I disagree. I’ve met rude French people, but I’ve met rude people from all sorts of cultural backgrounds. People are rude, it’s not a domain the French rule exclusively. In fact, I’ve found a majority of them have gone out of their way to be helpful! So why do we keep calling them out for being rude?
1. You’re on holiday. They’re not.
Too often I think this bias can unfairly portray a population that puts up with the more tourists in the world than any other. If your city was the world’s number one tourist destination, you’d get a little tired of being bumped and jostled by dolts wielding iPads as cameras or with their nose buried in maps. I put myself in a Parisian’s shoes. I suddenly found myself cursing tourists, despite being technically a tourist myself when I was late for class and was held up by ambling tourists walking in groups that spanned the entire sidewalk. The escargot I ate at lunch that day would have slithered faster.
Parisians aren’t on holiday. They’re late for work, running to an important meeting or a job they hate, or maybe it’s a job they love but they’ve got a lot on their mind. Break ups, money worries, jobs, bosses, housework, groceries, sniffly children and impending jury duty. Who knows what is on their mind? It’s probably not as pleasant as wondering which cafe they’ll stop at for lunch, or which attraction they will marvel at next.
Life in Paris isn’t bad, but it is life – everyday life. When a tourist accidentally knocks into them, or steps on their feet, or slows them down, it’s not the first time. It’s probably the fiftieth. I know my patience would certainly be wearing thin. Appreciating that Parisians aren’t on holiday helps to explain why they perhaps aren’t interested in directing yet another tourist to the Eiffel Tower or the Louvre. It’s probably frustrating having to line up for hours to see their own galleries, as lucky as they are to have inherited such wonderful museums and galleries.
They’re not tour guides. Just like in any other country, they have a right to be introverts, too busy, even misanthropes or just simply not interested. I read a particularly boring article about Paris recently in Escape, a section in the Courier Mail. The writer spent a column complaining about the lack of an elevator in one metro station she visited, and awkwardly, there was no hilarious anecdote, it was just a whinge. What really bothered me, however, was the complaint that there was “not an English sign in sight!”. Irritating for sure, but as it’s a French-speaking country I don’t think it should be expected to pander to tourists who refuse to dip a toe into the language.
This brings me to another common complaint, when people know a Parisian speak English, but pretends not to. I love it when people help me out, but it’s also not their job. They’ve probably helped lots of others. They’ve probably got better stuff to do be doing. And they’d probably give it more of a go if people made a decent attempt at their language.
2. Manners are king
Much like the Metro station that the writer griped about, the everyday people in Paris were also not catering to her every need as a tourist. I’ve seen many tourists walk up and begin with a question, in English, of “where is this?” Maybe that’s totally normal where we come from. But for the French, manners and etiquette still rule the roost.
Every time you enter a shop in Paris, even if you’re just browsing it is polite to say “Bonjour” and when you leave, even if you had no other interaction with the staff, to utter a brief “Merci, avoir.” When you start a conversation, a simple “Bonjour madame/monsieur” is the minimum. Extra points for asking “how are you?” and waiting not just for a response, but actually listening to it before rushing into your request. Skipping this makes it seem like a demand.
It’s not that we mean to be rude, I know. Sometimes we get so caught up in being lost and confused that we just want help. Once you get used to the basic niceties, however, it’s hard to shake!
Even now, back in Australia, people immediately put me off side a little when a conversation starts with a demand. It’s something that societies should be preserving, and I think the French do a wonderful job. Responding more coolly to those who break this rule is a way of reinforcing the importance of manners, to respond with overwhelming friendliness and helpfulness would, in their eyes, condone bad behaviour.
Slowing down to say hello and ask how someone is and even engage in chitchat builds community and brings life into the everyday grind. It’s showing respect for the other person’s time. I suppose it also feels weird to many Westerners because in English I’d never call someone “Sir” or …”Lady?” Mrs? I’m not even sure what word we’d use! It doesn’t happen. Saying madame, monsieur and mademoiselle makes us feel overly formal and stuffy. However, it’s a sign of respect and is completely normal (and expected) in French culture, so it’s always better to play it safe – you’ll be forgiven for being too polite, but if you’re perceived as rude you can kiss good service goodbye.
