It was always fun exploring Paris with my American boss. He came to confer with my French boss and team members every few months and usually spent the weekend in Paris. Because he enjoyed museums and shopped for gifts for his family, we usually poked around in one or two arrondissements that I thought might interest him. Over lunch and coffee, he asked about living in Paris, French customs, the personalities of my co-workers, and more.
One Saturday, however, he asked to explore my neighborhood in Montmartre. Okay, how would I get him past the sex museum and the all-night clubs, yet still visit the cemetery and get a hamburger at Place de Clichy? Because we would visit some businesses I often frequented and because my boss occasional lapsed into insensitivity, I was uncomfortable. How would they interact?
All was well as we finished our lunches and he announced that he wanted to shop for gifts for his wife and daughter. We went into a woman’s boutique near the Metro stop Abbesses and, fortunately, the owner spoke English. He, ignoring the owner’s offer of service, began to go through the clothing racks. I attempted to explain that, in Paris, the owner or employee was there to help the shopper. When you explain what you were looking for, including size, she or he would gather up items to show you. To me, this personal touch is always a delightful aspect of shopping.
He either did not get it or doggedly persisted in the American tradition of picking over merchandise yourself and asking for help only if you were completely baffled. The French concept of communication and cooperation to create a pleasant shopping experience did not seem to penetrate. Both he and the shop owner became a bit vexed, she because he was so vague yet persistent, and he because he did not understand the sizes and was a bit uncomfortable in this feminine environment.
I, on the other hand, saw a gorgeous scarf which I asked to be shown. She graciously offered me a discount on it and I said yes. While she was wrapping the scarf, my boss asked her how profitable her business was going. All activity froze. This was a gaffe; a complete stranger, let alone a tourist, did not pry into a boutique owner’s financial life. This was an unspoken rule. He persisted, “This is such a small shop with a small assortment of clothing, do you make a profit?” Her voice turned to ice. “We make a living.” Not reading the cultural morass he was in, my boss continued, “Yes, but do you make a profit?”
That had apparently gone too far. A doorway curtain parted and Mr. Boutique Qwner appeared. He drew himself up to his full height, put on his best frosty tone, and announced, “We make a living for ourselves and our family.” Not to be outdone, my boss stood every bit of his 6’ tall and asked again as I pulled him out the door, “But do you make a profit? Is a small shop successful enough to make a profit?”
I never dared to venture into that boutique again. Over coffee, as I explained the concept of personal privacy as part of the French culture, he continued to ruminate, “I fail to see how they can make a profit in a shop that is only a few hundred square feet! There can never be enough merchandise.”
I did not even bother to explain that a lot of the apparel was kept in a back room, brought out for the right customer. He would not have understood.
Have you had similar experiences that you are willing to share? How might I have handled this so that it ended on a more positive note?