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Paris Notebook: Are the French Rude?

France Smiley.jpgThe most egregious example that I can cite of two cultural ships passing in the night is the American notion that the French, and Parisians in particular, are rude. Nothing could be further from the truth. The aspect of French culture that Americans seem to miss is that the French have clearly established codes of formality, specific rules of how to behave in certain situations. You break them at your own risk: in France there is a good chance that if you are perceived to have acted rudely, the recipient of your supposed discourtesy will be rude right back at you.

The cross-cultural conflict derives from the fact that many entirely normal behaviors in the United States are, in France, violations of the local code of politesse. To wit:

Scenario 1: You get into a taxi, and say:

“142 avenue des ChampsElysées, s’il vous plaît.”

You have been rude.

Scenario 2: You walk into a small cheese shop, patiently wait your turn, and say:

“Un camembert, s’il vous plaît.”

You have been rude.

Scenario 3: You arrive at a restaurant, and say:

“Une table pour deux, s’il vous plaît.”

You have been rude.

In order to be courteous in these types of situations, before you begin your business dealings you must communicate something non-transactional: words and expressions to acknowledge the humanity of your interlocutor. I learned this at the age of 27 from a patient taxi driver, when, confidently clad in a new business suit and carrying a fine black briefcase, I hopped into a Paris cab. In brisk, efficient American style, I announced my destination.

No response. No forward motion.

The cabbie waited a few beats, and then he said to me, quite warmly, “Bonjour Monsieur.” I hesitated, and replied in the same manner.

And then he said, “Et comment allez-vous aujourd’hui? (So how are you today?)”

I replied that I was well, and asked how has was. He was well, too. Then he asked me my destination, I replied, and off we went.

One lesson learned. When in France, and you enter a cab, a small shop, a restaurant, etc., always take the initiative and happily greet the assembled group or the person who will be working with you. Do so in a voice that has a bit of sing-song in it. A smile and a warm “Bonjour, Monsieur” or “Bonjour Madame” works wonders here. From then on, your French partner will be more than polite.

If you want proof of the above, take a moment in a bakery or other shop and observe the behavior of French people as the enter and greet the person behind the counter. You will see gracious people warmly interacting with their fellows, before they get down to business. Very un-French? No. Just very un-American.

Addendum: The daughter of an old friend comments:

Thanks — I actually discovered this when I was living there [in France] a couple years ago. My French tutor (in the US) had recommend a book (Tune Up your French) that has incredibly helpful cultural tips. I found that saying hello and goodbye whenever I entered a store or shop etc. was transformative — even though my French was horrible, a simple hi/bye made everyone sweet and kind. It’s the little things! :)

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