What is it about Paris that incites such strong feelings? With the exception of New York, no other city seems to have such an effect on people. Sharing the fact that I live in Paris tends to invite strong opinions, ranging from those who have spent a considerable amount of time in France’s capital to those who have never set foot on French soil, offering their impression on what Paris is, or specifically what the French are like.
Some of the theories presented are well founded, such as the acknowledgement that the French love their bread, a trait I admit has rubbed off on me, shedding me once and for all of my low-carb ways. However, others are a bit outdated, like the French never exercise. These ideas, that are mostly sketched from film, media, or perhaps rang true once upon a time, are in essence harmless. However, the one that they have not been able to truly escape is the popular belief that the French are rude.
Paris is a city that thrives on its tourism industry, that 33 million travelers each year choose for their vacation destination. It should be noted that national officials are more interested in welcoming visitors than the city gets credit for. Recently, Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius launched a campaign to encourage the French to be warmer to tourists, making it a “national priority” with initiatives to improve communication in hotels, restaurants, and kiosks, and to provide multi-lingual directions to airports. And during the heated Love Lock debate, while other cities worldwide were forbidding their landmarks to be defaced with the notion of “love” by way of an industrial padlock, Paris treaded lightly before finalizing their decision to ban the fad in fear of fueling the idea that they were unwelcoming to tourists. So why can’t the French shed their reputation for being rude?
Admittedly, before moving to Paris, I also wondered about the validity of this claim and worried if my time spent abroad would be stifled by the indignant attitude that the French were portrayed to have. But I learned that what could be construed as rude actually just comes down to simple cultural differences.
It would be impossible for me to say that I have never had an unpleasant encounter in a Parisian restaurant. Of course I’ve happened upon the occasional grouchy waiter (French or not), but I’ve had similar experiences in other countries as well. While it is true that French servers don’t check up on tables every ten minutes to see if everything is “okay,” icy water refills are not issued like a drought has just ended, and servers don’t add that personal touch with small talk, it is just not part of the dining culture and servers think it is rude to interrupt the diners’ experience with their continuous presence.
This may be an unpopular opinion, but it should also be acknowledged that the saccharine service we are accustomed to is purchased in form of a 20% tip, whereas in Paris it is considered nice to leave a euro or two on the table and wages in service professions are not dependent on tips.
The French Don’t Fear Silence
Something I learned about myself from living in France is my instinctual tendency to fill space with words, something I was unaware I did before. The French don’t fear what we consider “uncomfortable silence” and don’t feel the need to avoid it with small talk or nervous laughter. This sometimes made for awkward first dates as I was laughing at nothing in particular with some French guy staring blankly at me. They’re not cold. Sometimes there’s just nothing to say.
Responding in English Isn’t an Insult
A chief complaint is that visitors feel insulted when they attempt to speak French and are responded to in English. I admit that this used to vex me, until I realized that perhaps my French was not strong enough and my attempts were putting a strain on communication. Making an attempt in French is of course welcomed and can go a long way, but once the conversation gets more complicated, such as getting directions (something that still stumps me – Gauche? Droite? Tout droite? Oh, forget it! ), it’s okay to switch to English if possible. If not, have fun with it; the effort will be appreciated nonetheless.
The French Sometimes Think We’re Rude
You know how you meet someone at a cocktail party and animatedly leave things off with “we should get lunch sometime soon”? Normally that lunch happens, but sometimes it just doesn’t for whatever reason. Well, I burnt some bridges with Parisiennes when I first moved here because I did not honor what they then regarded as an empty promise, because of my natural impulse to agree for the sake of conversation or an innate need to people please. The French may get flak for their honesty, but when they cannot commit to something, they say so.
Taxi Drivers Don’t Represent The French
I will be the first to admit that I loathe taking a Taxi Parisien, which is necessary at times since the metro does not run all night. Many (of course not all) drivers expect to be paid in cash, drive carelessly while talking on the phone, or flat out will refuse you if they don’t like the destination. I wholeheartedly understand the frustration tourists may have when trying to use this as a method of transport, but know that they do not represent the French, and they are usually just having a bad day. Luckily (and much to the extremely publicized chagrin of Parisian taxi drivers), there are other cab options sweeping through the city.
A little understanding of the culture and that one rude person or unsavory experience should not represent an entire country will hopefully lend to the belief that the French are greatly misunderstood. Accepting cultural differences, broadening our thinking, and appreciating a place by way of different perspectives… isn’t that the reason why we travel in the first place?
- Is rudeness in the eye of the beholder? Paige Bradley Post delves deeper into la politesse française.
- Learn the best ways to respond when the French get feisty.
- Find out more about Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius’ multimillion euro plan to change the reputation of the French attitude towards foreigners.