We French have a bad reputation. People all over the world think we’re arrogant and rude, but I’d vouch that we’re just misunderstood. It’s probably the Parisians’ fault -- even other French people think Parisians are smarmy. But Parisians have places to be and people to see; you can’t really blame them for getting impatient when there’s a clueless tourist in their way.
Even traveling outside of Paris (which you should!), you’ll quickly realize the French are a quirky, strong-willed, opinionated bunch. The national motto, Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité, means Freedom, Equality, and Brotherhood -- for the French, freedom is by far the most important of the three. This may explain their individualistic approach to life, also known as L’exception française, which loosely translates to “rules are for everyone else.”
To that end, there are quite a few guidelines for an American to keep in mind when traveling through France so as not to inadvertently offend, or be offended by, the locals. And even if we do occasionally fly into a passionate, wildly gesticulated rant at the slightest inconvenience, try not to take it too hard. That’s just kind of how we are. Here’s how to handle the French like a pro.
Don’t take “non!” for an answer
The French consider themselves open, frank, and always up for a challenge. The first response to a request is often an emphatic ‘Non!’ -- but don’t back down! Try to see this kind of quirky rudeness as a challenge. ‘Non!’ can actually mean: “Convince me there’s a good reason for your request, and I’ll consider it.” So if you’re offered a restaurant table near the door and you’d rather sit somewhere warmer, make some cheerful but dramatic gestures to indicate you’re cold and your wish may be granted. Play along and embrace the eccentricity.
Don’t freak out if someone cuts you in line
If you find yourself at a train station, airport, market, or anywhere else you might expect people to form a line, you’ll instantly notice that waiting your turn isn’t the done thing in France. If there were an Olympic event in line-jumping, the French would win gold. People would push past their own grandmother just to be first on a bus -- if she wasn’t already pushing past them. Curiously, once everyone’s on the bus, people become more civilized and start offering seats to those who need them.
Don’t expect speedy service
Impatient New Yorkers take note: sales assistants won’t approach you in a store like they would in America. This might seem like bad customer service, but they’re actually just giving you space to browse. Taking your time is an important part of French culture -- we believe that anything worth doing should be done well and thoughtfully. In a restaurant, the server will give you plenty of time to look over the menu (just be sure to close it when you’re ready to order, or they will NEVER come). French servers won’t shoo you out as soon as you’ve finished your coffee, either; you can relax and enjoy yourself after you’ve finished the meal.
An exception to this rule might be Paris, which is more fast-paced and everyone has somewhere they needed to be, like, ten minutes ago. Outside of Paris, though, the pace is much slower; the further south you go, the less punctual people are, and the less they’ll appreciate being hurried.
A formal, polite greeting goes a long way
When in France, speak French. At least make an effort at the beginning of a conversation, even if it’s just a few basic phrases. Many French people will put you out of your misery and switch to English right away. Err on the formal side, as well; always greet people with a polite “Bonjour Madame/Monsieur” (or “Bonsoir” in the evening). This includes servers, sales assistants, tour guides, and hotel staff. You’ll probably get better service.
Just don’t quote “Lady Marmalade”
The one thing not to say in French is the ‘Voulez-vous…?’ question from All Saints’ “Lady Marmalade” song. It’s not that French people don’t have a sense of humor, it’s just that that joke stopped being funny in France (and uh, everywhere else) a long time ago.
If you’re speaking English, take it slow
Imagine if someone approached you in your hometown and started speaking rapidly in French. You’d be confused… and depending on your hometown maybe even a little alarmed. Now put yourself in French people’s shoes. Their English may seem awesome compared to your French, but they might not understand your accent or way of saying things. Most French people learn British English at school and won’t know typical American expressions. The best approach? Speak slowly, and simply. Or if you want to use this opportunity to practice your best British impression, give that a go.
Don’t attempt small talk with a French person
In France, a comfortable silence is far preferable to mindless chit-chat. This can seem awkward to small-talking foreigners. It’s not that we’re unfriendly, we’re just private and formal with people we don’t know. Whatever you do, don’t ask someone you just met questions about their personal life, like their careers, family, or even what they did last weekend. You’re just making polite conversation, but French people will clam up if they feel like you’re getting too personal too soon. Stick to current events, sports, the arts, and food. As for politics… well, the French love a good debate; they’re just not sure what to say about American politics right now.