3. The inner circle
Hint: you’re not in it. Sometimes you’ll be really polite and it still won’t get you anywhere. Why? Without generalising, in some instances relationships are more complex than the cookie-cutter customer service we are used to at home. Everyone’s heard the anecdote of getting betters cuts from a French butcher after breaking down the barriers and living in the neighbourhood for a while. Being well connected by putting in the hours of relationship building pays off. It is yet another way to strengthen community ties, despite discouraging outsiders.
Where I stayed in France, the woman on the front desk was snappy, rude and generally unhelpful, despite my best attempts to be polite. It was incredibly frustrating! I so badly wanted to be rude back, but it wouldn’t get me anywhere. I persisted and was even nicer and more helpful in whatever way I could be and more grateful to any effort on her part. FINALLY, on my last day in the country, I cracked a smile from her. “Finally, she fucking smiles!” I thought (excuse my ..French?).
It was ridiculously exciting. I had somehow cracked an impossible code. I had asked her (very politely) the day before if she would mind calling my cab for me to the airport the following day, if I came down to the desk , because I was nervous about dealing with a French operator – a lot of my understanding of French came from watching their mouths and facial expressions, especially in thick Parisian accents. On any other day I’d give it a go but I wasn’t stuffing up getting to the airport. At first, all I got from her was “I’m very busy. Maybe. I am very busy though so maybe not.”
The next day I was nicer than ever, asked her how she was, complimented her sweater, thanked her for taking the time to check my room ( a requirement of checking out), etc etc etc and she ended up calling my cab, as if it was no problem at all. Yes, it was a time consuming and stressful relationship where it probably didn’t need to be. But rather than fight a system in culture where I am a guest, I went with it. Luckily, it paid off!
4. You’re too noisy.
In some big cities, people respond to the crowds by speaker loud, louder and louder still. He who can speak the loudest gets heard. Not in Paris. The tables and chairs at cafes are so close that you’re almost on the lap of the person beside you. The challenge is, the person beside you shouldn’t be able to understand your private conversation with your friends. Personally, I love this concept because I have a naturally quieter voice and I detest trying to speak over loud groups. It suits me to a tee, but I’ve seen people with big, booming voices accidentally cause a scene simply because they speak the way they would back home. Once you’re used to people speaking more quietly, it seems rude and intrusive when you can hear the details of a stranger’s conversation.
5. You don’t look like you’re in line…or you’re just too slow
Maybe it follows that if you speak quietly, you need to stand closer together. This is a concept I’m not so free and easy with. Every time a random person would stop to talk to me when I was walking around the grounds of my accommodation in Paris (an old university converted into student accommodation), I felt uncomfortable with people standing so close to me.
Coming from Australia, I have a HUGE personal space bubble. We’d do an awkward dance where I’d casually take steps back and they’d move closer. By the end of the conversation, we had moved almost three metres. These passionate, intense conversations with strangers (totally unheard of in Australia – we’re friendly, but not that friendly) were so foreign to me. I remember a man walking up behind me when I was at a newsstand and touching my hair and telling me how much he loved blonde hair. I froze and tensed up. What was this madness? I just wanted to scream “GET OUT OF MY BUBBLE!” at the end of a day of crowds, too-friendly strangers and squishing on the metro.
Eventually, I got used to it. After missing three metros during peak hour despite being at the very front of the barrier, I learnt to get on in there and push my way in with the crowd. After the most uncomfortable ride of my life, where I thought I’d only just squeezed onto the metro, yet another three rows of people squished in after me, I got slightly over my sense of claustrophobia in crowded spaces – something I inherited from enjoying only very mild crowds at only big events back home, not in everyday life. I wasn’t scared of the crowds – it just pushed all the wrong buttons and it drove me a bit insane at first.
At first I thought they French were pushy when they’d jump in front of me in a queue, but really they had assumed I probably wasn’t lining up, because I left such a big gap between myself and the person in front of me. By the end of the trip, when some friends visited for a weekend, they were surprised when I disappeared from the platform after the metro arrived. It’s surprising how quickly you develop behaviours without even noticing them – I think they thought I was even becoming a bit pushy! I really think that these are the primary causes of hard feelings between the French and tourists. They aren’t on holiday; they’re at work, they don’t need to speak English for you as you’re in France – they’re cooperation in English is a privilege not a right and French relationships are often just different. Lower your voice and cozy up to the person beside you. We’re not inherently bad and neither are they, a lot of the time we just don’t understand each other. For better or worse, I love France and yes, even the French.
What do you think? What misconceptions have you held about other cultures?