Parisian Living

Friend or Foe? How to Cope When the French Get Feisty

by Tory Hoen

Here at HiP Paris we’ve brought you fabulous content since 2008! We’ve peeked through the archives and revisited our favorite articles. We hope you enjoy this trip down memory lane as much as we did!
This piece is by 
Tory Henwood Hoen, who was an early team member at HiP Paris. Back in the day, she wrote about her misadventures as an expat in Paris, and now she’s written her first novel, The Arc, which came out recently. This article was originally published in 2010 about how feisty the French can be. Let us know about your memorable experiences dealing with the French in the comments below, and enjoy!

A waiter smoking on a break and cafe Le Saint Jean seen through an archway
Top left: Olya Sháma / Top right: Daria Zabello / Above left: theparisbarista / Above right: capra311

We’ve all heard something to the effect of, “Paris would be perfect, if it weren’t for the French.” I usually laugh these comments off as clichés that hark back to an earlier age, when France was more culturally closed than it is now. We all know that today’s French are as affable as kittens… or are they? During my days in Paris, my opinion of Parisians vacillated constantly. One moment, I was pleasantly surprised by the (maybe too) friendly feedback I would get from taxi drivers, “Your accent is so charming, you should stay in France forever”; and the next, I was smarting from the evil looks cast by super-stylish French salesgirls, whose foreigner radar always seemed to seek me out.

People sitting outside a cafe during sunset and a lady walking holding flowers
Above left: Shabnam Ferdowsi / Above right: Emily Taubert

There’s really no point in generalizing about whether the French are “nice” or “mean.” It’s like asking whether clowns are funny or terrifying. The answer? Both.

It’s a nuanced world, especially in Paris. During my last visit, I was in a bakery when an obviously non-French girl was attempting to order a flan. The woman behind the counter asked what kind.“ Nature (plain),” said the girl.
Il n’y a plus. Que d’abricot (There’s no more, only apricot),” said the saleswoman.
Nature,” repeated the girl, not understanding.
Abricot,” insisted the saleswoman.
Nature.”
Abricot.”
This went on for a full minute, with the French saleswoman refusing to budge, despite knowing that the poor flan-craving girl in front of her had no idea what was going on. Finally, she basically flung an apricot flan at the girl and sent her packing. Sometimes, the French are just like that; they make things difficult just for the sake of being difficult. (Because when it’s not difficult, it’s boring). Therefore, your happiness in Paris may come down to your ability to “manage” the French. Here are a few tips to keep in mind when things (or individuals) get prickly:

A waiter peering over at his customers and some Parisian buildings at dusk
Above left: ar1cha / Above right: julieaucontraire

Speak French. Even if you don’t speak French, learn some basic phrases and always lead with them. A little effort (no matter how poorly accented) can make all the difference between charming a Parisian and alienating one.

Try smiling. This may catch your average Parisian off-guard, which can work to your advantage.

If the smile backfires, try scowling. (A well-executed scowl is tantamount to speaking French, anyway).

Look like you know what you’re doing. If you’re in a store or a market, browse and buy with confidence. Appearing to have discerning tastes and conviction will earn you respect.

A busy Cafe Le Nemrod with the sun casting long shadows behind it and a fromagerie
Above left: javiernapi / Above right: Luuk Willem Klawer

Don’t take “no” for an answer. The French person’s default answer is usually “no,” even when they could just as easily say “yes.” Whether you’re requesting a restaurant reservation, a smaller (or, um, bigger) size, or the last table on the terrasse, don’t let an initial negative answer put you off. Persist (with polite assertiveness) and doors may just open.

And above all, don’t take anything personally. Sometimes you’ll end up feeling like an idiot without knowing why, simply because some French person is in a pissy mood. Take it with a grain of salt (good French sea salt). And remember that, fundamentally, the French kind of like you—even if they act like they hate you. There’s an age-old tradition of loving to hate-to-love-to-hate-to-love-to-hate foreigners, especially Americans. But now that I’m in New York and hearing French on every other street corner, I realize they can’t hate us that much (try as they might to pretend they do).

A lady with flowers on her bicycle and two people sitting in the window of a cafe
Kate Devine

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Written By

Tory Hoen

Tory Henwood Hoen is a former Paris resident who now lives in Brooklyn. Her debut novel, The Arc, is available in bookshops near you and online View Tory Hoen's Website

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2 comments on “Friend or Foe? How to Cope When the French Get Feisty

Tory hits the nail on the head here. A run of poor experiences with Parisians can truly wear a person down. Often so infuriatingly unnecessary! The flip side being that a shared joke, a kindness, or generosity, is such a surprise that it’s impact hits deep. My French partner told me that if anyone was snippy with me that I had to basically give it out double thick to win their respect. I would much rather people were nice in the first place but there we are.

One of my many memories of visiting Paris was my first trip at 16 with my family, almost 50 years ago. My parents and sisters had all studied Spanish in school, whereas I studied French. This made me, the youngest, the official interpreter by default.
While in a shop near Jardin du Luxembourg, my oldest sister came upon one of several owl figurines she loved. These curios could fit in the palm of your hand and being carved from marble, they all had different colored veins. My sister found “the one,” but it was missing one of its eyes, which appeared to be small chips of a darker stone, glued in place. It was up to me to explain this dilemma to the shop keeper, an elderly woman. Though my French wasn’t quite that advanced, she quickly understood my sister’s concern. She picked up a small metal tool and a different, two-orbed owl, then plucked one of its eyes off and glued it on to the figurine my sister wanted.
My sister was delighted, the woman happy to oblige and I was moved because so many people, including a teacher, warned me about Parisians being rude.
My sister has since passed and I don’t know where the owl ended up, but I hope it found its forever nest.

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