‘It’s All Getting A Bit French’


…So said a character in a British movie when everyone started getting aggressive. I thought of it because recently, a waiter who worked at a Vancouver restaurant was sacked for being ‘rude and disrespectful’, and has filed a complaint against his former employer, insisting his approach to the job was simply down to him being French.

Guillaume Rey said his dismissal represented a case of ‘discrimination against my culture’, which he said tended to be ‘more direct and expressive’. So, was he rude or just a bit too Gallic? What can we count as characteristic and what is offensive stereotype? What little I know about Vancouver stems from Helen in these comment pages; I imagine they’re very nice and sensitive to Euro-rudeness. As someone who used to live in France I cannot begin to explain the jaw-dropping conversations I’ve had with the French about sex and race.

I’ve heard it suggested that John Cleese’s German scene in ‘Fawlty Towers’ is racist. To reach this viewpoint you have to remove the scene from context, which is a fatally flawed approach. The show was made within living memory of the war, the provinces had had little experience of the Germans since then, and Cleese was ridiculing his main character, who considers himself sophisticated but is of course ludicrously provincial.

Countries do have clear cultural differences. I’ve always found Germans shockingly direct and have put this down to the way imperatives are used grammatically. The French have a much more limited vocabulary, which makes multiple meanings from simple sentences and soften language. The British have an astonishing command of conditionals, resulting in complex coding that often baffles Chinese business people.

Just as some of the novels featured in my ‘Book of Forgotten Authors’ are racially insensitive and actually racist it’s hard to separate time, location and social milieu which can help us understand

So, these hyper sensitised times how can we represent different cultures today? Perhaps by doing the most shocking thing; reversing stereotypes. Here’s my favourite reverse-stereotype joke;

A newly-arrived Irishman goes for a job on a building site. The foreman says he can have the job if he answers one question.

‘Do you know the difference between a joist and a girder.’

The Irishman says of course. ‘Joyce wrote Ulysses and Goethe wrote Faust.’


13 comments on “‘It’s All Getting A Bit French’”

  1. Ken Mann says:

    I would note that “within living memory of the war” would mean plenty of people in the provinces who had been to Germany for one reason or another. One of my late uncles was a POW in Germany and had no problem with German people whatever. He would chat with the German barmaid at his local pub out of interest in what could be translated easily between the languages and what could not. NB as an “other ranks” POW his experience would not have been reflected in any film, which would tend to concentrate on camps holding officers. Class is ever present in our history.

  2. David Ronaldson says:

    Cleese and Booth also gave Fawlty the excuse that he was concussed at the time of his ranting.

  3. Peter Tromans says:

    People sometimes fail to differentiate between art and reality. If a real hotel owner does something intentionally, it is not unreasonable to feel an offence. If the same act is done in play or a book by a character of known peculiarity when he’s suffering from concussion, it’s FICTION!

    Racism and other prejudices are horrible, but murder is generally even more horrible. Thus, if we ban fictitious racism, we should also ban all the adventures of Bryant and May and every other book, film or TV show in which anyone dies!

  4. Peter Tromans says:

    It’s best to be restrained in judging nationalities. The ones we meet are rarely representative. They are the ones who travel or share our interests or have migrated for some reason. My own observation (or prejudice) is that immigrants are most often the best or the worst elements of their nation and less often the average. Many years ago at university, I said to a friend of mine who is married to a lovely Australian lady, “Australians are very nice people.” He replied, “Peter, how many Australians do you know, who aren’t teaching or studying fluid mechanics?” So not a typical cross-section, certainly no ball tamperers.

    Some years later, I was eating with another Australian (an engineer, but not in fluid mechanics) in an ‘English pub’ in Texas. He said that he felt that, when outside Aus, he was an honoured to be a guest in whatever country he visited and should behave appropriately, be restrained with his opinions and especially respect the locals. It’s good advice and good if the locals reciprocate accordingly.

  5. Peter Dixon says:

    “Just as some of the novels featured in my ‘Book of Forgotten Authors’ are racially insensitive and actually racist it’s hard to separate time, location and social milieu which can help us understand”

    I think there has to be a difference between aggressive and/or fully intentional racism and historical attitudes which were part of the time. The culture of the 1940’s until the 1970’s was incredibly racist in the provinces by today’s attitudes, but was seen as normal at the time. Unless you lived in a town with a seaport you hardly ever saw anyone who was any colour but white. A look at children’s comics of the time show an astonishing set of stereotypes – if you want to be shocked you could look up the early editions of a young children’s comic called ‘Sparky’, which was extremely popular. However I don’t think that everyone who read Sparky, or The Famous Five (look out for Gypsies), or Sexton Blake became a racist. I remember the content of such titles as Hotspur, Rover, Valiant, Lion, were full of tales of the evil Teutons, wily Orientals, untrustworthy eastern Europeans and the rest. Just look at the titles for god’s sake.

    The past, as the saying goes, is a different country and we should be careful about how we interpret it and thankful that we have an enlightened perspective on it. We shouldn’t try to deny it, hide it or dismiss it. We certainly should’ emulate it.

  6. Peter Dixon says:

    Bugger! That should say ‘shouldn’t emulate it’.

