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Communicating with Parisians

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Are the French rude? First of all, I don’t think one should ever characterize an entire nation as being “rude” or “friendly”. That’s just silly. But the stereotype just won’t die, probably because Parisians can be more rude than the average French person.

But you can chalk that up to typical “big city attitude” that you’ll also find in New York. Parisians are always in a hurry — brasserie waiters, people in line at the bank, people shoving their way off the Métro car — so don’t take it personally; just try and stay out of the way!

Basic Etiquette

In the past decade, though,  it seems that the Parisians have become more polite to tourists. Every time I meet someone visiting town, they always say how happily surprised they are with the service or general friendliness of Parisians they’ve met. Now maybe the French service industry is just getting smart about attracting repeat business and tips, or maybe over the years we visitors have just lowered our expectations to the point where we’re easily impressed.

Maybe you’re the one being rude

In general, if a French person seems to be acting rude towards you, it’s probably because they’re reacting to your rude behavior. Etiquette is not universal, but changes within each culture, and what’s considered polite in the US is not the same in France, and vice versa. Here are some French no-no’s that will make you look like a rude foreigner:

  • Not Greeting the Shopkeeper This is probably the most universal example of Franco-American misunderstanding. In France, when someone walks into a small boutique, bakery, pharmacy, or whatever, and doesn’t say the magic words — Bonjour Madame/Monsieur — they will instantly be pegged as rude customers, and the shopkeeper will then be unhelpful, huffy, or downright rude in return. Sometimes the shopkeeper will just ignore the client until they go away. Then the visitor goes home and tells everyone that the French are rude. See how crazy this is? In France you must always — ALWAYS — greet the shopkeeper unless it’s such a big store that they don’t notice you walking in (like department stores), and don’t forget to say goodbye, even if you didn’t buy anything: “Merci, au revoir Madame/Monsieur”. One admirable trait of the French that I like: they will not tolerate rude behavior in order to make a sale. Dignity over money, not “the customer is always right”. Keep that in mind and you’ll always get good service.
  • Not Asking Questions Politely You want to ask someone for directions, the price of a product, whether you can change hotel rooms? Better know the second most important phrase in French etiquette: “Excusez-moi de vous déranger”. If you’re really pathetic at speaking French, at least say “Excusez-moi, Madame/Monsieur”. If you’re extra ambitious, then try: Bonjour Madame/Monsieur, excusez-moi de vous déranger, mais j’ai un question/problème. The words “question” and “problème” are practically the same in both languages. With that, you’ve shown the French person you’re polite and worthy of their assistance. You can now go ahead and make your appeal (in Franglais, if you have to). If you’re just asking for information, you have a “question”. If you want something that isn’t normal (like a bigger hotel room, your salad dressing on the side, a refund because you purchased the wrong train ticket), then you have a “problem”, and you’re appealing for that person’s help (humbling yourself a bit is more likely to convince them to help you than being demanding and righteous, by the way). Don’t forget to throw around a lot of s’il vous plâit‘s for bonus points.
  • Talking Loudly The French are very discreet; conversations are meant to be heard only by the people in them, not everyone else in the Métro or restaurant. Keep your voices down to the level of those around you.
  • Taking Up Too Much Space Space is a luxury in Europe, and when you’re in a city with two million people packed in tightly, it’s essential to share your space. Don’t spread yourself out over two seats on the Métro or bus. Don’t expect to get a table for four when you’re only two (no matter how impossibly small those bistro tables can be).
  • Touching Things You Shouldn’t Touch Someone emailed me once and asked why the man at the fruit stand screamed at her when she picked up the oranges and then put them back. It was most likely one of those stands where only the shopkeeper can touch the produce (this keeps it from getting bruised and dirty, by the way). The only way to know is to watch what other do, or ask. In some boutiques it’s frowned upon to handle the merchandise without asking, but this is usually obvious, like crystal or antiques. Anything in the window display of a store is also off-limits (the elaborate scenes are usually considered works of art in their own right), so ask if you see something you can’t find inside the store.
  • Putting Your Hands On Your Lap while Eating Americans are taught to keep our hands on our laps while eating, but in France that’s considered rude. “What are your hands doing down there?” they ask suspiciously (especially if someone of the opposite sex is seated next to you). Hand rest on the table. No elbows, though, bien sûr!
  • Eating on the Métro The French believe that food should be eaten at a table.Not while walking, not at the office, not in front of the TV, and not on the Métro or bus. Snarfing down that panini or crêpe on the crowded platform will usually get you a few snide “Bon appetit” comments. And Starbucks may have invaded France, but they still find it weird to walk around drinking from a paper coffee cup (or, quelle horreur, sucking your super-size Coke from a straw as you stroll around). Part of this is because they think it’s bad for digestion. The French tend to know about these things; look how thin they are! Personally, I hate it when someone’s falafel or greasy fries are stinking up the Métro car. Blech.
  • Inappropriate Attire Parisians in the more fashionable districts of Paris — which are usually where the tourists visit — tend to be more affluent and conservative in the way they dress. But this isn’t about being fashionable (although many Parisians like to be considered stylish), it’s about being “correct”, or dressed appropriately for the venue. Jeans, shorts, baseball caps, sneakers, sandals, yoga pants and short-sleeved shirts (on men) are fine for sightseeing around town, where there are no “rules”. But they are usually NOT acceptable for dinner in very trendy or expensive restaurants (the fancier restaurants even require jacket and tie), nor at most theatre or opera shows. The Parisians consider a night on the town as an opportunity to dress up; they make an effort and expect everyone else to do the same. If you’re unsure, then do ask when booking. When in doubt, wear what your grandmother might expect you to wear to church (or a funeral…they like black in Paris). Speaking of church, you should avoid casual clothing that shows too much skin in any places of worship (if you’re attending services or a concert); no hats, short-shorts, or bared shoulders when “sightseeing” in the churches, either.
  • Smiling at Strangers While not “rude”, this does cause big miscommunication problems. It isn’t really done in France, especially not on the street. If a woman smiles at a man on the street, he will think she’s making a pass and start following her. So if you’re a man and you smile at a woman on the street, she will either give you a blank stare or smile back (thinking that you’re going to ask her out for a drink). Smiling someone of the same sex on the street (unless you’re in the gay district) could be interpreted by the French person as mockery. So just don’t. Save the smiles for the people you actually interact with, like hotel staff, shopkeepers, waiters.

