I’m always a little intimidated when first arriving in France. I suspect living in America has programmed me — against the sum total of my actual life experience — to think of French people as being stuffy and snooty and unkind to outsiders. With each visit, I have a million mini-epiphanies about how wrongheaded that is. And then I go home and forget all that I’ve learned.
On this trip, it didn’t take me long to remember how much I love this place — and especially its people. French folks aren’t rude and abusive. They’re reserved, and a bit formal. They believe in a certain orderliness to social interaction. They just want to be respected, and if you respect them, you’ll get more than your share of respect in return.
The typical “Howzit goin’?” American cowboy stampedes all over the French social order. We Yanks pride ourselves on our independence, on bucking convention, on being on an instant first-name basis with every stranger we happen to ride the elevator with. And, in their place, those can be wonderful qualities. But the fact is, it clashes with the French worldview.
One of my colleagues, who guides our tours all over Europe, recently confessed to me that she finds France one of the hardest places to bring Americans to. It’s not because the French are unpleasant; it’s because we Americans aren’t always the most adaptable when on someone else’s terms. And the French do expect us to respect their turf.
A few years ago, a Parisian shop clerk explained this dynamic to me with a sublime simplicity: “In France, we don’t want to be defined by our work. We want to be acknowledged as a human being first, and only then as a provider of services. So just say bonjour before telling us what you want from us. Treat our shop the way you would our living room. Would you walk into my house without saying hello?”
And that’s really all there is to it. When you interact with any French person, first acknowledge their humanity. It’s easy: Just say, “Bonjour!” Everyone can say that, without even practicing. For extra credit, throw in a Madame or a Monsieur. And when you leave, say “Au revoir!” If you do this, the French will instantly warm to you.
Another thing to keep in mind is that we Americans are always in a hurry. Time is money, and impatience is a virtue. But in France, they’ve mastered the art of fine living — and that means savoring the moment. Slow yourself down to their pace (or, at least, meet them in the middle). They’ll appreciate it…and you’ll likely find that it’s more enjoyable for you, too.
And here’s yet another way to think about it: France is a country of introverts. As an introvert myself, I can appreciate how extraverts sometimes come on too strong — getting in my face with an aggressive chumminess that, to me, feels fake and exhausting. As a country that values extraverts, we need to empathize a bit with the French. Don’t bowl them over with your enthusiasm; give them a gentle smile and a kind greeting, and they’ll be on your side.
Putting this approach into practice, I’ve had exactly zero terrible interactions with French people. After two straight weeks of traveling in France — and talking to dozens of people each day to update our guidebook — I honestly can’t recall a single difficult moment. (In fact, I find the French much warmer than most of their neighbors.)
And what about that language barrier? Wait, what language barrier? I speak no French, beyond a few pleasantries, but it’s pas de probleme. I find more and better English spoken in France than in Spain or Italy. People here can be a bit shy. When I ask locals if they speak English, many say to me, “A little bit. I will try.” What a nice way to put it. And by the way, many of those who are “trying” express a mastery of English that eludes some native speakers.
Even when they don’t speak English, they listen patiently, with a sweet smile, while I mangle their precious language in front of them, as if stomping on a delicate carpet with muddy boots. (I accomplish this by speaking Spanish with a French accent. Yeah, I’m that guy…and they still seem to like me!)
If there’s one caveat to this, it has to do with Paris. Look, it’s a big, busy city. And, like New York, London, or Tokyo, it’s a mix of kindhearted people and troubled cranks. Some Americans go only to Paris, have a couple of awkward interactions with surly Parisians, and extrapolate those to the entire country. I’ve met my share of grumpy Parisians, too. But overall, I’ve had many, many more positive experience there than negative ones. (When standing on a street corner puzzling over a map, I’ve been approached by helpful locals offering directions far more in Paris than anywhere else in Europe.)
I recently ran into one stubborn American who embodies this cultural disconnect. Perhaps a closet Freedom Fry-er, he clearly came here with a massive chip on his shoulder — tightly wound and ready to pounce. Over breakfast, I was enthusing about how friendly the French are, and how well they speak English, when he cut me off. “Oh, yeah?” he snapped. “If their English is soooo great, then why do I have to tell everyone bone-joor all the time?” While his wife — a francophile who clearly had been coaching him on this — died a silent death next to him, I replied, simply, “To be polite. Is it really that hard to say bonjour?”
What I was thinking, though, was this: To not get along with the French, you pretty much have to be a jerk.