Loving the French (What’s Not to Love?)

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.

21 Replies to “Loving the French (What’s Not to Love?)”

  1. I echo the sentiments. You touch upon the differences between transactions-oriented versus relationship-oriented cultures. While visiting customers in any American city be it Redmond, San Jose, Detroit, or NY, transacting business during lunch or dinner is expected. There is not so much chit-chat. “It’s not personal, it’s business.” I have spent alot of time in Europe on business, much more than on vacation. I learned a long time ago that in the Mediterranean countries, there is never shop talk while having meals with customers. It is always a “get to know you” or “good to see you again” meeting. Relationship building is an important part of those cultures. So when visiting France, the simple “bonjour” does go a long ways in establishing a bit of a relationship even if it is ordering a baguette in a bakery or even buying metro tickets when you only have large bills.

  2. Agreeing with all of this. One of the nicest people I encountered in France was in a fancy boutique. I had walked past the place many times admiring a skirt in the window, but was too intimidated to enter. Finally on my last day I bit the bullet and took Rick’s advice to greet the shopkeeper upon entering. The shopkeeper was super helpful, and I realized that she was actually insecure about her English, just as I was about my French. We muddle through anyway and now I have a wonderful souvenir of my time in Paris in the skirt that I bought.

  3. Well said. You’re 100% correct that the French seem to be a little more formal and introverted than the average American, but when treated accordingly they are warm and friendly.

  4. We just returned from three weeks in France ( 7 days in Paris) It was wonderful. Of course, as Canadians we do have familiarity with French and a good accent. We met with nothing but kindness, especially when I got lost driving in the countryside. The main issue is respect – respect for being in another country and another culture. Bonjour, madame, and au revoir or bonne journee ( have a good day) go a long, long way to facilitating any exchange. It is just being polite and is very easy to do. Everyone should try it, wherever they are from.

  5. I agree. We found the people of Paris to be very warm and patient. Almost everyone spoke English. We spoke little French and were treated very well. Imagine if someone from Paris came to the U.S. and spoke little English. How would they be treated? It’s very simple, be respectful and you will have no problems in France.

  6. I have done my best to spread the word about the lovely French. Yes, it’s true. We just traveled over much of France in May 2015 and found it just as I hoped. Courteous,reserved perhaps, slower paced, charming small towns clean as a pin, farm lands, enjoying their food and people watching. The only area we didn’t cover is Southern France near Marseille and Nice. I believe there is a newer spirit since the days 30 years ago when my husband went in as a serious businessman with a serious face. he met a different people he said. But then, he didn’t have me along by his side with a smile and broken French. Listen to Rick Steves tips and enjoy.

  7. Cameron, you are so right. We usually find ourselves distancing ourselves from most other American travelers. The French are wonderful people and they love it when you even try to speak their language. And, from experience, the same is true in Italy, Croatia, Montenegro, Germany, and everywhere we have been. Take off the baseball caps, stupid t-shirts, and don’t be a jerk. Thanks, Cameron!

  8. Thank you for the insights. We are off to London and Paris in a few weeks and I will try and keep them in mind. Being a ‘big dog’ among countries, too often Americans seem to expect people in their native country to conform to American modes when we are the visitors and should be trying to harmonize with those we are visiting. Yes, I understand what @david huntress said, sometimes other Americans can really be embarassing (and LOUD).

  9. My husband and I made our first holiday in Paris in October of 2014. I, too, was told how mean the French are. Those saying that probably had never visited France. The French were warm, cordial and very helpful. We went to the Rodin Museum and, after saying ‘Bon jour”, we asked the clerk at the desk whether there were senior prices for entrance. He took one look at the cane I was using (6 months after a knee replacement) and he let us in for free with a big smile. Someone else helped us out at the laundromat. I could site other instances, but you get the point: I adore the French and cannot wait to return to their beautiful country.

  10. I have only been to France three times, twice to Paris and last fall we spent a lovely week in Provence on our own. My French is pathetic, but I do try to greet people and smile ( no grinning). My husband and I have never had a rude encounter with anyone in France, but have been greeted with friendly politeness. We were lost at night last fall in the country, and we stopped to ask directions from a gas station employee/owner. He spoke no English, but he did get us off in the right direction, and even came out of the shop to point out where exactly we should go. My husband was quite impressed and any lingering ideas about French rudeness vanished. Of course, I am probably preaching to the choir here, but we try to spread the word about the helpfulness of the French. It helps to be a little humble.