    Certainly should check text before pressing ‘save’.


  7. Helen Martin says:

    Chris has the story accurately, at least so far as the press version is concerned. I was just reading the details this morning. The waiter was praised earlier for the way he interacted with customers and he was often the shift lead. (I’m assuming that is like a foreman.) In later assessments there were complaints from his co-workers that he was aggressive, loud, and accusatory. The tv last night (which I didn’t see) left my husband with the impression the man had been rude to customers, not acceptable at Milestones.
    So much for fact-like info. Impressions: the staff person who was “nearly in tears” may or may not have had a case, may or may not have been young, naive, and/or sensitive to criticism, but a serious restaurant is a place of some pressure and it would be quite common, I imagine, for people to be snapped at. Should the snapping be a firing offense?
    A cultural defense is a weak one in my view. We have people from all over the world running restaurants here and many go out of their way to present as samples of their home cultures. Our neighbourhood has at least two really Greek restaurants, Thai, East Indian (can we still say that), Korean, Japanese, and now a little French crepes place. English is obviously a second language in many, including Adam’s Crepes, and the kitchens run in the origiinal languages. Front of house in all of them work in Canadian politeness norms, but I don’t know what happens behind the doors. The point is that the “other” culture is pointed out as present right from the get go. Milestones is a Canadian culture restaurant and French “volatility” or whatever he wants to call it doesn’t fit. The sort of behaviour that was described, shouting, accusing, and so on, just makes the workplace unpleasant. If he can’t conform to Canadian behaviour norms, and I didn’t think we were all that polite, then he should find a French cultured restaurant to work in. He wouldn’t be welcome at Adam’s place, though, I don’t think. “I’m just being French” is a very weak argument because it suggests that French people in general are loud, aggressive, and accusatory. It’s different being a customer than being a co-worker, too. You fit into the norms when you’re working whatever you may be at other times.
    That’s my take and the fact that it was in our papers and on tv indicates the community feeling. If the firing is upheld I’ll bet he’ll claim that Vancouver is “anti French”, which is funny given our French community – oh, but that is Quebecois, so doesn’t count I suppose.

  8. Denise Treadwell says:

    What does the diversity of restaurants matter, London certainly had alot, All cities have diverse restaurants. I have always treated everyone the same. Funnily , I have always enjoyed Basiil Fawlty, he is a hotel owner from hell, obnoxious, and certainly insensitive. One you would hope you never see. Fawlty Towers one we all loved!

  9. Eliz Amber says:

    There are definite differences in what is considered acceptable in various cultures – I was an exchange student to France, and I can attest to their willingness to discuss sex and race with anyone. Americans tend to have the perception that the British are ‘cold’, but that’s a reflection of our mandatory hyper-extroversion. By the same token, some cultures make WASP Americans nervous because they are more physically intimate (they stand closer in conversation and hug and kiss in greeting). Extroversion, yes, but don’t touch me 🙂

    And you’re spot on about language. My mother got quite annoyed with a shopkeeper who continually interrupted us to remind us to say ‘please’. Of course, we’d been taught to say ‘please’, but in the US, it usually comes at the end of a request: ‘Could I have a Turkish Delight, please?’ rather than ‘Could I please have a Turkish Delight?’

  10. Crprod says:

    My father-in-law refused to go to Germany in the seventies to visit his son and daughter who were stationed there in the US army. He claimed that the Germans didn’t like him when he was there three decades earlier as a combat medic. However, his children recognized that he just was afraid to fly, particularly over the Atlantic.

  11. Ian Luck says:

    I remember being told, by my late father, before I started secondary school, about some of the other children there. There were, you see, children there who were not white skinned. He said to me that if I ever said or did, anything to someone just because they were different to me, then I’d be in a lot of trouble. A lot of trouble. My primary school had no non white pupils at all. The Headmaster, whilst a good man in most respects, was, shall we say, a bit ‘Old fashioned’ in others. In my road, we had some Indians, some Africans, and some Italians. All had children, but only the Italian kids came to my school. When you are ten or eleven, you don’t really think that this is slightly sinister, do you? My secondary school had children from all over, all colours and creeds, and I never, in all the time I was there, had any problems with any of them. My dad, who simply liked people, said that it was all right to dislike someone if they were an unpleasant person, but to hate someone because they were different in some way, just wasn’t acceptable. Ever. This was back in 1974, by the way. I still think of his words today.

  12. David Ronaldson says:

    I’m friends with the brothers of the famous journalist Gary Younge ( he was younger so I didn’t know him so well). You may have seen Gary a few months ago confronting White Supremacists in the US (Gary and family are of Afro-Caribbean origin). I was pleased to read that Gary experienced almost no racial abuse during his schooldays in our home town of Stevenage in the late 70s/early 80s, and the main perpetrator was easily dealt with by his elder siblings…

  13. Helen Martin says:

    And yet the whole point of the incident was culture, not race. Race is easy, as Ian Luck points out. You don’t make a difference, ever. Culture is different. I don’t think I’d want to flaunt a culture that yells and is aggressive. Haven’t heard how the incident finally ended.

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