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Indifference from French shop assistants is not the same as rudeness

Journalist Samantha David explains their polite apathy and does not want it to change

‘I would be standing in the post office, the dry cleaners, or the supermarket wondering how I had annoyed them’ Pic: BearFotos / Shutterstock

You know that French thing where a shop assistant doesn’t really meet your eye? 

They say bonjour and ask if they can help you, but without the slightest glimmer of interest.

Their mouth creaks into the semblance of a slight smile, but they carry on folding vests. 

It is clear they don’t really care whether or not you purchase new socks.

‘They are not my friend’

I used to find it quite unnerving. 

I would be standing in the post office, the dry cleaners, or the supermarket wondering how I had annoyed them.

Okay, not everyone in the US or UK is a bundle of joy but it really isn’t uncommon for assistants and receptionists there to give you a big fake smile and ask how your day is going.

In comparison, the French approach can seem downright rude.

I have got used to it now, though. 

I no longer expect the cashier in Super U to make conversation or even recognise me as a regular customer.

They are not my neighbour, they are not my friend. 

They are there to scan my purchases, that’s all. 

Why would they waste time and energy talking to me about the weather?

‘I do not have to smile at strangers’

They are not being rude. Quite the opposite: the fact that they have said Bonjour, madame makes it clear they are being polite.

They are just doing their job, getting through their day, and probably thinking about what to have for dinner.

They will still ask about extra bags, the tokens, the loyalty card, and the method of payment. 

They will still say Au revoir at the end. They will just be politely indifferent.

These days I find it quite relaxing, in fact. I enjoy not having to charm a total stranger or pretend to be interested in football.

I do not have to bother remembering faces or smiling at strangers. 

I can exchange minimal politeness with the assistant and pack my shopping in silence while mentally scanning lists and reminding myself not to forget petrol on the way home.

Earlier this year, however, there seemed to be a bit of kickback.

No to chatty checkouts

Supermarkets including Carrefour announced they were opening so-called blabla caisses or caisses lentes, where elderly people could chitchat at the checkout. (After a lifetime of polite indifference, do they really want to?)

Read more: French supermarket tills where chit-chat is welcome grow in popularity

Other reports were quick to say it was not just for seniors but for anyone who is not in a hurry and likes to chat.

The idea comes from Holland, we are told, where it has been a success.

I have to confess that my heart sank at the news. I have got used to being politely dismissed. 

I do not want to be recognised, greeted or asked how my day is going. Is that bad?

Fortunately, it seems I could be saved by the cost-of-living crisis. 

With price wars looming, are supermarkets really going to shell out for chatterboxes at the checkouts?

I doubt they will want to pay for hot air. Personally, I hope not. 

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