The Paris Syndrome


There are a number of psychological tactics that modern casinos will spare no expense to learn, and employ, to get an individual to part with more of their money. Some would go so far to say that anytime that a person steps into a modern day casino, they’re stepping into the finished product of think tanks, and psychological studies. These casinos want to create an exciting, yet soothing experience that distracts the gambler from the stress they might associate with losing all of their money, but there is no psychological tactic more endemic to the ultimate success of a modern day casino than the psychological manipulations of expectations.

“We’ll always have Paris.”

Expectation, successful casinos have learned, is more powerful than the reality of accomplishment, or winning. When a slot machine player sees a triple bar drop into the first slot, only to be followed by another triple bar, that brief moment of excited expectation has been determined to provide the player a more powerful psychological boost than the reality that would occur if that third slot were filled with another third triple bar.

When that king eventually drops, with strategic slowness, into that third slot, we’re disappointed when we look up at the menu list of winnings atop the slot machine and realize we’ve actually won nothing, but the thrill that occurred before that third slot was filled, and the idea that we came “so close” is more powerful, and more conducive to us continuing on that machine, than winning would actually be. Without drawing on that exact scenario, Rosecrans Baldwin, author of the book Paris, I Love You, but You’re Bringing me Down, suggests that the same psychological thrill of expectation occurs when one plans a vacation to Paris, France.

Paris is the world renowned capital of love. For as long as most of us have been alive, Paris has provided the setting for some of the most famous, romantic movies, books, and songs. Many people we know list visiting Paris on their bucket list. If, for no other reason, than to find out what everyone is going on about. There’s an air of mystery about the city that we all need to experience for ourselves.  As is normally the case, the narrative, and the expectation derived from that narrative, is much more powerful than the reality. Some, that have vacationed in Paris, are often so distressed by the reality of what they experience that it can cause a psychological disorder called The Paris Syndrome.

“Japanese visitors are particularly susceptible to this,” writes Rosecrans Baldwin. “This is possibly due to the uber-romantic image that Paris holds for the Japanese.” This can get so bad, for some Japanese travelers, Baldwin writes, that “The Japanese embassy used to repatriate sufferers with a doctor or nurse aboard the plane ride back to Japan.”

NBC News also had a report on this subject that stated that:

“Around a dozen Japanese tourists a year need psychological treatment after visiting Paris as the reality of unfriendly locals and scruffy streets clashes with their expectations, a newspaper reported on Sunday.”

That Sunday newspaper also quoted psychologist Herve Benhamou saying:

“Fragile travelers can lose their bearings. When the idea they have of (a place like Paris) meets the reality of what they discover, it can provoke a crisis.”

Bernard Delage, from an association called Jeunes Japon, that helps Japanese families settle in France, is also quoted as saying:

“In Japanese shops, the customer is king, whereas (in places like Paris) assistants hardly look at them … People using public transport all look stern, and handbag snatchers increase the ill feeling.”

A Japanese woman, Aimi, that had some experience with this disorder, told the paper:

“For us, Paris is a dream city. All the French are beautiful and elegant … And then, when they arrive, the Japanese find the French character is the complete opposite of their own.” {1}

After deciding to take up residence in Paris, author Rosecrans Baldwin found that:

“Smiling is discouraged for Parisians posing for documentation like Metro passes or tennis-court permits.” 

Most citizens, the world around, can identify with this procedure. We’ve all had experience with employees in legal departments, and DMVs, telling us that smiling is discouraged when posing for headshots that will appear in legal documentation. It’s not illegal to smile in those situations, just as it, presumably, is not illegal to smile when posing for Parisian documentation headshots, but it may have something to do with the fact that smiling for official documentation, makes it appear less official. With regards to this practice in Paris, writes Baldwin:

The discouragement of smiling for various legal documents gets to an elemental fact about living in France’s capital. That for a madly sentimental and Japanese tourist, visiting Paris is mostly about light, beauty, and fun with berets.  Living in Paris is different.  Living in Paris is business, and nothing to smile about.”{2}

Though this particular Paris Syndrome is obviously indigenous to Paris, the tenets of it could just as easily be applied to any popular tourist destination the world around. Midwestern Americans, for example, also live under this “customer is king” mentality, and they have for so long that they begin to take it for granted. Midwestern people know that the hotels and restaurants, of their locale, are so competitive that they won’t tolerate even an ambivalent employee. There are exceptions to the rule of course, but most people that travel to the Midwest, from other parts of the country, are shocked by the Midwestern hospitality.

“We expected it from you guys,” a hotel resident once said of the hospitality she experienced from Midwestern hotel employees. “You’re paid to be pleasant, but wandering around your city, we’ve discovered that you’re all like this,” she said as if she believed she had stepped into some alternate universe. “You’re all so nice.”  

Thus, when a Midwesterner gets so used to their locale’s common pleasantries —like the Japanese traveler, traveling to Paris— they are shocked by the contradictions that occur in their preferred travel destinations. They probably assumed that the top-notch customer service they’ve come to expect would be a given in their chosen destination, if not amplified with the kind of money they’re spending. They probably considered it such a given that they focused most of their attention on the other aspects of their dream vacation. Once they’ve come to terms with the reality of the situation, they’re so shocked that not only is their dream vacation ruined, but some become physically ill as a result.

This degree of ambivalence, directed at tourists, in some popular tourist locations, can occur in some of the first steps tourists make from the airplane to the terminal. Those wondering why this happens, should ask themselves what they thought of the thirty-second ant they watched leave an anthill. If they confess that they didn’t take the time to pick that ant out, and that they didn’t spend more than two seconds looking at those ants, they may expound upon the idea that seeing ants leave an anthill is such a common experience that they don’t even look at ant hills anymore, such is the plight of the service industry worker watching tourists disembark at popular tourist destinations.

