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. It 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. As I left the tabac, the owner said, “Gardez toujours votre sourire” (always keep your smile). That won’t be a problem. I’m subversive by nature and enjoy challenging French societal structure—one wry smile 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 a nervous smile or idiotic grinning can be a handicap and a dead giveaway of one’s non-French status, an infectious smile is also the expat’s greatest weapon. In a sea of local scowls, a big smile opens doors. And sometimes those doors lead to bars where people buy you free drinks. So I say, work it.
- Need another reason to put a bright smile on your face? Paris is coming out of winter and moving into warmer temperatures. Read about the affect of sunlight on Parisians.
- Want to know more about expat life? Peek into the life of a would-be Parisian.
- Wondering what other giveaways let people know you are not French? Check out 10 tips for how to appear Parisian.
Written by Tory Hoen. 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.