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What Would You Do?

If you saw a couple of “Ugly Americans” being loud and obnoxious on a Parisian café terrace, would you ignore them, laugh, or tell them to “go back to Texas”? That’s what one American TV show came to find out.

“Ugly Americans” Sasha & Jeff (they’re actually quite adorable)

Last week, the cast and crew of ABC’s show “What Would You Do?” set up hidden cameras around several Parisian cafés and sent in two actors posing as Texans visiting town on their honeymoon. They snapped their fingers and called the waiter “Garçon!”, sent back their steak tartare to be cooked, asked for Freedom Fries, tasted the wine at neighboring tables (and spit it out), wore Crocs and “Paris Texas” t-shirts that said “Bush 08” on the back, and generally made spectacles of themselves in an effort to get a rise out of the other diners and unsuspecting waiters.

Being interviewed by the host John Quinones on the terrace of L’Avenue, Avenue Matignon (check out the crowd watching in the reflection in the window)

I was asked to participate as a local “expert” to comment on what visitors should and shouldn’t do in Parisian cafés if they want to feel welcome. In my interview with the show’s host, ABC Primetime co-anchor John Quinones, I explain that being loud isn’t polite in France, and that calling a waiter “Garçon” is insulting. Amazingly, it was harder to ruffle French feathers than we all suspected.

At the first restaurant terrace on the Ile St-Louis, the crew arrived early to set up cameras in hidden places, on street lamps and inside black Mercedes vans (which are actually not quite so discreet in Paris), and attached to bags carried by the “extras” they planted on the terrace as fellow diners. These extras, the actors, and the one waiter who was in on the secret, were all wired with sound mics as well. As the Sunday lunch crowd arrived, so did our actors, giving a gregarious “howdy” to every person they passed on the way to the best table on the terrace.

The actors and extras got wired up at the control van. Camera crews were hidden in three black Mercedes vans parked across from the café. Yeah, not at all obvious.

Despite their best efforts, sending back food, drinks, changing their order, pulling their own bottle of ketchup out of their bag, asking neighbors how much their watch cost, and complaining incessantly about the slow service, the waiters remained pleasant, and only one customer actually told them angrily to behave (and she was also American).

A few of the diners actually suspected a hidden camera because they thought the Americans were a bit too much like caricatures to be real. All of them said that they were surprised and amused, but found it hard to get angry or upset because the Texans were just so friendly that they thought it was harmless. “French people act the same when we are on vacation,” said one woman. They also offered advice to visiting Americans, such as “Be curious about the food.” The waiters all said the same thing. “Oh, we’ve been doing this for years, we don’t mind as long as they aren’t being drunk or violent; it’s funny for us.” Even being called Garçon? “We’ve heard worse,” they all said with a shrug and a smile. These are, ladies and gentlemen, the nicest waiters in Paris! Lol!

The second café was in a quiet side street in the Marais, a place frequented mainly by locals. We had to be more careful to hide ourselves and all of the wires, cameras and crew running around with clip boards and walkie talkies. Again the actors had a lot of fun trying to get a reaction out of the waiter and the crowd on the small terrace. They asked the waiter to pose with a baguette and say “George Bush” instead of “cheese”, tried to get a young couple to give up their table by offering a hundred US dollars (they didn’t take it, nor did they move), and told the smokers that they were causing cancer.

Me, hiding in the control van.

I sat in the main van watching the monitors with John and the producer, who would tell the actors (via hidden ear pieces) what to do next (ie “ask for a bucket of ice for your beer”, “ask the lady in the white shirt if she could translate the menu for you”).

Our view of the action on the monitors.

When we felt enough time had passed, the mobile camera crew would follow John and I out to the terrace and explain to the “marks” that they’re part of an American TV show, that the Texans are in fact actors, and then invite them to comment on what they thought (and obviously the crew had to get releases from everyone on camera before they could use them). I translated when necessary, but most of the participants spoke a bit of English.

In the end, the Parisians proved themselves to be more than tolerant of obnoxious behavior (as long as it remains friendly and not abusive). Does this mean you shouldn’t try and behave discreetly, dress appropriately, or be open-minded about French food? Of course not. They will love you even more for it. But it does mean that you don’t need to be overly stressed out about appearing uneducated, unfashionable, or unwanted simply because you’re obviously a tourist. This is Paris, after all. They’ve seen it all. And the longer I’ve been here, the less I’m inclined to make generalized statements about what one should and should not expect of the French. Relax and enjoy yourselves (in moderation, of course).

Just last month I had a lovely American family of five for a tour. At lunch we stopped at a typically Parisian bistro filled with locals. Just behind us sat two elderly ladies lunching together. When their meals arrived (before ours), we couldn’t help but turn our heads to have a peek (it smelled delicious), and they kindly offered us a taste! Just goes to show…you can never make assumptions about people!

After three days of shooting…actress/extra Nirit Summer, host John Quinones and moi.

 The Paris “What Would You Do?” episode will appear on ABC sometime in the fall (I will mention it on the blog when I know for sure). Read more about the show from Oprah’s interview here.

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  • Hi Mauschen, I’m curious to whom you directed your comment, "Wake up and stop hating our wonderful country." The TV show was created by Americans, not the French. It was based on what Americans *think* the average Ugly American looks and acts like. Most of the French realized right away they were actors or playing some kind of practical joke. I think this idea that the French "all hate us" is paranoid, outdated and far too much of a generalization to merit repetition.

