Parisian Living

Rude or Simply French? Debunking the Cultural Clichés

by Lisa Czarina Michaud

HiP Paris blog, Rude French, Brasserie terrace

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.

HiP Paris blog, Rude French, Parisian restaurant terrace

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 However, others are a bit outdated, like the French never exercise.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?

HiP Paris blog, Rude French, View along the Seine River

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.

Rude Service?

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.

HiP Paris blog, Rude French, Bicyclist in crosswalk

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.

HiP Paris blog, Rude French, Parisian buildings architecture

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?

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Written by Lisa Czarina Michaud for the HiP Paris Blog. Images by Isabel Miller-Bottome. Looking for a fabulous vacation rental in Paris, London, Provence, or Tuscany? Check out Haven in Paris.

Written By

Lisa Czarina Michaud

Lisa Czarina Michaud is a native New Yorker who followed her calling for wine, cheese and beards five years ago when she moved to Paris on a whim. Her work has been published in Marie Claire UK, xoJane, Huffington Post Travel and France Passion Magazine. View Lisa Czarina Michaud's Website
Photos By

Isabel Miller-Bottome

A native of the San Francisco Bay Area, Isabel has lived in Paris and travelled extensively around Europe and elsewhere. She currently studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where she is Editor of the literary magazine, Spectrum, and Artsweek reporter for The Daily Nexus. Leveraging her network of student and business contacts, she always brings a fresh angle or an unexpected lead to transform an ordinary visit into a memorable adventure. View Isabel Miller-Bottome's Website

18 comments on “Rude or Simply French? Debunking the Cultural Clichés

I guess if you persevere and persist speaking french most people will understand and switch back to french. You have to be more stubborn than we are but staying respectful as well.

As far as I’m concerned I feel most tourists try to speak french but just to be polite so we “help” them by speaking english.

I worked in a car rental company in Provence, and I needed things to go fast, so it was frustrating to deal with customers who tried to speak french, and time didn’t allow us to take the time for that so I would automatically switch to english to speed things up 🙂

Maybe you could also start a sentence by saying “Je parle français” so people will know they can speak french to you. Hope this helps.

I found the whole issue of people responding to me in English when I approached them in French to be incredibly rude. I am conversational but not fluent in French mainly because it is a bit difficult for me speak and understand at full speed. I am good enough though that I have had full conversations in French in Quebec and in France with native speakers, including asking for and receiving directions with no difficulty. They understood me just fine. I think that many French are just very stuck up about their language and extremely impatient if one doesn’t speak it perfectly fluently. On a recent trip to the Provence region, at least once a day, I would speak French to someone and they would respond to me by rolling their eyes and answering in English. I grew up in New York, where we get tons of foreign tourists who are not native speakers, so I am very familiar with the experience of conversing with someone who speaks and understands a little slowly and makes some errors. It’s really not that hard. Most people aren’t going to speak a second language perfectly unless they use it on a regular basis, and guess what, I heard plenty of French people make mistakes in English. I would never, ever roll my eyes at someone because they don’t speak my language perfectly. There’s no good excuse for that. This was my first visit to France outside of Paris, I actually found people to be more polite in Paris than elsewhere.

Hi Jane, I experience a lot of the same… I don’t really speak amazing French, but it can be discouraging if you try to speak and they come back at you with English. Sometimes I just continue speaking French anyways!

The Mauritian Geographer

I loved this!

I’ve been to Paris several times and wandered a few times outside of Paris to Bretagne mostly. Being able to speak French fluently (although mt french friends say I sound much more like a Canadian than French), I think I managed to understand more of the French and Parisian culture than a non-French speaker. In Paris mostly, people were less warmer as outside but I think that’s what happens in most cities as compared to the rural areas. It’s just as easy to find someone as rude in London or Ankara, where I currently live now, as it is in Paris.

Bretagne is so beautiful! I agree people seem to be more uptight in Paris rather than surrounding areas…

Rudeness and politness really are subjective feels. When i’m in the US, I am truly irritated by waiters, always asking if everything’s ok and so on, waiting for their tips. It seems to me they are just beggars… really frustrating for me to live such an experience. Waiters are sometimes rude in Paris (not because you’re a stranger, just because they are rude with everyone including french diners) but, according to french etiquette, a good polite waiter is just someone who answers when you ask, not someone who spies what you’re doing !

If I may precise my comment below, I don’t think we are rude, or at least the root to our rudeness is that we are grumpy or discontent and frustrated with life in general.

I’m still pondering why we are lacking so much apparent joy and smiles compared to other nations, even poorer ones…

I’s be more than happy to hear what you think about that.

Hello,

I enjoy your article. I am french, and I can tell you I’m always tired of our rudeness, even with one another.

I have to admit I am not patient with foreginers trying to speak french, but then it depends the level of french. I’m excited to speak english…I understand it’s rude but this takes us away from our routine for a few minutes I guess.

Compared to Americans we are really rude, I don’t like shopping in french stores so much. But when I go to America I just love the warmth and smiles.

I love France, but our attitude soemtimes makes it really difficult to enjoy.

Just my 2 cents.

