A Beginners Guide to the French
A playful Guide to the French, from a "tourist's" perspective.
Tiens! So, you're planning a trip to France and have heard some things (i.e. stereotypes) about the French, right? We offer the following as a light-hearted guide to some typical myths; to share what's true and what's not-so-true, and how to deal with both. Remember a French vacation is one of the best things you can do. The best way to verify these rumors is to go to Paris and France, you will not regret it!
1. The French are rude!
From an American perspective this is partially true.
Basically, it is not that French people are rude - foreigners just perceive
them that way because our social styles are so different. For instance, in
America, smiling is synonymous with politeness. In France, people don't require
a smile to be considered polite. They only smile when they feel like it, not
because it is expected. In America, the smile has become our polite mask which
we use everyday in every encounter. Personally, I feel it is much more
liberating to be able to wear our "real" faces when in public, don't you? If
you smile at someone, and they do not smile back, please do not take it
personally. There is no insult behind it at all. Now, as it is in any country,
you may actually encounter a genuinely rude person. Even after all these years,
I still remember a certain French waiter at a Montparnasse cafe in Paris
who was a caricature of "bad attitude". He was probably at the end of a 14 hour
shift. He spared no one. French and tourists alike got a piece of his 'bad
day'. If you happen to encounter an over-worked waiter in a cafe, simply keep
your interaction with him to a minimum. Don't take it personally.
Keep in mind that Paris (where most complain of the rudeness factor) is a
huge urban city like any other - full of tired and grumpy people. The smaller the town you visit, the less likely you
are to meet a grouchy Frenchman. It's akin to the New York cliché of someone "stealing your cab" or the "soup Nazi" from TV show "Seinfeld".
Also keep in mind that in France, general 'moodiness' is far more socially
acceptable, even in customer service roles - though this is changing. They
embrace it as part of being human. For the French, certain social niceties can
even be perceived as hypocritical, so until they understand our culture better,
it would be against their values to be 'hypocritical' by wearing a smile when
they don't want to. To them, personal values and maintaining integrity is more
important than pleasing others falsely. I know that sounds very strange to
American ears, but since it is part of their culture, and everyone is similar -
it works for them just fine. It's a good thing.
All that said, outward expressions of actual rudeness in Paris are still very rare. As a tourist, you will most likely never encounter one. The most you may ever see may be a bad look or some other minor facial expression; certainly nothing to get upset about! Of course more and more French professionals in the tourism business are becoming increasingly sensitive to the customs of their visitors, and so they are actively training service employees to understand these cultural differences better. Tourism is a major industry in France. It is possible that 'the French are rude' stereotype will fall by the wayside altogether in the future.
This has been the case since many years, in upscale or luxury hotels.
2. The French have BO (body odor)!
This is a partially true stereotype, again based on a basic cultural difference. In the USA, we have a near obsession with covering up natural smells. Perhaps .1% of Americans have BO, whereas in France the rate may be a bit higher; 1%(?). Not everyone in France has BO, but some do. Either way, the difference is that people are simply less bothered by it in France. I can personally testify to this cultural difference. Before living in the US, I never noticed "BO". To me, some people had a personal aroma, nothing more. I never really stopped to think about it. Even less did I try to analyze exactly what the odor was.
Interestingly, some people actually find a 'personal scent' rather sexy! This cultural difference is quite ancient. Henri IV, King of France (1589-1610), wrote to one of his mistresses, "Madame, I will be visiting you in 8 days. Do not wash!" (In French: "Madame, je serai chez vous dans 8 jours, ne vous lavez plus").
Today, in modern times, it is highly unlikely you will encounter any French people with bad BO. If you do, just don't focus on it, and as always, don't take it personally! Whomever is emanating it does not mean to offend you at all, so why be offended?
3. All French People Speak English, They Just Choose Not To
This is not true. Although most French children are taught English in school, it is only as a second language and should not be assumed. I would guess that 1 in 10 Parisians speak English (fewer in the country side) well enough to actually attempt a response. Sometimes people that could speak a few words in a foreign language still might not because of a "certain" shyness. As a tourist, you can understand that! Everyone is afraid of sounding silly. Assume innocence, and have compassion. It will be returned to you ten fold.
Tip: Learn three or four good French words or phrases. They will serve you well.
Bonjour "Hello" (If you learn 1 word this is the one, use it every time you meet someone)
Au revoir or if that is too difficult to pronounce, just Bye-bye
You will hear this tip all the time. We have verified its value through a good friend from California. He does not speak French, but knows about 10 words and is not shy about using them repeatedly. I've seen him spend hours and even days having a good time with French people all over France (Paris, South-west, Provence, Riviera, etc.) and giving them a good time in return. Most French will perceive your efforts, and in exchange, will use their few words of English in reply if they can. Un-official sign language is also handy (use your hands and eyes to speak!) Don't be afraid. If you don't fully understand something, the meaning will usually be perceivable through instinct. This pseudo-speak can literally last for hours. I've seen it happen. It's amazing.