A French waiter is suing for the right to be rude at work

Image: AP Photo/Thibault Camus
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A waiter in Canada is suing his former employer for violating his human rights by firing him, after he had been allegedly “combative and aggressive.” His argument: He was just French.

Guillaume Rey was fired in August 2016 from his job as a waiter at Milestones Grill and Bar, a chain restaurant in Vancouver. He has claimed to the British Columbia’s Human Rights Tribunal that his firing amounts to cultural discrimination, and that what Canadian colleagues perceived as rudeness was, from Rey’s perspective, the “direct, honest and professional” demeanor he was trained to show at work in France. His former boss counters that his dressing-down of a colleague was so harsh it nearly reduced the other server to tears. The case raises the question: How friendly do you actually have to be at work?

There’s a vital distinction here between “rude” and “not friendly.” A worker who is direct, blunt, or averse to small talk could be perceived as unfriendly, especially in a culture (workplace or otherwise) that values openness or gregariousness. As Olivia Goldhill has written at Quartz, the constant pressure on service industry employees and others to display an overtly cheerful demeanor at all times is exhausting and inauthentic.

But lack of pep isn’t the same thing as being rude: You only cross the line into rudeness when an interaction fails to communicate respect for the person on the receiving end. And while social norms for workplace interactions vary between cultures, the imperative to treat others with basic decency does not.

In another case before the same human rights tribunal, a Vancouver-area man sent hundreds of abusive emails to his city council (examples: congratulating a female councilor “on the success of your breast augmentation surgery,” calling the mayor an “old whore”), then complained when his emails were eventually blocked. Abusive messages, he said, were part of his identity as a “brash, loud and obnoxious gay male.”

The tribunal disagreed, arguing that simply being gay “does not insulate him from the expectation that he treat people with basic courtesy and respect.”

In allowing the restaurant case to proceed, a tribunal judge wrote that Rey would have to prove “what it is about his French heritage that would result in behavior that people misinterpret as a violation of workplace standards of acceptable conduct.”

But Rey’s claim that rudeness would be acceptable in France may be out of date. In a 2012 survey, 60% of French respondents said rudeness was their primary cause of stress.