If you’ve ever been to Paris you may think of the French as cranky, not-overly-hospitable, tourist-weary, maybe even down right rude. When I first moved to Paris, I had glimpses of this behavior too. But there is a way around all that coolness.
Once you get to know French people, they are kind, generous, adoring, warm, friendly. But that’s only after you’ve broken through the armor. It takes time. Like in most big cities, people here already have their circle of friends and they don’t need or encourage new associations, especially with people who are staying for a temporary period of time. Of course, you can find exceptions. Give the following a little thought.
The French have old-school manners. When you walk into a shop or a resturant or onto a bus in France, the first thing out of your mouth should be “Bonjour” and cue the smile. This will automatically put the receiver of your greeting in the right mood.
See, in France, a waiter is not a student in college trying to pay tuition. Being a serveur in France is a career choice. These people went to school for their trade and consider themselves professional. And they are professional. Just like the baker in France is an entrepreneur and an artist. The wine saleman is an expert.
Consider that in French culture there is a certain comradery among countrymen. I wager it all goes back to the Revolution, the break down of the class system and all that talk of Freedom, Liberty and Fraternity. As a result, you don’t treat people like objects or machines of service. People in service industries in France aren’t there first and foremost to serve you, it’s a job to them; their life and the pleasure they dirved therefrom is first and foremost.
Indeed. So, greet people in every situation, both when you meet them and when you say goodbye. Bonjour (ou Bonsoir if its after 6pm) for hello and Bonne jounrée/Bonne soirée/Au revoir, or any logical combination of two, for goodbye.
My Mom, who is one of the nicest and most thoughtful people in the world, ran into this problem when she first visited me in Paris. In Canada, where she has lived for many years now, she is known for her Southern charms (we’re originally from Alabama), her ‘Yes Ma’ams’ and ‘No Sirs’. People are truly enchanted by her old fashion manners. But for some reason when she arrived in France, rather than walking into a shop and saying, “Bonjour Madame” and then asking for advice or help, she simply went straight to the point, asked her question and was subsequently totally bewildered as to why the sales lady was so rude to her.
Yet, she would never have walked into a shop in Toronto and posed a question without saying hello. It was the stress of a foreign language that got to her, I think. She was trying to concentrate on what she was going to say, how she was going to get her point across, rather than her manners.
The French have a saying about American tourists, well, they have many. (I’m picking on my fellow Americans here, but this really applies to all tourists… Canadians, Australians, the English – those whom I can understand anyway.) Of all the stereotypes, the one I try to fight against on a regular basis, and the one I wish Americans woud try to rectify, is the rudeness.
Americans/Canadians/Australians/Brits – Anglophones – are not rude (for the most part). In fact, I just spent a week in London where I encountered the most friendly bunch of people I’ve ever met, anywhere – everyone from the taxi drivers to the shop keepers, waiters and people just walking down the street. We English-speakers are hopsitable and kind and friendly. Yet somehow we seem to forget all that when we walk into a brasserie in Paris, speak English to the staff as if everyone in the world should be fluent, and talk so loudly to one another that the entire restaurant knows how much we paid to get into the Lourve. It’s embarassing. But we as tourists don’t notice. All we see is the rude waiter glaring at us from the corner of his eye, the classic sigh and raised eye-brows of the French couple seated next to us. Funny enough, I’m now one of those sighing neighbors. Nothing bothers me more than a group of Anglophone tourists who I know are probably decent people but who seem to do everything in their power to demonstrate their vulgarity.
This leads me to point number two. English speakers tend to speak very loudly when we are put into a group together. I think most people of any language are that way when piled together in one place. But it irritates the French to not be able to hear their dinner companion because of the boisterous tourists across five tables down.
Do we all just forget our manners when we travel? Maybe.
Finally, to truly get under the cool outer skin of the Parisian, you must learn to go
with the flow. ‘When in Rome…’ is an expression as old as civilization for a reason. The French consider themselves sophistocated, and for the most part they are. They consider themselves well-read, civilized, dignified; again for the most part they are. So (and here I’m playing with the stereotype, so don’t get all riled up) when we tourists walk around with our over-stuffed fanny packs, neon wind breakers and flat-beaked baseball caps, walk into a semi-elegant restaurant, demand a table with not so much as a greeting, complain about the service (even though the French tradition is to not be rushed through a meal so the waiters are trained to wait for a descreet signal before bringing the check), rant about how small the toilets are, and talk to one another as if we were in a baseball park, you can understand why the French are cold and abrupt with us.
The good news is, as I told my Mom, all of this is easily rectified. I already mentioned the greetings, which are important because even if you only speak those words in French (like me when I first came here), the French know you are at least making an effort.
Secondly, respect their rules. The French are regulated by a set of intricate and intertwinned rules that govern their daily lives. And there are just as many exceptions to these rules, but these exceptions are reserved as a priviledge of the French. What do I mean? If there is a sign that says “SVP Ne Touchez Pas” “Please don’t touch”, then don’t touch. If they ask you to push in your chair at the table because more people are going to squish into the table right beside you (and yes, it is almost on top of you), then squish over.
Remember, they aren’t in Philadelphia or Toronto trying to squish another couple into a space not quite big enough for one. It’s you who has chosen to visit their home. When in Rome… remember, When in Rome…
Tips in restaurants are not necessary in France, but they are appreciated. For a café you can leave some change, 50 cents or something like that. For a meal, two euros or so. But you don’t have to. It’s already included as a communal tip in the bill.
In a hotel, however, it is customary to tip one euro per bag to a bellboy/porter. A little something for the maids when you leave, depending on the type of hotel you stay in. Maybe a euro a day, something like that.
And of course, just like when we were kids and our parents cocked their heads and looked at us when we were supposed to say ‘thank you’, Merci is important in France. As important as Bonjour. The perfect phrase to use when you are leaving a restaurant/ boutique/boulangerie is this: “Merci beaucoup Madame(Monsieur), Bonne Journée (Bonne soirée) Au revoir.”
It took me a little time to learn all this; of course I threw myself into the deep end when I moved to France knowing only three words of the language back then and having no knowledge of these customs. So I thought it might help some of you when you visit to know where the French are coming from, why they behave the way they do, and so on. They’re not rude. They’re fed up.
My final thought of the subject is to remember that the French do NOT have the same culture of service as North Americans. (And I miss ours sometimes!) So expecting smilely, superficial chatter of the “Good afternoon, my, don’t you look lovely! How can I help you today?” sort will only disappoint you. The French are the anthesis of idle compliments and superficial emotions. The are Frank… ergo les Francs.
I’d love to hear about your experiences with the frank Frenchies.