  • I’m an American married to a German and lived in Germany for almost 15 years. The American’s that I have seen visit were wonderful (even if not dressed like a European – BIG DEAL!), thoughtful and always wanting to know more of the culture and it’s people. To say American’s act like the Texan’s in the ABC shoot is such a misleading insulut. I saw far more Brit’s and Dutch that could make those actors look harmless. Every country has some who are obnoxious. Wake up and stop hating our wonderful country. Afterall, we are made up of those who came from abroad.

  • The French are a very "mind your own business" kind of culture, whereas, IMHO, we Americans tend to think it’s our right to speak up. Different cultures. But as many people pointed out, the Americans probably spoke up because they were angry at being portrayed so badly. I would probably not say anything to the couple directly, but would apologize to the waiter on polite Americans’ behalf. ;)And I do know there is an accent in John’s name, I just can’t figure out how to do it on this French keyboard!

  • It’s a bit curious that the French mostly kept silent. And somewhat typical that Americans would speak-up (either from shame, or from a tendency to be helpful.)By the way, it’s John Quiñones not John Quinones.

  • Hi there, still no news on when exactly it will be on. They told me sometime in November, but you’ll just have to keep checking the ABC.com website for the show schedules.I’ll post something here as soon as I know anything.

  • I was in Paris last summer and we met the "ugly americans". We were taped also and I was wondering when the episode will be broadcasted? And will it be online too?

  • It is insulting to Texans and to Southerners to, of course, be held up as a rude stereotype. In actuality, these two groups are generally steadfastly polite people, except in the minds of New Yorkers, many of whom should look in the mirror. Otherwise, this is a great idea and I am quite sure it was the other Americans who were most bothered, not the French!

  • Hi, I just found your blog via your comment on Sam’s blog.. Love it!! This post CRACKED ME UP because I was just envisioning all the spectator’s shock to all of it… and humor… I grew up in the middle of L.A.- Hollywood, in fact… So, I would have definitely smelled a rat there maybe from the early part of the scene… It sound way too contrived and overdone.. but that is what is sooo funny about it all.. I know that some people would really be mortified but if the couple was genuinely being innocent and friendly- then it would be more amusing to me.. If they were being downright mean on purpose, I, personally, would have gone up to speak to them… That’s me, though.. I’m just like that.. it’s the teacher in me, I think… Anyhow.. I would LOVE to see this show and I am sure my French hubby would get a kick out of it, too.. Keep us posted… Leesa

  • I do think that "garçon" used to call the attention or to adress a "garçon de café" is by no way an insult. I might alternatively simply gesture – given the noise – or say "S’il vous plait!". A "maître d’hotel" or a "chef de rang" in restaurant might maybe feal his feathers ruffled as they have a more "senior" position…It seems to be a rather old American "idée reçue". Some 35 years ago, my father, a very kind and polite French gentleman, and longtime patron of the parisian café where the scene took place, happened to be a victim of this, when my sister’s american exchange student, who was a bit of a pest in many respects, shouted at him because he had called the waiter "Garçon!".

  • Last March I was sitting in an Angelina’s Cafe on Rivoli about 3 blocks west of The Louvre. I had just arrived a few hours earlier from London on the Eurostar and was starving. It was a loud, boorish group of fellow Americans that irked me to no end as they loudly carried on in the corner of the diner. While I noticed that those around them and the waiters generally ignored their behavior, it was embarrassing to witness this.There were two French gentlemen having a leisurely lunch next to me who discreetly had a laugh at them, but not in an overt way. I wouldn’t have noticed unless I hadn’t have overheard one of them mutter something and then add, "les Americans…." or something to that effect.

  • Being Canadian, I’ve had a good laugh at some of the "ugly Americans" I have seen on tour around the world- including Paris. Come to think of it, I’ve seen some "ugly Canadians", too. Guess the AmUricans don’t have the only licence to act stupidly in other countries.Curiously, however,is the word "garçon" as used to get the attention of the waiter. I also was under the impression that it was somewhat of a rude expression, but I have seen a feature on TV5 (international French television network) that clearly suggested that being a "garçon" in one or more of the famous cafés on the Champs Elysées was something to be proud of- and that there was, in fact, a professional organisation of some kind that was actually called "Garçons de Paris" (or something like that).Of course, I find that "Monsieur" (gender specific) works quite well to get a waiter’s attention.

  • I have to admit that it was mortifying for me as well. I think we could have gotten the same point across with just "regular" Americans, but it seems television demands something more visually dramatic. Would I do it differently if I was in charge? Sure. But I do see its value. I have sooooooo many clients who are so paranoid about "looking like an Ugly American" that I think this show demonstrates how: a)No one is really *that* bad, and b) even if they were, the Parisians won’t stone you in public for getting the local etiquette wrong. 😉

  • Why would you go out of your way to perpetuate the ugly American stereotype? Is that news? Being part of an American-European family and having spent a lot of time in Europe including liveing in Paris and Geneva, I never saw any Americans behaving like that.Maybe you should do a show on the Americans who brought food and supplies to suffering France at the end of WW2.

  • The show sounds funny, but it would be SO hard to just sit there and let those folks act like loud idiots. I guess it’s because I’m American too and I would be mortified by this behavior (if it was real).You have such a pretty smile!

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