Speaking French

“Everyone speaks English” and “English is the universal language” may be hotly-debated topics, but they mean nothing to the French person who doesn’t speak English. Assume as a given that no one you encounter will speak English, that way when they do you’ll be pleasantly surprised, and when they don’t you’ll be prepared. Having a good phrase book that you can point to is helpful. Being good at charades is even better. Forget about trying to look cool; sometimes you have to be creative! At a minimum, PLEASE learn the basic phrases of etiquette mentioned above.

Phrases to Learn

  • Bonjour/Bonsoir, Madame/Monsieur — Hello/Good Evening, Madam/Sir.
  • Puis-je avoir un(e)/deux/trois croissants, s’il vous plaît? (you could shorten it to just “Deux croissants, s’il vous plaît”)
  • Merci, au revoir, Madame/Monsieur — Thank you, goodbye, Madam/Sir.”
  • Bonsoir (anytime after work…totally subjective).
  • Bonne nuit….only if you live with the person.
  • Les toilettes (seen as WC), never salle de bain.
  • Un carafe d’eau. A carafe of (tap) water.
  • L’addition, s’il vous plaît. The bill.
  • Excusez-moi de vous déranger, Madame/Monsieur — Excuse me for bothering you, Madam/Sir 
  • Je ne comprends pas. Parlez-vous anglais?

The million dollar phrase:

Bonjour, Madame. Excusez-moi de vous deranger, mais j’ai un problème. Parlez-vous anglais?

Note: yes, you do have to add the “Monsieur/Madame” tag each time, or it’s no longer polite.

If the French see that you’re trying to make an effort, they’ll be waaaaay more helpful and understanding. But if you can’t manage to memorize and use these simple phrases, just remember to be as kind and patient with the Parisians as you hope they’ll be with you. 😉

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