French Rudeness to Tourists is a Myth

Smashing the Myth of French Rudeness

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I frequently travel solo to developing countries in the remotest corners of the world without the least bit of fear, but when it came time to visit France I was totally rattled. I don’t speak a word of French, but the inability to speak the local language had never bothered me before, yet every time I thought about my upcoming flight to Paris, my stomach lurched. For advice, I turned to my friend Heather Cowper, who writes the travel blog Heather on her Travels, since she is based in England and has traveled extensively in France.

“I’m really worried, Heather. I don’t read or speak the language and I’ve heard the French can be so rude.”

“The French, especially Parisians, are a very reserved people. Just remember to start every conversation with ‘Bonjour Madame‘ or ‘Bonjour Monsieur.’ If you do that, you’ll be fine,” she insisted.

A few days later I arrived at Charles de Gaulle Airport and boarded the Roissybus for the city center, relieved to find that signs were in English and French. Less than an hour later the bus pulled up next to the Palais Garnier opera house. I hefted my backpack and small rolling bag down the steps and looked around for the Opera Metro station but it was not immediately visible; I had no idea which way to walk.

Bonjour Monsieur,” I said to a man standing nearby. “Do you speak English?

Non,” he replied, shaking his head.

I was approaching a second person when man walked up beside me and, in perfect English, asked if he could help.

Yes,” I said, relieved. “I’m looking for the Opera Metro station.” To my surprise, the gentleman grabbed my suitcase and led me to the entrance of the Metro, then pressed a ticket into my hand. I reached for my wallet but he stopped me. “No it’s my pleasure. Welcome to Paris.” With a smile he turned and disappeared into the subway tunnel.

This scenario was repeated time and again over the next two weeks. That same evening I realized my hotel was within easy walking distance of the Eiffel Tower, so I headed out for my first look at Paris by night. Laser lights beaming from the tower provided a ready road map and twenty minutes later I stood on the grassy esplanade, gaping at the iconic Paris landmark. Goosebumps broke out on my arms as I tipped my bead back, taking in the entire length of the illuminated tower, as high as an 81-story building. I made my way past entwined couples to its base, where I rode the elevator to the top and soaked in the spectacular views of the City of Light.

France Paris Eiffel Tower Night

I spent my first night in Paris at the Eiffel Tower, more magnificent than any photo can convey

Finally, exhaustion set in and I started back to the hotel, but I soon realized I’d been so in awe of my surroundings that I’d paid little attention to my route. By the time I’d walked four blocks I was hopelessly lost; nothing looked familiar and I had no map. Again I begged for help. The owner of a small gift shop whipped out his mobile, entered the name of my hotel, and his GPS displayed the route. He didn’t even try to sell me anything. 

France-Paris-Latin-Quarter-Rain

Walking the rainy streets of the Latin Quarter n Paris with my friend Jérôme Gobin

During the first week in Paris my friend Jérôme Gobin, whom I had met in Ecuador, showed me the city over three nights, even though persistent rain kept us soggy. On my second week in Paris I was the guest of Parisian friends I had met in Nepal, Jean-Luc and Sabine Perrotin. They put their home at my disposal and welcomed me like a member of the family. In St. Malo, a small medieval town in Brittany, a local shopkeeper treated me to cookies and coffee and refused to take any money from me. The owner of my hotel in Caen traded me French lessons for English lessons one night. My tour of France ended in Marseille, where I met a lovely French couple who were both about my age. They spoke limited English, but with the aid of sign language and the basic French vocabulary I’d picked up over the preceding weeks, we managed to understand each other. The following day I was soaking up the sunshine at an outdoor cafe when the same couple approached me. The husband motioned to my camera and pantomimed taking a picture. Sure, I nodded, thinking he wanted to take a photo of all of us. Instead, he snapped a couple of quick shots of me. He handed back my camera and, leaning close to my ear, said: “God Bless America.” They waved and smiled, then walked off into the crowd, leaving me teary-eyed. It was the last I saw of them.

France-Marseille-Quartier-du-Panier-Cafe

Enjoying a sunny afternoon at an outdoor cafe in Marseille, France

During my six weeks in France I experienced only kindness and extreme generosity. French rudeness is nothing more than a myth, especially if you start conversations with the magic words: ‘Bonjour Madame/Monsieur.

If you’re considering a visit to Paris, my favorite site for finding the best prices on accommodations is Booking.com. I earn a small sum if you book by clicking on the image below, which helps keep this blog free for you to read.

