Planning a trip to France? Use these simple tricks and your manners will surely impress even the Parisians!
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*Post Updated, August, 2019
As we planned our trip to Paris and a few surrounding cities, I was dismayed to hear so many people telling me that we wouldn't have a nice trip because the Parisians were "just so rude." I found this particularly difficult as first, I strongly dislike the idea that an entire people are any certain way, and second, I wanted to find a way around it.
I read as much as I could in advance, and on our trip, I was constantly and consistently impressed and awed by the kindness of the French. I did not have a single negative experience and am anxiously awaiting our next French adventure!
Not speaking French in Paris
Before we discuss not speaking French in Paris, and how to charm the French whether you speak French or not, I need to give one disclaimer, I do speak French. The comments below will be helpful regardless of language, but transparency is key! I took French all the way through college, though I'm fairly sure my accent is a train wreck. I think I still sound like I'm doing an impersonation of a French person that I learned on TV, so don't be too impressed ;) And, of course, until this trip, I had never actually been to France, and there's a big difference between learning in the classroom and speaking in person, when jet-lagged!
That said, my Husband does not speak a word of French, so I can assure you: having a truly enjoyable time in France is not dependent on your language skills!
An update to this post: thank you to everyone who has commented/reached out about these tips. I have received so many lovely comments from tourists and Parisians alike, which have made me so happy. I recently received a very helpful comment from a foreigner living in France. She wanted to add that part of the reason the French are perceived as rude is that, if they don't speak *excellent* English, they may try to avoid speaking with you. This is not necessarily because they are rude, but because they may be ashamed. It is a big social class indicator in France whether someone can speak English, as it is the language commonly used in international business and may be an indicator of the schools you attended, etc.
Additionally, the French will often say they "do not speak English" when what they really mean is that they "do not speak English fluently." I did run into this a few times, so I spoke French with them instead, and then they'd speak great, perfunctory English with my husband. And, I will say that I understand how they feel. If you have ever taken/spoken/toyed with a foreign language, you'll know that the minute you say you "speak" that language, a native speaker starts prattling at you quickly, using jargon and slang, and you're immediately lost and feel silly and embarrassed if you can't keep up, having just said that you "do speak language x."
Keeping that in mind, hopefully you will feel a bit more comfortable! Now here we go!
How to Charm the French
Bonjour is the magic word
This was, to me, the most helpful thing I learned during my time preparing for our trip, and once I was actually in France. The French are extremely formal. And, there's a reason that the opening song in Beauty and the Beast is Belle saying "Bonjour" to her entire town.
The French greet their co-workers, individually, each morning - and if someone comes in late, he has to circle through and run around greeting everyone belatedly. I originally learned of this in a lovely memoir, Finding Fontainebleau, which I read in preparation for the trip, and, I'll admit, I didn't full believe it. However, I experienced it first thing upon arrival. We were waiting in a super long immigration line at 9 AM, when there was a change of border control agents. In the U.S., the new guard would have just walked up, tapped the person being relieved on the shoulder, and moved on. Not in France! As each new guard arrived, they all stood, greeted each other, and shook hands before changing guard (while we waited patiently).
What that translates into for a tourist is greeting shop keepers, bar tenders, hostesses, front desk workers - each and every one of them, every single time. (But not random people on the street - they think that's strange). Honestly, I found it slightly exhausting. You walk into a shop? "Bonjour, Madame" to and from every worker you see in the stop, not just the "first one" or the "greeter." Ironically, to Americans, who are notorious for talking to strangers, this actually feels slightly onerous to us, as we generally wait for attendants or staff to greet guests, and generally just say hi once, or if we make eye contact with a specific person in a shop. But this is not the case in France. Failing to greet someone automatically gets the interaction off on the wrong foot, and I've been told by multiple French people that this is part of the reason they often think tourists are rude- so don't forget!
If the marvelous accent of your "Bonjour" tricks the Frenchman into thinking you speak French and they start speaking in French, just respond, in French if you can: "Desolee, je ne parle pas francais. Parlez-vous anglais?" (Apologies for the lack of accent marks - that's a bit beyond the blog's capabilities, it seems). If you've expended all of your French at the Bonjour, just say in English, "I'm sorry, I don't speak French."
Update: I've recently learned that there's a great book about overcoming language and conversational issues in France! Check out The Bonjour Effect!
Take your time over meals in France
Keep in mind:
Metro etiquette in France
I've spent a fair amount of time on metros - both in the U.S. and abroad. The French are much more...deliberate(?) about their tube rides. They always sit if they can, even if they are only going a few stops - and you should do the same. While for me, it might be more comfortable to stand for maybe 3 stops, they always sit if there is room and give you funny looks if you don't.
Additionally, they always make it abundantly clear that they are getting off at the next stops. People will get up and stand near the door far, far, far in advance of their stop. This is part of the reason that they sit - to make room for this procedure. Be sure to leave room for people to do this, and get up early for your departure - don't push people out of the way at the last minute, as they won't be expecting this and you might not be able to get off in time.
Speak quietly in France
This one is fairly straight-forward. Treat your time in France as though you're at a wedding - don't shout, don't yell across rooms, and speak abnormally quietly, even when you're just chatting amongst yourselves. The French do not speak loudly and they will strongly resent if you do.
Remember: you aren't at home
Take your cue from others and you'll have a better trip! If you as the French are doing, you'll feel more comfortable and maybe even learn a few things!
Enjoy their food, drink their coffee, and don't forget to say "bonjour!" You'll be happy you did.
For more tips and tricks on a trip to Paris, we found Rick Steves' most recent Paris book to be a lifesaver.
Have a wonderful trip! xx
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