Forget the old stereotype that the French are rude.
The French have a reputation for being difficult with foreigners. A good amount of that reputation is likely thanks to the Hollywood stereotype—typically in the form of stock characters like a snooty maître d’, femme fatale, or mendacious lothario.
To be sure, most visitors to France have at least one story of a run-in or misunderstanding with the French. Sometimes these are honest cultural misunderstandings, while in others, it may just be bad luck—humans are complex beings with complex emotions, and we all have our frustrating moments.
That said, some social graces are particularly helpful in France and her overseas departments (other Francophone countries may also have similar social norms). These cues may not be as important in many larger, well-touristed cities. In Paris especially, many tourism industry workers may not be French and are intimately familiar with American habits (several years ago, Paris published a booklet for tourism workers on visitors’ cultural differences and expectations). However, these cues can be good habits for smooth travel among the French.
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Acknowledgment Goes a Long Way
France is the first modern republic on the European continent, having overthrown its monarchy in 1789. Before the French Revolution, a speak-when-spoken-to hierarchy governed the French social structure from top to bottom. The Revolution brought a wave of egalitarian ethos that prevails in France today, so it’s important to acknowledge fellow citizens.
When walking into a shop or other business, say “Bonjour” (Good Morning/Good Day) or “Bonsoir” (Good Evening) to nobody in particular. When approaching a worker for assistance, repeat the greeting and append “Monsieur” or “Madame” (Sir or Madam) as appropriate before beginning the transaction or asking a question. When leaving, you’ll generally be wished “Bonne journée” or “Bonne soirée” (Have a nice day/evening), and it’s polite to return the expression or simply say “Au revoir” (goodbye).
It’s also necessary to acknowledge strangers in elevators and adjacent tables (often very close together) shortly after being seated or when rising to leave the table in a restaurant. This is not meant as an entrée to small talk or conversation, just an acknowledgment of their presence.
Being Authentically Polite Is Vital
Similar to acknowledgment, La Politesse (politeness) is vital. This generally means being generous with a “s’il vous plaît” and “merci” (please and thank you) anywhere and everywhere you go. Whether dining out, asking for directions, checking into and out of hotels, or on public transport, being polite goes a long way. While Americans tend toward overstatement (“Oh my God, thank you SO much!” for a coffee refill), the French prize understatement. A simple “merci” with a smile will suffice—no embellishment is needed.
Speak French First
Many French people, especially young city-dwellers, speak excellent English. However, they’re still proud of their country and their language, and it speaks volumes when a visitor—at the very least—can get through the acknowledgments phase of a transaction in French.
There’s a common misconception that the French don’t like to hear foreigners attempting to speak French. They’re often delighted to find a visitor who has a conversational grasp of French and prefers to use it. However, when time is limited, or the information they’re sharing is too important to be misunderstood (like when buying a train ticket), they may switch automatically to English. It may seem abrupt, but this isn’t meant to be an insult.
Don’t Be a Loud American
Americans can speak loudly. Perhaps it’s our individualistic nature, but Americans tend to equate a loud, fill-the-room personality with fun friendliness. In France, this is considered boorish behavior because a loud conversation is invasive to the personal space of those within earshot. There’s generally a lower personal space allocation in France than in the United States, and the French prize reserved understatement, so they don’t really want to overhear your conversation.
Ask for Help
The French like their private bubbles and are in the habit of not invading each other’s space. When being served in a restaurant, servers will generally avoid checking on tables until diners get their attention with a request. They’re simply waiting to be asked to serve instead of periodically interrupting diners to ask whether service is required.
The American anxiousness to “turn tables” isn’t common in France, where diners expect to enjoy their evening without being rushed out the door. As such, servers also won’t provide the bill until asked. On the flip side, a shop is something of a private bubble for the shopkeeper. In addition to acknowledgments upon entering, it’s generally good form to ask for help with the merchandise instead of touching it yourself. You don’t pick your own fruits and vegetables in France (except at supermarkets); you tell the shopkeeper when you’re planning to eat them, and they’ll select what will be optimally fresh for that time.
Forget Small Talk and Don’t Bring up Work at Parties
Small talk with strangers is another thing that’s not particularly done in France—with one exception: grumbling. While sitting next to someone on the Métro or waiting on a train platform, making a throwaway comment about the weather or asking how someone’s day is going is likely to invite a blank stare. But complain about the rude station agent or the late train, and it’s off to the races. With few exceptions, the French are keen to commiserate.
At social events, however, where small talk is expected, there’s one topic to avoid: work. Unless they bring it up, asking a new acquaintance what they do for work is a dead giveaway you’re an American, and you may even get scolded for it. It’s best to avoid talk of money altogether, but topics that are typically off-limits in polite conversations in the U.S. (like sex, politics, and religion) are fair game in France—along with art, philosophy, history, fashion, and food.
Other French customs, like faire la bise (cheek-kissing), could merit an article all on their own, but keeping in mind these specific social cues will generally go a long way in keeping the French on your side when traveling.