I just spent the spring and early summer in Paris. Three whole months, two apartments, one in the 4th, one in the 6th. I think the French are wonderful. The occasional rude person is almost like a character from a movie. I found with one little Bon Jour the French were pleasant, charming, warm and conversant and I don’t speak french. Always apologizing for their lack of English, when i should have been doing the apologizing, I found them to have great manners towards the elderly, the children are quiet and seriously, i,the Californian, have decided to declare myself a Parisian. I adore them and their slight eccentricities and can’t wait to go again. It is an amazing city if you just get away from the tourist areas, just amazing.

“the saccharine service we are accustomed to”

Unfortunately you’ve just confirmed another American sterotype: assuming that everybody else is American too.

Great article though.
I found the book ‘Sixty Million Frenchmen Can’t be Wrong’ fascinating on this topic

We are not rude we are reserved , most Americans call you by your first name when we have just met, no, no, no… they say “We’ll call you” when they have no intention of doing so, which makes you look feckless.. They talk very loud in public… Make very rude comments in english thinking that we don’t understand… Should I go , I have been rude enough!!!

Annie v.

My first trip to France was in 1977. Since I speak French fluently, language was not an issue. I noticed a host of cultural differences and, as a Canadian, I often felt that people were extremely rude. But I still loved France.

I went back to France every few years until 1993, when I had my first child. My next trip to France (or should I say, Paris) was in 2013. Then, my husband and I rented an apartment in Paris and spent the whole month of May there this year. Things have really changed!

We like to say that, for the most part, Parisians nowadays “have not gotten the memo.” In other words, contrary to the clichés, they are polite and helpful, and sometimes downright warm and pleasant. We lived in the 11th and got to know the local storekeepers, boulangers and restaurateurs. It was a wonderful experience. Honestly, if I were younger and and could find a decent job in Paris, I would move there.

I think it really does make a difference when one speaks the language fluently. I have a very light Canadian accent, which most people pick up on in the course of a conversation. However, with the exception of one person, whom I have known personally for forty years and who still felt the need to make snide remarks about a slightly elongated vowel or two, people greeted me more like a long-lost cousin than as a second-class (linguistic) citizen.

In short, there are significant cultural differences between France (and yes, Paris) and North America (though we Canadians see ourselves as very different from our American neighbours, too!). You have to adapt and accept, and never forget to say “Bonjour, monsieur-dame” when passing someone in the courtyard of your building.

Carla Cosgrove (Australia)

Loved this post (and France!) 🙂 I always think that anyone who is finding people to be consistently rude, in France or elsewhere, should consider this: Perhaps it’s not them, it’s YOU being rude! We all travel to experience different cultures, so as visitors it’s OUR job to find out what is considered polite and act appropriately, not the other way around. All it takes is to sit down at a Paris cafe for a spot of people watching to quickly notice that the French are infact extremely polite and have many more day-to-day formalities than most of us non-French are accustomed to.

In my time in this beautiful place I was surprised at just how often I was treated with warmth, little kindnesses and even the occassional complimentary (in exchange for a story) glass of armagnac or pain au chocolate.

I found that simple things like dressing well (incl. hair + minimal makeup), making sincere attempts at the language, paying attention to what behaviour was appropriate, SMILING and having the ability to laugh at myself went a very long way both in making sure I enjoyed my time in France and in having some wonderful locals really open up and share some good times.

I also think that in life we will almost always find what we’re looking for: I came to Paris looking to enjoy every little detail/smell/taste/feel of the place, while my husband came along expecting to meet the fabled “rude” French.

Guess which of us had a waiter throw a menu at their head? 😀

I loved reading this post! Before I went to Paris at the beginning of this year, I kept hearing over and over of how ‘rude’ the French people are, but my experiences were so far from that! Of the whole 2 month trip, I can think of probably one or two times where this stereotype held true, but on the whole I found Parisians to be really patient with me when I stumbled over my words and quite cheery and hospitable. A fair few even took interest in knowing I had traveled all the way from Australia and were fascinated by what I told them about my home.

The people and service I encountered made my trip even more wonderful and I cannot wait to return.

Nice and well written article, but…
Please, can you not say ‘the French’ when you mean ‘the Parisians’? Paris is not the whole of France 😉
I know it’s a common cliché because most foreigners only get to Paris, but it doesn’t stop it being annoying to French nationals especially in the countryside where life is totally different from the one led in Paris.
Carry on the good work though !

Another example of visitors to France being rude is taking photos of people without asking. This is considered very rude and instrusive.

Interestingly, North Americans can come across as abrupt in France as we don’t always open our conversations with strangers with “hello” or “bonjour” first. In Canada, we sometimes start with “excuse-me….” for example without saying hello first.

Personally, every time my husband and I were in Paris, we would laugh about the “rude” French … those elusive people that we never met.
Do the British people find them so rude or are the gregarious insecure visitors from the US etc just on the look-out for something that could be misconstrued as “rude’ … sorry, inadvertant rhyming.
I am not picking on anyone, it is just such a cliche and having been to France more times than I can count right now and my husband having lived there … the “rude thing” is just silly already.
I live in NY .. I can find a rude person if I search. So I am sure someone searched and found it in Paris too.

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