If there’s one thing I learned as an American living in Paris, it is that mediocrity is unacceptable. It is for idiots and my fellow Americans—it is not for the French. I was once walking up my street when a particularly agitated French woman came charging out of a little cheese shop. She was perturbed in that very French way: shaking her head and quietly fuming, as if someone had just done her a grave disservice. When I got close enough to hear what she was griping about, she uttered the phrase: “C’était tout à fait médiocre.” It was completely mediocre.

She was talking about the cheese, or maybe about the shop itself­—its merchandise, its presentation. Whatever it was, it had greatly offended her, and she uttered the word “mediocre” as if it were the most vitriolic insult she could possibly conjure up. Mediocrity—the ultimate shame.

left: a display of charcuterie at a Paris market; right: the Seine at sunset with the Eiffel Tower lit up in the background
top: Eric Prouzet
above left: Lodewijk Hertog; right: Anthony Delanoix

French Taste vs. American Taste

The incident seemed indicative of a larger theme that reiterated itself in myriad ways while I was living in France, particularly when it comes to food. In the United States, bigger is often equated with better, and mediocrity is sort of the norm. When something exceeds mediocrity, we’re often pleasantly surprised. Conversely, the French have higher expectations and stricter standards, particularly when it comes to edibles. Quality and moderation trump quantity and excess. If it’s not good, vendors do not sell it, people do not buy it, one does not eat it… or wear it… or tolerate it. I have drawn a little chart to help illustrate relative tolerance levels.

A humorous graph depicting the different continuums of taste in French and American cultures.

Notice the difference in the size of the “Acceptable” zones on these spectra. Notice the American “Go For It!” attitude, in comparison with the French commitment to “Only If It’s Worth It.” Maybe that’s why French people are so svelte. They would rather starve with dignity than survive on canned cheese.

Of course, this is not true across the board. Crappy products are available everywhere in the world. But in general, French people are discriminating. Now that I’ve lived in Paris, I try to be too. Although sometimes I still get the urge to shove my face into a vat of peanut butter. Artisanal peanut butter, obviously.

Left: a tray of viennoiserie at a French bakery; right: a white platter with one of slice of bread with jam on it and another topped with peanut butter.
Left: Mink Mingle; Right Freddy

Written by Tory Hoen for the HIP Paris. Looking to travel? Check out Plum Guide and our Marketplace for fabulous vacation rentals in Paris, France or Italy. Looking to rent long or short term, or buy in France? Ask us! We can connect you to our trusted providers for amazing service and rates or click here. Looking to bring France home to you or to learn online or in person? Check out our marketplace shop and experiences.


Tory Hoen

Tory Henwood Hoen has been published by New York Magazine, Vogue, Condé Nast Traveler, Bon Appétit, Fortune, and others. She was Creative Director of Brand at M.M.LaFleur, where she founded the brand’s digital magazine, The M Dash. Her debut novel, The Arc, is available in bookshops near you and online.

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