Meg writes about her confusion with understanding the rules in France. Here's the secret, based on the whole of my about 2 1/2 months spent there over three trips, the most recent two years ago: the Europeans just don't give a goddamn bloody hell about customer service, and we do. Restaurant staff have their own agendas and lives and we barely intersect with them, depending on the place.
This isn't universally true where I've gone in Europe, but it's often the case. (I'm not saying we have perfect service in the U.S., but we have an expectation of it here, and we know what to do when it goes sour; we also can tell when service personnel are entirely ignoring us.) I've talked to Europeans about it, and had a variety of hilarious responses, all of which agree with my thesis. One Italian woman I know who lives in the Seattle area described how she can hardly stand to go home, not because of her countrypeople, but because it's so damn hard to shop or eat. The slightest service can be an ordeal.
One of the explanations posited by my cosmopolitan acquaintances is that Europe went through a different sort of social revolutions in the 1960s than we did in the States. Here, it was about oppressive moral ideas that prevented emotional and sexal expression (among other things), which then morphed into a disgust for political suppression and imperialism. In Europe, apparently, and I'm happy to refuted, they already had a fair amount of emotional and sexual expression in many countries, and the 60s represented a more radical shift in the young person's generation towards socialism and communism (or even the flip right-wing side).
So what I've been told is that it's considered incredibly bourgeois to offer good service. It's a lessening of oneself to be subservient in that fashion. This may be an interaction of culture problem, as the best service I receive in the States is service of equals: it's a salesperson or server who acts as a partner in a transaction, neither currying my favor (although friendliness is part of what I want), nor pushing me into decisions I don't want to make.
In any case, Europe is a foreign nation (most of it being one nation these days), and it's the little things that make it so. I had a few different experiences in the lovely city of Basel that still baffle. My wife and I were trying to buy some food for the train, and my German is okay, not perfect. I accidentally asked for two of one thing instead of one of each of two things. The woman reached for them behind the counter and I very apologetically (sehr höflich, as they say) explained my error. Man, was she put out -- and she hadn't even done anything yet.
An American expat friend in Paris told us a story about accidentally ordering 1,000 grams instead of 100 grams of mushrooms at a nearby market. She corrected her error, and the grocer refused to reduce her order even though he hadn't filled it yet! She backed down because she knew she'd be going to that market several times a week. What th'?!
It's not that Europeans aren't polite and charming, but the workplace is such a small part of their lives. It's another reason to find family joints instead of larger operations in which to eat, and it's another mode of gaining insight about other people's lives.