31 March 2011

Take a message?

I promised myself when I began this blog not to use it as an expat gripe session; especially since expat life is really wonderful, filled with incredible richness and diversity. But that said, I challenge anyone living in a different country other than the one they grew up in, not to compare. It’s frankly impossible. You can’t help it – it’s always ‘better croissants here, better bagels there.’ In general, I find things come out pretty close to even. So much I love about life here and still things I miss about there.


There is no denying that coming from the USA, I am spoiled rotten in terms of service. Good old, friendly American customer service – the kind that tries to help and comes with a smile.

So, I’m going to allow myself one little, tiny, miniscule gripe – involving the telephone. After 16 years of calling professional organizations in the south of France – from doctors' offices to businesses and stores – I am amazed at how the onus is always on the caller to do the work. The reason I find it surprising is because the caller is usually the client. The one paying for the service he or she is calling for.

One would think it a good idea to make life easy for said client. For instance, if the client asks to speak to someone unavailable (for whatever reason, it can happen) the phone responder need only ask a simple question. Just one – not asking for the moon here! Five measly words: can I take a message? (Six, if you add please) That amounts to four fewer words than: Could you not call back in a few minutes/hours/days?

Because, you see, I’ve already gone to the trouble of calling once. And this is not the only call I must make and in between I need to do about 17 other things. So now that I’ve remembered and actually made the call, I want the ball to be in the callee’s court. I shouldn’t have to throw it out again. And again. But when I’m asked to call back, that is exactly what I must do. Remember! Call back! In five minutes, in an hour, after the person is back from lunch.

I made a call this morning. I didn’t reach who I wanted. The person I got told me the person I wanted wasn’t available – then asked if I could call back in 20 minutes. Standard procedure. I politely asked that he call me back instead. Whenever convenient – not trying to be difficult here! But I could literally feel the distress float over the phone waves. She: Couldn’t you please call back? Me: Couldn’t you please take a message? It went on and on.

Finally, I lost it. I explained that in 20 minutes I was going to be busy trying to reach five other people who never answer their phones and I can’t be expected to remember to call someone I’ve already called because chances are, when I call again they still won’t be available! Is it that much of an imposition to jot down a name and number? It’s two words, ten lousy digits! But apparently, in the here versus there of expat life, ‘can he call you back’ is a foreign concept.

By the time it was over, the responder agreed to take a message. I, however, was so frustrated I was feeling a bit sick. And I started to wonder, what would happen if I ever got really sick? Then I would have to call an ambulance and go to the hospital. And if the ambulance driver was out on call, I’m sure the dispatcher would want to know if I could please call back…


  1. Lisa DeRea FrederiksenMarch 31, 2011 at 2:07 PM

    YES, I have said this SAME EXACT thing for the 12 years I have lived in Europe...the person at the bank will say "he is with a customer can you callback?" like I have a video camera so I know when he is no longer with the customer?!?!? I am with you on this one Alexis (from one American to another.)

  2. Sadly, phone manners are non-existent the world over...


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