Feb 132010
(asked by David, from somewhere and currently in Paris… no, it’s not me, I don’t ask questions to myself)
Just discovered your blog and am enjoying very much your ability to put cultural differences into context. I’ve been in Paris two years with my family (wife and two teen-agers)and we’ve been having a great experience. I’ve tried to impress on my children that we are guests in France and so we must be respectful of cultural differences, even if we might find them puzzling. One that has puzzled me is why the French seem unwilling to make change. Nowhere else in Europe do I find clerks so put out when I present a 50 Euro bill (or even a 20) for a purchase. A friend of mine reported that a clerk in the post office refused to make change for his purchase when he presented a 50, despite the fact that he could see a drawer full of 20s just sitting there. So it’s not just the small businesses that take this approach. Any thoughts, or am I just having a run of bad luck?
First of all, thanks for the kind word.
Now, your answer:
I think we’re dealing with three phenomenons bundled up in the same act here.
-First, yes, there’s a more or less a cultural thing in the reluctance of some French small businesses to have more bills than they need in their cash register. I don’t really know where it comes from, except maybe in a general reluctance of carrying too much cash with them. Personally, I hate having more than €50 with me, and I never do, unless in rare circumstances, and I’m always surprised/shocked to see people -often foreigners- carrying several hundred Euros with them. And this is just part of cultural habits that vary from nation to nation. I don’t really know the origins at all.
But that’s not exactly your problem, right? (except maybe from the fact that you may be used to carrying lots of bills, and then pay with them).
-Second, small businesses, especially bakeries and similar places where you’ll rarely pay for more than just a few Euros don’t like it if you pay with big bills because you’ll screw with their cash register contents, as for obvious reason you’ll reduce the change they’ll have which can cause problems at some point during the day.
Also, as a general rule, it’s seen as courteous to give as close as possible to the amount you owe when you pay with cash in a store. I’m not saying that it’s rude to pay your baguette with a €20 bill, but it’s not exactly polite either. And as a matter of fact, I always excuse myself when I pay with a much larger sum than needed, even if the person I’m buying from has plenty of change and doesn’t care.
-The €50 bill issue.
The situation with the €50 bill is different. A couple of years ago, there has been an “invasion” of €50 bills in the Eurozone and yeah, businesses became very reluctant to take them. Lots of businesses even had special markers they’d use on the bill to see if it was a true one or not. Sometimes a store, where people buy more or less expensive things and that had good chances to give that bill back to another customer before the end of the day wouldn’t be too picky with them. But I can easily see a place like the Post Office, being a place where people usually don’t spend a lot of money and -on top of it- that is a public business refusing to accept any €50 bill, especially if they don’t have the magic marker with them.
I hope that’s answering your question.

More Questions Answered:

  14 Responses to “Why do the French seem unwilling to make change?”

  1. Back in the olden days of francs, the commerçants would only make change if you bought something, obviously, and only for a few francs above the price of the item. One could never ask for "telephone" change without a purchase.

    The reasons you gave are exactly why stores aren't happy about taking large banknotes.

  2. I wouldn't generalize that.
    Sure, they'd rather you to buy something, but I've had people making change for me without me buying something in the past (of course, that wouldn't be more than 20 or 50 Francs worth (that 3-7 Euros)).

  3. I don't know where David has travelled in Europe, but from my experience France is nowhere *near* as bad in this respect as Eastern Europe! When I lived in Moscow I used to get paid in 1000 ruble notes (equivalent to about 25 euros) and I would literally plan my life around where I could break the notes because pretty much every transaction would be a standoff as to whether they would take the note! At kiosks and so on, sometimes they wouldn't even want to take a 100 ruble note - and they always wanted you to give them the kopecks i.e. if it cost 50.76 they would want you to give them 100.76, not just the 100. Prague was similar but not as bad!

  4. I don't think it is a French thing either. I thought the whole change thing was much worse in Berlin than in Paris.

  5. Thanks Gwan and Quebecparis.
    I've never been to Eastern Europe (but I've been to Germany).
    So, I guess we can revert the question: what's up with North Americans wanting to pay small things with big bills?

