Elegant, soigné, sophisticated – these are some of the stereotypes we have about the French. And while it may not be true for all of them (ahem, Gerard Depardieu) certainly appearance and generally seeming like you have made an effort is valued here.
For some of us, it may be a bit hard to understand the need to “look nice” just to run into the bakery first thing in the morning, before you’ve even had your coffee, until you understand (and appreciate) the importance of everything “looking nice” in France. (After all, that’s why it’s so beautiful here, right?)
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Gerard Depardieu, not the best example of the elegant Frenchman theory. Photo: AFP
So when we go shlumping around in our sweats, hair awry, we are in a way jarring the visual perfection of the composition surrounding us.
This can be off-putting to the French, who take great care to make things look nice, and pride in doing so.
Perhaps it’s not so surprising that when people from other places, not knowing any better, break these rules, they sometimes meet with a somewhat frosty reception, or even the occasional disdainful look or sharp remark.
In thinking about this lately, and about the way many of my well-meaning (but sometimes rather clueless) fellow Americans go about their daily interactions when visiting France, it occurred to me that while Americans hear all the time about how rude the French are, I think very few of them have even the faintest notion that perhaps they are the ones being rude—according to French rules of behavior.
And surely those are the rules that should be adhered to when in France, aren’t they?
The thing is, most Americans (and many other foreigners in France) probably have no idea that they are breaking important rules of polite behavior when they don’t comb their hair or get properly dressed before going to the boulangerie or dropping the kids off at school.
Not starting out every verbal interaction (any one at all!) by first saying a friendly bonjour to the merchant (or friend, or policeman, or bus driver, or whomever) is accorded to be just as rude in France, ditto starting to pick up and squeeze the fruit on a stand, before first saying bonjour, and then asking the merchant if it’s okay to touch it.
At the market always ask before you squeeze. Photo: AFP
These are just three examples of rules of behavior that are extremely important to follow in France, but that do not necessarily apply in other places.
Unfortunately, it is lack of this kind of cultural knowledge that often causes foreigners in France to break these and other rules, leading to rather unpleasant experiences with the locals that tend to reinforce the false stereotype of the rude, cold, arrogant Frenchman or woman.
But it’s not fair to interpret this as proof that those offended by these social blunders or affronts to their sense of propriety are rude or unfriendly.
It’s kind of as if a bull crashing his way through a china shop kept looking around, seeing the expressions of shock and dismay on the shopkeepers’ faces as he breaks every piece of china in the store (or in this case, every rule in the book), all the while muttering “What’s wrong with these people?!”
But it doesn’t have to be this way. By learning just a little bit about what is considered proper social behavior in France, and trying to remember to follow the basic rules of polite interaction, the experience of travelers in France can be vastly improved.
And it will give them the chance to see that most French men and women are not only not rude and unfriendly, they can be – and very often are – downright sweet and charming.
Janet Hulstrand is the author of Demystifying the French: How to Love Them and Make Them Love You. A professional writer, editor, writing coach and teacher, she is the creator of Paris: A Literary Adventure, a study abroad program of the City University of New York, and of her own Writing from the Heart workshops. She divides her time between Essoyes in the Champagne region, and various parts of the United States. You can find out more and buy her book here.