X-Cultural Exchange: Le Starbuck

I remember when I was living in France as a teaching assistant 9 years ago and the first Starbucks arrived in Paris. I didn’t like the idea one bit with the fear that the introduction of the take-away cup would ruin the Parisian cultural that has locals holding down a table at a café while catching up on the news or people watching – either way, it was a reason to slow down and enjoy the moment. There are now 63 Starbucks around France, and despite always buzzing – even when they have two locations on the same street – this NYT article claims that the company has never turned a profit here. But I have to ask if Le Starbuck is not making it in France, then how in the world are any of these cafes making it? Regardless, I’ve grown to not despise the mega brand, and even welcome their chai tea latte [very awkward to say with a French accent] from time to time as a taste of home. (David Lebovitz has his own thoughts on why he doesn’t hate Starbucks in France).

But the real reason behind this post is about a subtle cultural difference. I was meeting with a client – at no other than Le Starbuck – and she had been behind an older woman who had ordered a coffee. The young worker asked for her name in typical Starbucks fashion when taking her order (to mark the cup of course). The woman was completely taken aback. This was Madame [insert beautiful French last name of choice here], not whatever her first name is [choose French first name of choice]. Of course this was a French-French cultural exchange, but it’s interesting to see how even in my time in France that many of the cultural codes have been broken down, and how giving your first name to a barista in the US is totally normal, but in France it can be a bit of a foreign concept. As I come across certain political stances that make my blood boil, I can’t help but think how at the base of so many issues (and hatred and anger) is a lack of cultural understanding and appreciation. Starbucks may look and feel the same in France, but it’s still a cultural experience on its own wherever you go. And if something as simple as a name on a coffee cup is embedded with cultural ideas, imagine what else in the world around you holds.

What other cultural differences has your inner anthropologist spotted around France or elsewhere?

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  • Yes, there is a cultural shock/distance/difference not only between unitedstatians or english and french, but also spaniards and italians and in general southern European countries.

    We take the customer-personalisation as a non-sense; they do not care too much if i am Robin or Jacques; but rather they care my money. On the other hand you might go to a bar in Spain or Italy and become instantanously semi-friend with a unknown waiter and talk to him almost without restrictive conventions. This would be harder to do in Bristol (UK) or in any fat town (1) from Las Vegas to Atlantic City.

    (1): No real intention with these names; just making literature; i could have said: any living city from Santa Bárbara to Boca Ratón

  • Hi Anne, very amusing anecdote, thank you for sharing! I really enjoy reading your posts on little French cultural quirks. I was born in Bulgaria and live in the U.S., and have had the opportunity to observe many such cultural shifts in the past twenty years as Bulgarian culture has become more and more “Westernized.” One such quirk is the disappearance of the formal address when you meet someone for the first time (the Bulgarian language has formal and informal “you’s,” just like in French). Now, I never know when I meet someone whether they are a member of the old guard who rigorously apply the formal greetings, or whether I would make a fool of myself by appearing too rigid and old-fashioned if I used the formal tone. It’s a changing world!

  • Robin, very true cultural mis-understandings can happen across any cultures. It becomes a bit of a game to figure out the codes.

    Radina, thanks for your lovely comment. The French quirks are endlessly entertaining! As for your situation, eek, definitely seems like you have your work cut out for you. I still get paranoid when to use tu/vous in France. And there’s even a verb you can use to ask if you can “tutoyer” someone!


  • It is a fascinating dilemma how global brands deal with operating abroad. McDonald’s is a similar to your example, rarely varying its branding, menu or service whatever the country. And yet, they announced this week their first vegetarian only restaurant in India… so even the mighty Golden arches has had to try and fit in.

  • Anne, you do not have to get paranoid whenever you decide which form you call ” le semblable, le frère” (1) you´re talking to. Just chose the form “vous/tu” depending on what he/she is. If you´re talking to a very modern boy/girl always say “vous” and always say “tu” to an old, wise and fair person. (2)

    (1): Remembering “l´ennui de Baudelaire”, hypocrite lecteur..

    (2): In case of doubt, always say “vous”. And remember the problem only exists if you´re talking to a single person, cause the plural of “tu” is “vous” in French; while in spanish, the plural of “tu”; “vosotros”; does not coincide with “usted”, “ustedes”.

  • Agreed McDonalds (known better as McDo here) is another prime example. They’re actually quite stylish. On the menu you can find a “Croque McDo” (remake of the typically French croque monsieur) and the McBaguette [sandwich].

    Both McDo + Starbucks are great for free bathrooms, and usually internet too :)


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