There are, famously, many intonations an English speaker can use when saying sorry, and only one of them means that they actually are sorry.
Navigating the subtleties of the English language when you are foreign is a near full-time job; after almost a decade of doing it, I am yet to fully grasp all the complex vagaries.
I have, as a result, some sympathy for Guillaume Rey, the French waiter who got fired from a restaurant in Vancouver for being rude. He is now trying to argue that he is not rude – he’s just, well, French, and French culture “tends to be more direct and expressive”.
Although there isn’t quite enough information out there yet about the case to decide if his defence is outrageously cocky or simply a bit bold, Rey’s argument does highlight some important cultural differences. Language is, of course, one of them, but expectation is another: when going to a restaurant in France, getting barked at by a sour waiter is part of the experience – if you are acknowledged by staff at all – as is being terrified by the possibility of a knowing frown when ordering the wrong wine with the wrong course.
This doesn’t mean it always happens – some hospitality staff are capable of being perfectly pleasant – but if it does, there’s no point in batting an eyelid: waiters are there to bring you food, not become your best friend.
France is hardly an exception, of course: the Asian writer Ash Sarkar recently complained about having to take her white friends out for dinner. “They’ve not been raised knowing that how good the food is in a restaurant is always inversely proportional to how polite the service is,” she tweeted.
Besides, overfriendliness in waiting staff only ends up being painful for all involved. Customers presumably go to restaurants to talk to the people they are having a meal with and no one else, while waiters already have a knackering job running around carrying hot, heavy plates, and so aren’t dying to make conversation for the sake of it.
Well, that and the ones like Rey, who are working with English as a second language and can never be sure what their customers truly mean when they say sorry – or possibly much else besides.