Bienvenue! You’ve arrived in Paris and you’re ready to have an adventure.
As you walk down the street, you’re in awe of the city and all it has to offer.
All around you, people are either on their phones, shopping, or rushing off to somewhere important.
It all seems terribly romantic and daunting, at the same time.
Because you’ve heard the rumors. You know, those that say the French are arrogant, dismissive and rude?
But you want to explore the city, and you don’t speak the language, and have no idea about French customs and protocol.
Well, I’m here to tell you that common sense—and a sense of self-preservation—will help you through most of it. The rest of the stuff, you can learn by observation.
First of all, realize that the French, and Parisians especially, value formality in everything. It could be one of the reasons they are seen as rude or uptight, but it is something they highly prize. Not recognizing this could get you into a lot of trouble and then you’ll be branded as rude and brash by the French.
If you happen to speak the language, remember to use the “vous” form instead of “tu” in conversation when just meeting someone or speaking to a person in authority.
Unless invited to do otherwise, that should be your assumption.
Learn the language
It would go a long way with the French, and how they treat you, if you learned a few words of their language. Though English is practically universal, you are in France, and it shouldn’t be assumed that everyone can speak it. The national language is French, after all. It would please the natives if you, newcomer that you are, at least attempted to greet them en Français, despite how mangled it may sound coming out of your mouth. Learn to say “Bonjour” and “Comment ça va” and you’ll likely receive a friendlier response than saying the same thing in English.
In fact, put yourself in their position. How would you like it if someone came up to you in your home country and started jabbering away in German or Cantonese, as if you already understood them? And when you frowned or didn’t respond in a way they liked, they got upset and called you a stupid American or Englishman. Rude, right? A few things to consider.
You are a guest in the country
Often, it is the case that tourists and new arrivals to foreign places forget they are guests of the country. Treating people in an unkind manner or being deliberately rude to those trying to serve you is typically a behavior of the guests, not the natives. It is highly frowned upon, not only in France, but everywhere. If you treat people with respect, they will do the same for you. If enter a cafe or restaurant and notice people speaking softly, then you should behave accordingly. Acting in a boisterous manner that doesn’t match your environment won’t endear you to the management or the other patrons.
Ask your question in French
You’ll get more help from a native if you try to speak the language. After greeting someone with Bonjour Monsieur ou Madame, ask if they speak English: Parlez-vous Français? More often than not, they do, and would be more than willing to help you. Why? Because you made the effort. Even if they don’t speak your language, hand gestures, pen and paper, along with a willingness to look a little silly can go a long way.
When in France...
...eat like the French do. It can be considered insulting to a native for a visitor or new foreign resident to insist upon the eating only things they are familiar with, from their hometown, or complaining about not having access to such items. Loudly. Make the effort to adapt and try out French cuisine. At the very least, you will endear yourself to the locals.
Learn the etiquette and customs
As with any country, customs differ. Learning how the French think and do things will go a long way in avoiding offence. Don’t assume that what you did in your home country will work in Paris. Take the time to do your research. Here are some examples.
Reserved and polite
The French may not smile as much as you’re used to at home, at least in the beginning, but that doesn’t mean they automatically hate you. When you meet a native for the first time, make sure to greet them with a polite Bonjour, Monsieur ou Madame, depending on the gender. Do this also when entering your neighborhood store, or greeting your neighbors. A casual “Salut” (hello) is for longtime friends, or the young. Also remember to say Au revoir when leaving. The French have to warm up to you before you get to the “tu” and “salut” stage. They’re simply reserving judgment and getting to know you better.
The French are extremely fashion conscious. No matter where you go, it is rare to see a native dressed as in the way you might be used to at home. Be aware of that and always put your best foot forward when you leave the house. Spongebob T-shirts and boardshorts might be frowned upon, even if you’re just going around the corner to the store. Unless they’re trendy and well-made Spongebob T-shirts and boardshorts.
Take a gift to dinner
If you’ve been invited to a family dinner, take a gift, something like a plant or chocolates. Flowers are nice, too, but check with the florist about traditions (some flowers can signify death, or are put next to gravestones). If you decide to bring wine, make sure it’s local and of the best quality as the French can tell the good from the bad. And please, whatever you do, don’t be late for dinner! Remember to send a note the next day as a “thank you.”
Courtesy and formality are at the forefront of behavior when doing business in France. Mutual trust and respect is a must to get things done, and that is only earned through proper behavior. If you don’t speak the language, an apology for not knowing it will be helpful. Still, learning a few French terms will demonstrate your earnest wish for a solid business relationship. Be prepared for a French businessman to be very direct in his dealings with you and unafraid to ask inquisitive questions. Written communication is formal, and assistants are used to convey messages and setup meetings. Don’t be over-friendly.
To kiss or not to kiss
French women will often greet each other with a kiss on the cheek, and children expect it. Men tend the shake each other’s hands, unless they’re related. A man may kiss a woman he knows on the cheek. When in doubt, watch those around you and take your cues from them.
The French, like the Italians and other nationalities use hand gestures as much as they speak. It is helpful to know what those signals mean, in case you use them by mistake. Don’t point with your index finger, and the thumb means “one” when counting. If you blunder, be quick to apologize. It will go a long way to smoothing things over.
“From my experiences as an exchange student for a time in Lyon, France, I gathered that the French value good articulation and debate a lot more than English and American cultures seems to.
Every evening, there was rapid conversation around the dinner table, and the family I stayed with wouldn't shy away from a debate simply for the sake of a debate. At first, I was a bit miffed that they didn't seem to include me, but after a while I realised that our values lay in different places, and I just couldn't join a discussion on that level.
They had a direct manner of speaking as well, and seemed very frank. Perhaps their directness is simply misconstrued as rude half the time, and the fact that they value good conversation makes it difficult to interact with people from other countries on a level they are comfortable with...”
- Abby Russell (Excerpt from Quora)
There is so much more that could be discussed. Having a conversation with a native can be fun, but don’t raise your voice in an argument. It’s considered vulgar. When calling someone, introduce yourself first before launching into the reason for ringing them up. Remember that siesta is around one o’clock in the afternoon, so don’t call then!
All in all, think of how you’d like someone visiting you in your country to behave if they encountered you on the street or at your home, and act accordingly.
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