It’s time to address a theme that has become a highly controversial component of my Parisian life: the smile. When I first moved to Paris, I couldn’t figure out why people seemed to pick up on my non-French status before I had uttered a word. Finally, a friend informed me: “You smile too much.”
Apparently, I was blowing my own cover. And it’s true: just as Parisians have a reputation for being particularly scowl-y, the French think Americans are too quick to put on a happy face. From the French perspective, the law of diminishing returns applies to smiling—the more often you do it, the less potency it has.
But despite having spent a considerable amount of time in Paris, I can’t seem to train my facial muscles into submission. It doesn’t help that I have a LOT of inside jokes (with myself), so it’s not uncommon to see me cracking myself up on the Metro or as I walk down the street. I understand this makes me look like a crazy person and might be confusing to outside observers, who often stare at me as if to say: “What’s so funny, American interloper?”
The answer: pretty much everything. (Except French advertisements, which try to be funny but are actually just weird and / or creepy).
Last time I was in Paris, I stopped at a tabac for an espresso. This was a legit tabac—the kind where grizzled old French guys convene to drink beer at 10am. I could tell the men at the bar didn’t really know what to make of me. It was definitely a “one of these things does not belong” situation. And while I’ve thought a lot about what it means to assimilate in Paris, I also get a kick out of subtly taunting the French and making them feel confused on their own turf. So I am pretty much in my element when surrounded by perplexed, drunk, old French guys.
We exchanged some banter and as I left the tabac, the owner said, “Gardez toujours votre sourire” (always keep your smile). That won’t be a problem, as I’m subversive by nature and enjoy challenging French societal structure—one unabashed grin at time. Plus, I didn’t suffer two years of hideous braces for nothing. (The French may be super chic, but Americans have the best teeth. We just do).
So on that day, I resolved to make peace with my unshakeable facial habit. Because while idiotic grinning can be a handicap and a dead giveaway of one’s non-French status, it’s also the expat’s greatest weapon. In a sea of local scowls, a foreign smile opens doors (and sometimes those doors lead to bars where people buy you free drinks). So I say, work it.
Erica Berman (Mika is American and Christophe is French!)