts later, and a lot has changed since then. Of key importance is that I actually live in Paris now.

There are certain things that this city has taught me, but the key lesson today is style and refinement. The style of Frenchwomen doesn’t come from having a million clothes and accessories. (Their closets only overflow because apartments are so small). Instead it’s about having a few key pieces that work and make you feel great. From first glimpse my blog probably doesn’t look that different, but as with this stylish Frenchwoman walking down the street (she is a far more together version of me on my about page in the same color) it’s just about putting together the pieces in a more sophisticated way. As someone who wears many hats, I feel like I’ve finally found a way to tie all the pieces together (I’ve even added FAQ and consulting pages, as well as starting to offer workshops). I’ll warn you now, that like any life lessons growing up, the move to my new WordPress platform was not without its hiccups. Many images in the archives have yet to be re-sized, tags added, or links may not work – a process that will be manual in my case, even in a digital age. But you all are a resourceful bunch, and the search button works like a charm! Also, for your pro tip, deleting .html from the end of an old post may just get you where you need to be (growing pains, I tell you).

As today marks the start of les soldes in France, I leave you to consider those little additions or tweaks you can add to your life to help you tell your story and add a simple touch of fabulousness to the everyday. Speaking of today, les soldes + lèche vitrine are key words you should know from past “French Lessons.” While the headlines about France these days aren’t the greatest, there is still much we have to learn from each other.

Happy Exploring!

// image from @pretavoyager on Instagram! Follow me there for more Paris fun!  //

P.S. I did this blog migration myself, so my apologies if you need to sign up for the RSS again. High five to all the developers and coders of the world. After this experience I have even more respect for what you do!

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