The Land of “OMG-So-Much-Awesomeness”

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Ottawa, October 2014

Ottawa, October 2014

“Thank you so much, and have an awesome day!”

No, I didn’t just perform sexual favours. I emailed my monthly invoice to one of my clients, and I received this enthusiastic reply. I’m asking for money; she thanks me for that.

I’m not even surprised anymore—welcome to the land of “OMG-so-much-awesomeness.”

If Chinese are overly polite, North Americans tend to be overly cheerful and easily excited. Sometime, they remind me of Mark when he spots the big “M” of a McDonald’s on the side of the road. He doesn’t even want to eat fries or Chicken McNuggets—he is just excited because he saw a McDonald’s, that’s all. And oh boy, he lets us know… “McDonald’s, McDonald’s, McDonald’s!” he will chant from the backseat for the next kilometre or so (or until he spots a church, whichever comes first).

I grew up as a grumpy and cynical French, so it felt very strange at first to be swaddled by so much eagerness and earnest niceness.

I will always remember taking my mum to Starbucks, here, in Ottawa. I ordered for both of us and we moved to the drinks counter. “Did you work with her, is she a friend?” my mum asked, pointing to the (probably caffeinated) barista who had taken our orders. “No, why?” I asked. “Well, she did ask you how you were doing,” my mum explained. “And she seemed… happy to see you. She called you ‘honey’!”

I shrugged. Yes, mum. It’s called “customer service” in North America. I had never seen the barista before, she had probably been working since 6 a.m. and taken hundreds of unnecessary complicated fancy drink orders, yet she had acted as if my black-coffee-no-room and latte request had been the highlight of her day, and as if we were best friends. For the duration of the thirty-second transaction, of course.

North Americans are natural actors. I can’t even imagine how good they are at customer service in LA.

Even the way to celebrate the end of the week sounds more upbeat in North America. French may acknowledge it whining “oh putain, heureusement qu’on est vendredi”, while here, the acronym “TGIF’ sums up the perspective of an happy and hopefully work-free weekend.

If you invite a French for dinner and prepare your best dish, you will be rewarded by a “c’est vraiment pas mauvais, hein. Non, franchement, c’est pas mal!” between two bites and two sips of wine. Now invite (and feed) a North American and you are suddenly best friends. At least for the evening…

It’s called positive thinking, and it’s actually a skill people work on and value in North America. Just take a look at the non-fiction section in any bookstore: the shelves are usually packed with self-help books, life improvements manuals and biographies of people who overcame amazing odds to be… yeah, you guessed it—awesome.

From a European perspective, it’s sometime hard to say whether people are sincere—much like it’s hard to say whether Mark really wants Mcdonald’s. It’s also hard to criticize anything or anyone because people take it very seriously and are easily offended. We are used to political correctness here. You can’t tell someone he screwed up—you’d rather acknowledge he didn’t achieve his full potential.

I still find this exaggerated cheerfulness somewhat cheesy, but because people are so sincere I learned to accept it.

Isn’t it awesome?

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About Author

French woman in English Canada. World citizen, new mom, traveler, translator, writer and photographer. Looking for comrades to start a new revolution.

10 Comments

  1. I really miss the service in Canada (my husband thinks they act too fake, whatever). After almost 10 years in France, I am still annoyed to be served without enthousiasm and disinterest. I gotta say, I get moody with all their negativity. I also think that the school system in France is like that too, no “tap on the shoulder” on the kids. In Canada, they rather encourage students than putting them down. You made a good point on your post, because negativity is ingrained in French culture.

    • I hear you. There has to be a happy medium somewhere! These excessive “pat on the back” attitudes annoy me, especially when the person didn’t do anything special to deserve praise. Yet French people could use some praise and encouragement…

  2. This exact issue has been an ongoing problem with my in-laws – they are Indian and neither of us realized for years that this was a cultural difference. When offered food/gifts/advice, I tend to smile and act enthusiastic, but then later if I am not eating a second helping or wearing my new sweater or following through on the advice, they consider me deceitful. I just can’t get used to actually expressing negativity. Guess I was made to work at Starbucks!

    • It takes time to realize there is a cultural difference, doesn’t it! Little things are obvious at first (Feng likes rice, I like pasta best) but for other attitudes, it takes time to fully understand the gap.

  3. Martin Penwald on

    I think a little bit of french negativity is needed here.

    I don’t care if perfect strangers are fine or not, so I don’t ask, and I don’t have any trouble if nobody asks me. And, sincerely, I highly doubt that the people asking that have any interest in the answer.
    Moreover, I am a little bit unconfortable with women who call me “Honey” or “Sweetie”, I have the feeling that it is rude and should be reserved for more intimate relationships, but I can get over it. But I don’t have trouble when someone call me “Bro” or “Man”.
    Imagine that a man you don’t know calls you « Ma puce » or « Poulette » to adress you, I think it is rude in the same way.

    I should try (but I am too shy for that), when someone is inquiring how I am, to answer something like : « Bad. I just got fired, my wife is cheating on me (with my boss), and I just learned I have an incurable disease. And you ? »
    My point is : if you don’t care about people, don’t ask. North American customer service is too obsequious for me. And I can fully understand that people with a low-wage job aren’t willing to smile all the day.

    • “Ma puce”, “ma poulette”… gosh, I haven’t heard that in so long! At the market, in France, I was called “la p’tite dame”, I actually turned around… I don’t feel like a “dame”!

      I don’t like being called “honey”, by both men and women. But I won’t get offended if it’s a cultural thing, i.e. the person is from the South in the US.

      I don’t like replying “great, thank you, how are YOU doing?” because like you said, it’s a bit pointless.

  4. Oh, yes. We are quite like that. Working retail through high school and a bit in uni, I had to act so fake all the time. But it’s what is expected. If you don’t smile at the customer, you’re going to hear it from your boss (if not the customer him or herself). It always catches me off guard whenever I’m back in the US, because I’m no longer used to anything but a simple “Bonjour/Bonsoir”.

    • … but they are so good, I sometime wonder whether they’re faking it! I don’t think I could be cheery enough for customer service. Not all day long!

  5. It’s not just retail. It’s the whole culture. You’re always expected to put on a façade for people to enjoy in every social setting, unless you’re on the Internet, at which point people just become histrionic due to the perceived façade that distance and relative anonymity grants.

    I once was called to the manager’s office because I failed to return her “good morning” with the expected over-the-top cheerful tone of voice (my voice was honestly just neutral that day, nothing that could be construed as rude). This is in an office environment where I had no contact with customers at all.

    I would think that introverts who are not used to this kind of culture will find it very hard to relate to people here. I was bred, born and raised here and I still don’t get it. It devalues true happiness, even true friendship. I find that kind of fake exuberance more distant and off-putting than someone who’s polite but reserved.

    I choose to reserve my smiles for when I am truly happy so that I can appreciate these moments more. What’s wrong with that?

    • There is nothing wrong with that and as a customer, I’d rather have a genuine smile rather than the “I smile because I have too” smile. I don’t mind when employees are not super cheery or super friendly as long as, you know, they do the job, i.e. ring my items or answer a question. And I know everybody has a bad day once in a while, I don’t hold grudges, unless service is consistently awful (and if this is the case, it’s almost always a management issue…).

      I respect introverts 🙂 Are you still working in customer service?

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