You’re not an ant, you say? You’re a human being, and you’re not just any human being, you’re a human being with money to spend, money that helps pays their wages. The problem is that you’re probably not the thirty-second tourist that service industry worker has seen disembark that day, or even the 132nd. By the time you’ve stepped up to their counter, they’re probably so burnt out on tourists, that you’ve become a species lowering than ants to them. At least ants are self-sufficient, and they don’t complain about their lot in life, and they don’t live with the mindset that their existence should somehow be catered to in a manner that makes the ant feel special. Ants know their role, and on a less conscious level, they know their station in life. The harmony in that ant universe works so well that most service industry workers, in popular tourist destinations, probably believe that tourists could learn a lot from ants.

Some tourists are objective enough to acknowledge that poor service industry employees exist everywhere, even in their small town, yokel community, and they try to view this one ambivalent-to-hostile employee in that light. They also try to view their one bad experience, with this one ambivalent-to-hostile employee, as an aberration, so that they can go about enjoying the rest of their trip. Some Midwestern tourists also attempt to reconcile their indignation by convincing themselves of the fact that they’re small town yokels, unfamiliar with the ways of the big city, but they can’t shake the idea that their appearance should be considered somewhat special by these employees.

It isn’t too long after disembarking that the tourist comes to the realization that there are ten special tourists “looking to have a special time” behind them in line, and those tourists just want the special transaction in front of them to end, so they can finally get to the front of the line, to finish their transaction and get back to the craps table.

That “customer is king” mentality that these tourists live with is usually gone within hours, and the pattern of how things are done in this popular tourist destination becomes so apparent that by the time the tourist reaches the employee that dutifully hands them change without smiling, or even looking at them, and possibly trying to shortchange them, they’ve come to terms with the fact that those first few rude service industry employees were not, in fact, aberrations. Those that don’t recognize these patterns think that if they were that thirty-second ant, they might have a better chance of receiving more courteous treatment, if for no other reason than the idea that they might be considered something different from the lowest form of life on earth that service industry employees have deal with hour after hour, day after day: tourists.

Time; personal experiences published in online, travel forums; stories about mafia versus corporate ownership of Vegas; tales of prostitution and pickpockets; and the unsettling, almost weekly, settings on the show Cops have done some damage to the mystique of Las Vegas, but Paris’s mystique has not been forced to weather the such storms.

Living in Paris, Rosecrans Baldwin writes, does do some damage to that mystique however. Those that believe that Paris is the home of cutting edge artistic exploration are not wrong, in the greater sense, but they also have to explain how Britney Spears’ song Toxic, remained a staple of Parisian parties years after its release. Those that believe that Parisians have analytical palates far superior to the American one, have to explain Paris’s culinary fascination with the food from a chain of American restaurants called McDonald’s. These quirks may be no different than any popular travel destination around the globe, but it takes traveling to the destination, and living there, to find all this out.

“I enjoy the French Roast flavor,” I tell friends, “But I know that the term French Roast simply means robust. I have no illusions about the fact that any of the beans I use have actually spent any time in France. I know that some Americans make attachments to the term “French” in the same manner some French make American attachments to the food of McDonald’s, but I’m not so silly that I believe that the French Roast bean I enjoy is anything less than an Americanized version of this robust bean, but” and here’s where the wrinkle will form on the nose of the listener “I actually prefer this Americanized version.” 

That wrinkle will form on the nose of our fellow Americans, because most of those blessed with “analytical palates” believe that that ‘A’ word, Americanized, should never be used in conjunction with the exotic flavorings of the products that they deign worthy of purchase. Their use of the word “French” entails exotic styling in the chain of production, transportation, that may have involved some slow crossing of the Seine River on some French version of a Gondola before being docked in an elegant port with a beautiful French name that we cannot pronounce, and that those individual workers involved in the chain of production may have, at one point, sang a French sea chantey in striped shirts and handlebar mustaches. Those that wrinkle a nose believe that they are able to sniff out any ‘A’ word that may have wormed its way into the process that ended with them purchasing a French Roast product.

When one reads the descriptions from those that have actually walked the streets of Paris, and dined in her cafes, and tasted the true “French Roasted” bean, they learn that those cafés actually use old, over-roasted beans, and second-rate machines. We read that Parisians so prefer the robust flavoring that we term “French Roasted”, that their cafés actually use a low-cost, low quality bean to please their customer base. This actual un-Americanized, French Roasted bean would leave the unsuspecting, and truly analytical palates, with a thin and harsh taste in their mouth.

Paris is not about the taste of the coffee, some might argue, and no trip to Las Vegas would be ruined by the fact that a towel boy didn’t smile at me and welcome me to his city. All of these complaints seem so trivial, and inconsequential, in lieu of everything these two, popular travel destinations have to offer. Taken one by one, these complains may seem trivial, and inconsequential, but when a romanticized, excited traveler sits down to complete their dream of having a lunch in an elegant, little Parisian café, only to have an ambivalent-to-rude waiter deliver a cup of coffee that is so shockingly –and perhaps to them insultingly– inferior, that may only be one cup of coffee, and one waiter to the rest of us, but it may also be only one incident in a series of incidents, that leads to a pattern of behavior that shatters all of the illusions and dreams the starry eyed tourist may have had about that vacation they saved for so long for, that their country finds it necessary to have a doctor, or nurse, on board the plane home to help them deal with the fact that so many of their expectations, and so much of what they once believed in, were wrong.

{1}http://www.nbcnews.com/id/15391010/ns/travel-news/t/paris-syndrome-leaves-tourists-shock/#.Uys8r6hdWSo

{2} Baldwin, Rosecrans.  Things you didn’t know about Life in Paris.  Mental Floss.  May 2014.  Page 40-41. Magazine.