Travelers Be Aware: Cultural Differences Alter the Customer Service Experience

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I read an article about the Tourism Board of France working to make customer service in Paris better in the International Herald Tribune by Liz Alderman earlier this week. In my last two trips to France this year, I did encounter what you could call “bad service” in Paris, and one of the (two) experiences was in no less than when we wanted to have macarons and afternoon coffee at the iconic Ladurée on Champs-Élysées.

At the same time, I was impressed by the customer service at the five star boutique hotels in Paris. I stayed at the Hôtel Montalembert and Hotel Westminster and both offered the five star customer service without being stuffy or me feeling overwhelmed by overflowing kindness of eagerness to do things for me. But as an European, my views on what is good or bad customer service can be very different than for example many Americans’.

See – I am not just European, I am an independent Scandinavian woman, and when any man asks me “can I carry your luggage” I immediately feel an urge to say “why? You think I can’t handle it?” and it has taken me years of practice and ten years of living in the USA to gracefully say “thank you very much, that would be great”.

At the same time it’s the Scandinavian in me that doesn’t want to leave a big tip to the waitress at the restaurants, it’s just not common in my culture. Now – hear me before you judge me here – the waitresses in Finland, where I come from, make around 17 dollars per hour (according to the labor union recommendations), and they also get paid extra if they work during evening hours (after 6), weekends, nights, Holidays or Sundays and they have close to 5 (paid) weeks of vacation annually, just like everyone else. That’s a big difference what waitresses make in the USA, with no extra pay and no paid vacations. The article at Bloomberg states that the state minimum for waitresses in the state of New Mexico is $2.13 and in California $6.75. The tips are vital for their livelihood.


I think it’s important that both the tourism industry and the travelers alike understand that there are cultural differences between the provider of the service and the customer. It is bad customer service not to even try to understand the cultural backgrounds of your customers and it is equally rude to visit different countries/cultures without knowing anything about them. Ignorance makes a terrible travel companion, and on the end it does the most harm to your own travel experience.

I can still vividly remember my first restaurant visit in the US in 1998. I had been dating with my now husband only for a few months and we were sitting in a steak house and I was completely overwhelmed by waitress and her bubbly talk and the amount of daily choices, the salad dressing options, and what did the baked potato come with and I did not understand why on the earth the waitress had been visiting our table several times before we even got our food (was she hitting on my man?). And even after I got my dish, she managed to come back and ask “how is everything tasting”, before I had even tasted anything! I was completely appalled by her bad customer service, she was not leaving us alone! I was fondly remembering the Italian restaurant we had been eating at in Germany just a few months before, where we had had our romantic discussions, held hands and just glazed each others in the eyes. The waitress was nowhere found and I had no idea how she looked like, or what her name was. To me it had been the perfect night, but my (American) husband reminded me, to him that had been bad customer service.

I realized the differences between the cultural expectations what good customer service is, and I realized I was being a Snobby European in an American restaurant.

I am not opposing the French Tourism Board teaching Parisians a thing or two about friendly service to the millions of the tourists heading to the city of lights each year, but I am also suggesting you not to be the Ugly American or the Snobby European, when you visit places. There is no easier way to ruin your own vacation that complaining about the bad customer service. Especially, when the person serving you might think she is just doing her job the way people expect her to, in her own country.

Oh, and don’t forget to find out about the tipping policy of each place you visit.

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About Katja Presnal

Katja Presnal is an international lifestyle expert, originally from Finland. Katja shows how to live globally inspired life to the fullest. She has been featured in NY Times, Glamour, Redbook, Fodor's, Forbes and Woman's Day magazines among many other national and international publications and written for MTV3 and Lifetime TV networks. She is a board member of the Professional Travel Bloggers Association, award-winning social media strategist, and a well-known speaker in the social media conferences. Katja has lived in four different countries, and seven states in the USA, and married to a helicopter pilot. Their three children were all born in different countries within three years. When not working or jet-setting the world, Katja is at home cooking big family dinners.

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  1. Katja, the only place where customer service is worse than Paris is Scandinavia. Where the concept of “Why the hell should I do a damned thing for the customer” is alive and well. :)

  2. Tobias Madigan :

    I really prefer somewhere in the middle as well. I can’t stand it in Europe when it takes 20 minutes after you are seated for them to take your order, when they are no where to be found when you need something or are ready to go. But I definitely have had servers in the US who are too much. I say a good rule of thumb is take their order in a timely manner, ask one during the meal if they need anything while having some tact as you not interrupt a conversation or obvious moment, and just generally have a look or pass nearby every now and then. You don’t have to stop and bother, but at least be looking out for customers who may need something. Sometimes my biggest stress when traveling is trying to go out to eat but knowing that it might take too long for everything and I won’t have time left to see the sites! If servers took this into consideration, we could find a happy medium. But please, don’t get me started on the European grocery store/supermarket experience, I dread it!! haha It’s to the point where I have literally thought of paying someone to get my groceries for me because I always get this feeling like I am bothering them while they glare at me as I stuff my items into my bag that I have to buy for 50 cents (something that is done for you politely in the US and Mexico by paid staff).

  3. I think it goes deeper. I am mexican and I have lived in Europe for 8 years. Europeans feel uncomfortable providing services, as if they felt humiliated. They need too mistreat you a little to let you know they are in charge.

  4. I tip for good service no matter where I am. In some countries the wait persons receive a good wage(Sweden eg)but in most they do not. Owners know this and they reflect the wages based on tip potential. Bad service,no tip,Good service substantial tip. Tips should be based on the country you are in. I was in Austria and gratuities were included in the bill. This I disagree with. Bad service(no tip)Good service ,tip according to the custom of the country you are in.

  5. So true Katja. I used to get annoyed in US also as they would never “leave you alone”. Then again, when in Finland or few other European countries one gets annoyed when the waitress has about 30 other table to take care of and you can’t get their attention…

  6. This was a great read, Katja. Great perspective.

  7. I enjoyed reading this one. I couldn’t agree more. I think it’s easy for people to forget about the cultural differences when it comes to something like customer service. I love your story about your experience at your first US restaurant. I bet you’re not the only tourist who has visited America feeling the same way. Thanks for sharing your perspective! It’s a great reminder to all of us tourists.

    • Thank you Katy! It is funny how our own views affect so much to our perception of what we expect in some interactions like customer service. Even within the US the people are very different in the North and South – you don’t even have to go outside the US sometimes to experience this. We just sometimes forget it especially when we travel to other cultures.


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