    I've been to 21 countries in my life, and I've never had that problem. Also note that I've never tried to pay some bread with a €50 bill.

  6. Well, I'm not a North American… but when you get paid, in cash, in "large" bills you have to spend them somewhere! (PS it was for teaching English in case that sounds dodgy!) I agree though, I would never try to use a 50 at a bakery or somewhere if I could possibly help it, and I would apologise if I had to use even a 20. But twice in the past couple of weeks I've ordered at a bakery and then gone "oops I have no money, I have to come back" (embarrassing!) because apart from little things like that I always use my carte bleue! Note to self: check wallet *before* ordering!

  7. - everytime a buyer comes with large bills the vendor will be horrified because he will have to spend all the small bills and coins with one single customer… What happens till the end of the day ? How will he give change to all the other customers ? Is it really that the buyer has only 20 or 50 euros or is it that he is lazy and he doesn't want to check his wallet/ purse? in about 90% of all cases the customer does have smaller bills, he just does not care to think about it because it is either irrelevant to him or he secretely wanna change his larger bills to smaller ones…

    - gwan - regarding the moscow experience and eastern europe, the logic of the 50,76 is the following: if you buy items valuing 50,76 and you pay with a 100 bill any eastern european cashier will imagine you have the inspiration to give him 101 and ask for 50 back. You get your change very quickly , he has an extra 0,24 profit, it is like paying him a bit extra for a quick way to solve it )Prices like 41,33 or 32,78 are so frequent in eastern europe due to high inflation rates and no local people would ever expect to get their 0,24 or 1,14 back. So, if you expect a last dime change from a 100 bill if you buy of 50,75, you will never get it and he will rather refuse it than bother. If you could speak the local language you would be probably told ( with or without a smile ) - I have no change for you! And then you would have to tell the the cashier-so, make it an even number. And he would turn the 50,75 to 51 and ask you for an extra 1 so he could give you back 50 from 101 )Which is exactly what I said in the first place to do.

  8. fess up. you've asked questions of yourself. at least once or twice ….

  9. Seriously, I never did.
    Why would I, by backlog has 36 questions in it!
    The ones I'm answering these days were asked in September!
    (and I'm seriously thinking of stopping answering all questions, keeping only the most interesting ones, but I'm not sure, I like the stupid questions too).

    The only "trick" I ever used was to ask my friends to ask me the first two questions to get the blog started.

  10. David, what we have here is a failure to communicate….

    you do know I was and am teasing you, right?

  11. No I didn't.
    And you never know, a few weeks ago, somebody asked me to make some publicity for her blog which was a "ask a" type of blog, except that not only it was quite lame, but she also obviously asked herself the questions (and almost be a plagiarist from another blog I know)

  12. Hey D…

    That's interesting b/c my hubby LOVES to give the vender the exact coin amount. he searches for his coins and sometimes even asks me if I have coins - which I always do.. It's my habit now… and if I forget the vender sometimes asks me if I have 10 or 20 centimes instead of the one or two euro coin I've just given them…
    I don't like giving more than a 10 for a low amount purchase and apologize in this case for a 10 or a 20… I never usually carry more than 20 or 30 euros in my wallet at a time.. it's usually between 2 -20 euros…
    I find that because of the problem with counterfeit bills (and not all stores have the machine bill readers) maybe store people are reluctant, too..
    And MOST definitely about the "making change thing" I think if people have a 50 euro not- they are going to have to break it somewhere at some point.. but for a small purchase, it just isn't appreciated at a local business…
    By the way…
    What do you mean by not having the "magic marker with them?"
    Take care,

  13. The "magic marker" is a marker some businesses and administration have to recognize fake €50 bills.
    I guess there is/was a type of fake €50 that's common and the color of the ink would be different depending if the paper was genuine or fake or something like that.
    It was quite common a few years ago, I haven't really seen it in a while, so maybe that kind of fake bill is not around anymore. Not sure.

  14. I have seen a machine that identifies "counterfeit" bills… It was used my Monoprix.. first time I have seen it used locally…

 Leave a Reply



You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

Notify me of followup comments via e-mail. You can also subscribe without commenting.