  11. Wonderful article! Spot on! Just returned from Provence where we met many, many kind hearted and helpful locals!

  12. Félicitations, Cameron! It is always such a treat for us, Frenchies (especially expats,) to read positive stories about the French in the media. This is so good I will share your insights with my francophile readers on the French Girl in Seattle Facebook page. Keep traveling in la Belle France and informing (educating?) your fellow American travelers. Merci et à bientôt. Veronique (aka French Girl in Seattle)

  13. In 2013 we took the RS Paris tour. I had trepidations of being scoffed at, dismissed, ignored based on things I’d read and heard Stateside. I brushed up on my French, and it was a broad brush indeed, put forth a quieter, more reserved version of my New York self, and sallied forth. We spent 6 days on our own, at the mercy of my poor, present-tense only French. One of the biggest WOW moments of this visit was the discovery that the French are charming, helpful, and even friendly with a good sense of humor. You are spot on that if you treat the French with reserve and respect, if you don’t act like a two-year old and stomp your feet impatiently, you will treated in kind. I love France, and am planning to return, hopefully with the past tense under my belt. There is a subtley and dignity to the French, traits that Americans would do well to adapt.

  14. Great write-up, certainly covered some very important, yet subtle, points. There are differences between the French and American cultures, and a simple knowledge of expectations can go a long way. I’ve heard so many people complain about the rudeness of the French. I’ve traveled throughout France and have enjoyed every trip, one just needs to remember that we’re visiting another country, it’s not an extension of our country.

  15. Bonjour,

    Merci for hitting the nail on the head.

    I’ve been to France three times and found the French to be very pleasant, stylish, sophisticated and helpful.

    However we observed a few ugly Americans who I wanted to punch right in the mouth. These jerks give us Americans a bad reputation. They probably went home and told others how rude the French are. How stupid is that?

    The old expression “when in Rome.. ” works well all over Europe.

    Merci beaucoup.

    Rick’s doppelganger

  16. I suppose you could run into a random grouch anywhere, but after several trips to France, it hasn’t happened to us. My guess is that most of the people who have a negative encounter in France probably have them wherever they are — even in their hometowns.

  17. Cameron,

    I read your title, “Loving the French (What’s Not to Love?)” and found myself agreeing out loud with you after every point made: “Yep. Right. Uh-huh. Oh, yes! Me too. Absolutely.”

    Then I read all 16 of the Comments posted, and continued smiling, nodding, and saying, “M-hm” many more times. My personal experiences traveling all throughout France have echoed yours and the other people’s who’ve commented here. The French people I’ve met have been helpful, considerate, and polite. I adore them and their country (and of course their food).

    My best moments in France are when I slowly begin a conversation in my version of the French language, and I see that slight twinkle in the person’s eye as he or she attempts to understand me. I believe it is a moment of appreciation between two cultures. Those are the moments I cherish. Those are my treasured French souvenirs.

    Thank you for taking the time to write this enlightening article for us all.

  18. France is one of my favorite countries! I am looking forward to learning about Vietnam from Jackie so if she sees my message send me the news at my e-mail above.

  19. Cameron,

    I saw your post when I was on the Paris & Heart of France tour. I have to agree with the other comments listed here. I don’t know French and was only armed with a few vital phrases from our guide.

    Even when I messed up my pronunciation at the chocolate shop in Amboise and received the proper pronunciation from another tour member, when I apologized to the salesperson, she smiled at me and said in perfect English, “Don’t worry. You’re trying.”.

    I couldn’t be happier with how I was treated while in France. As you said, a little understanding of French culture goes a long way.

    I found that if you don’t expect the world to provide you with English subtitles, you’ll be fine.

  20. Thanks, Rick, for saying what I’ve béen saying and writing for yeaŕs. I have the good fortune of being married to a Frenchman and can verify that all you say is true. If you or your readers want to go a little further into these fascinating cultural différences, don’t hesitate to pick up one of my books. Again, thanks for your ever so pertinent comments.

  21. Traveling in France has made me more polite in my own country. I try to always greet people before I tell them what I want. And have found that some people respond to “hello, how are you” with impatience, but I feel I get someone’s attention before I start in on what I need.
    I was just in Dublin with a friend and was amazed at how she would ask a stranger in the street for directions without saying ‘hello’ or ‘excuse me’. She lives in London and has traveled a lot. But the Dubliners didn’t mind AT ALL. So I really saw that it was cultural.

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