Friday, July 8, 2011

The French Rude? Myth or Reality?

Ask anyone which word they would associate with "French" and chances are the answer will be "rude".

(This article was written by my husband, who is French, and was meant to share some cultural trips with foreigners wanting to travel to France...):

It is a reputation that is perpetrated by generations of travelers, and horror stories abound. But those horror stories often come from either people who have not travelled to France, or by people who so expected to find rudeness everywhere in France that, inevitably, they did find it.

The fact is that the myth of the rude French is often a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you're bracing yourself for contempt and insolence, you'll be on the defensive and may cause people to be taken aback; furthermore, chances are you'll interpret any normal (at least, for the French) behavior as impolite. Or you'll notice rudeness more than you would in other circumstances, because you're expecting to see it.

Truth is, there are no more rude people in Paris than in any other major city in the world. The French may be slightly more sensitive about their culture and language than other nations, but they are not particularly anti-American or hostile. Keep in mind that France is the world's top tourist destination, so more people have travelled there, and there are therefore more stories about it, than, say, Poland. But the reasons for the perceived rudeness in France are the same as anywhere else. Mainly, the norms are different from what we expect, and what is considered innocent behavior locally can be interpreted as rude by a visitor, or worse, a visitor can behave impolitely in the eyes of the locals.

In fact, it is quite easy, as a visitor, to be rude to locals. Rules of what is polite and what is rude are, by essence, very culture-specific. And as guests, we shouldn't expect our hosts to make the effort to adapt to our rules. When we also make no effort to speak their language, when we criticize the way they do things or don't show respect for their culture, we can't blame them for telling us off.

One of the main reasons for perceiving that the French are unfriendly is that they don't smile. That is true - French people typically don't smile at strangers: a smile is considered a form of communication that is reserved for people one knows well, since it expresses an emotion. However, strangers exchange what I have seen referred to as "the French smile": more like a grin, really, just pinching your lips and briefly extending the corners of the mouth. This is used more as an acknowledgment, and is completely neutral. Don't think it's sarcastic!

Body language is essential, as Michael R., a recent visitor to Paris from Seattle, points out:

I didn't have a strong grasp of the language when I had visited so I couldn't accomplish much with dialogue. I just all ways tried to maintain a positive body language such as eye contact,light smiles, and standing up tall. It seemed to help alot with what others thought of me before a word was even said.
Another comment I often hear is that "the French don't speak English". That always makes me raise an eyebrow: after all, why should the locals make an effort to speak a foreign language? Imagine if you were walking down the street of your hometown, and someone tapped you on the shoulder and addressed you in a foreign language: you would understandably be taken aback. That's what happens to many a Parisian in the summer.

So make an effort to learn the basics of French (hello, please, thank you, excuse me, can you help me, goodbye) and people will be so flattered that you try that they will switch to English to make it easier for you. And if they correct your French, don't take it the wrong way: they consider it an honor to help you improve it. Jaime B., a young professional from Arizona, tells this story of an impromptu French lesson:

I my last moments of my most recent trip to France, my taxi driver spoke to me in French, and I tried my best to respond, noting that I am still learning the basics of the language.  He offered to help me perfect my pronunciation during the commute.  During our lengthy, rush-hour drive, I would read passages from my lesson book, and he would correct me.  He asked questions about the material and insisted that I answer in French.  It was the most valuable French lesson, err, taxi ride, ever.  As he dropped me off, he reminded me to bring my lesson book when I returned to France, so we could work on conjugation.
(Here it should be noted that the first French person you may encounter, the cabbie at the airport, has a very high probability of being grumpy and unfriendly. In their defense, they just spent several hours in line waiting for a customer, so we should cut them some slack.)

French people appreciate so much when you address them in their language and observe their social norms, that they will often go above and beyond the call of duty to be helpful.Jaime tells this other story:

During my first visit to Paris, I found myself lost on the Metro.  Very lost.  As I sat in my seat, on a train bound for anywhere, I wanted so badly to ask someone for help.  All of my pre-trip exposures to the legendary reputation of the French flashed in my memory, starting with cartoons I had seen as a child, and ending with what I would later realize to be scenarios of tourists with high expectations, and locals responding with the same shock that I would have, if I was in their Luis Vuitton shoes.  Back on the train, I could feel the crease between my eyebrows tighten as I looked back at the map.  And then it happened.  A woman leaned toward me, and asked, in English, if I was lost.  Relieved by her volunteerism, I told her where I wanted to go.  Do you think she told me how to get there?  No.  She escorted me off that train, onto another, and to the next set of turnstiles.  She left me there, and wished me good luck, with some simple directions that I quickly forgot.  In seconds, a small child asked if I needed help.  I told him what I was looking for.  Again, no directions.  He told his father he would catch up with him later, and walked me to the platform.  He smiled, and literally skipped off.  Once I reached my destination, I rose to street level.  I stood, staring at that worthless map, and a street sweeper asked me if I was lost.  I was starting to think it was obvious.  I told him which museum I was looking for.  He said it was a little difficult to find.  He left his broom leaning on a tree, walked me to the museum, and asked for one ticket for the young lady.
I have driven strangers across the city in my car when they have asked me for directions... but I have also sent a guy on a wild goose chase when he tapped me on the shoulder and asked, in English: "hey buddy, where's the Eiffel Tower?". I probably added to his repertoire of stories about the rude French... but hey - he deserved it.

Note: to improve your chances of finding someone helpful, try to interact with people who are not at work - they are usually in a better mood.

It's true that France has its share of real jerks, like any country. You may encounter some in Paris like you may find them in Chicago, London, Berlin or Tokyo. Jaime concludes her story of her trip with this recollection:

It should be mentioned that the very few legitimately rude French people who I've encountered were world-class.  I've considered performing a tuck-and-roll out of a moving taxi, and held my arm to prevent myself from slapping a small few, deserving cases.  But this has been the exception to the rule.

So I can't guarantee that you won't encounter who will genuinely be rude. But if you follow the same simple rules of humble and responsible travel in France as you would in any other country, you'll be pleased to find people who are happy to help and honored to have crossed your path.

Do you have stories about your interaction with the French, good or bad? Please post them in the comments!

**Photo Credit: Flickr CC - Some rights reserved by Jean-Pierre Dalbera

Jean-Pierre Dalbéra

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