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61 Comments on “Smashing the Myth of French Rudeness

  1. I am sorry but it is not a myth. I thought it was until I was yelled at three times in one day because I was a tourist, our picked up travel buddy Pierre translated and defended us. We were overcharged by every taxi and some people just stoppdd smiling upon finding out we were American. We were very polite and well mannered in all situations. We left very disheartened.

    • So sorry you had that experience, Joshua. Did you try starting every conversation with “Bonjour Madame” of “Bnjour Messieur”? It is a cultural essential in France and the key to being accepted and seen as “civil.”

  2. True story. Glad someone spent some time on this. I’ve always said bonjour will get you 80% there. I wish Americans were as polite as Parisians.

    • Thanks for your comment Mike. I also wish folks in the States would take a cue from this.

    • Hi Larissa: I very much appreciate you sharing the link to my article about the French NOT being rude to tourists. Please feel free to share any of my articles whenever you like. I loved your article – so much truth. I shared it in Tiwtter and Google+.

  3. Pingback: How to travel: 14 Travel Myths Debunked (Part 2)

  4. Thank you so much for the tip to greet the French with “Bonjour Madame/Monsieur”. I wish I had known that when I made a day trip to Strasbourg while visiting my son in Stuttgart. I do speak French, although not well. I, too, had heard that the French weren’t friendly, but I didn’t notice any difference between the French or German shopkeepers (the only people I really had any interaction with unfortunately) in regard to their “friendliness”. I found them neither rude nor friendly. Just taking care of business. Until I visited the Post Office in Strasbourg to mail some postcards. I asked in French for four stamps, but stumbled on the word for stamps. The postman just rolled his eyes and quite disgustedly said, “Oh, just speak English!” So I did. Silly me, I thought it was appreciated when one at least attempted to speak in the local tongue. He was the rudest person I met on my visit to the two countries. However, the very nicest and friendliest person I met was also in Strasbourg, FR. At the end of the evening as I strolled back to La Gare (train station), I became hopelessly lost. Businesses had all closed down, I was in unfamiliar territory, and the streets were beginning to become deserted. I arrived at a (closed) art museum that had a few people hanging around in the back parking lot: young boys on skateboards, lovers entwined on a bench, an elderly woman sitting on the steps with her poodle (yes!). I decided to approach her for directions and walked across the parking lot to do so. She didn’t speak English, so I was forced to ask in French if she could direct me to the station. She was SO KIND!!! She said she was just out taking her dog for a walk and would be glad to walk me back to the station herself on her return home. The kind woman stayed with me until we could see the station (only a few blocks away), then turned to make her way home. She was by far the NICEST, KINDEST person I met on the whole trip!

  5. Bravo!

    I’ve always found the French to be as polite as anyone else. Obviously it’s always harder to make a human connection if you’re visiting a popular place in high season, but that goes for anywhere.

    Actually this reminds me of a story. When I was in my 20s, I was supposed to rendezvous with a sorely-missed boyfriend in Paris. I’d been studying abroad for the summer, and he was flying into the city on business. Anyway, I took a cab to what I though was his hotel, but he wasn’t there. I’d obviously mucked up the hotel name, and had no way of contacting him. He could have been anywhere. I was so disappointed, I burst into tears.

    Then guess what happened. That lovely Paris cab driver spent more than an hour and a half driving me from hotel to hotel until we found the right one, about 15 stops later. And once we did find it, he wouldn’t accept any money, even the original cab fare.

    Can you imagine? I wish that cabbie well, wherever he is…

    • What an amazing story, Renee! I’ve been the recipient of so many acts of kindness like this around the world that I wouldn’t know where to begin if I had to describe them all. Just makes me ever more confident in my belief that most people are good. Thanks for sharing.

  6. So glad to read that you were treated well in France, and yes, I’m sure it was because you made an effort to be polite. My husband and I have been to France three times over the past two years and will be returning in May. No one’s ever been rude to us…I’m sure it’s because we try to speak in French and show respect for their customs. We noticed that Americans tend to talk and laugh too loudly in restaurants!

    • I agree Lynette – Americans, with our brash, to-the-point ways, tend to grate on the French, especially Parisiens.

  7. Thankyou! And, Marseilles is Europe’s Capital of Culture for this year. Seeing the photo printed in Nat’l Geo’s Traveler Mag, I want to go for the carousel!

  8. Oh, this post answered one of my previous questions about how long you were in Paris. But, now I must ask about Marseilles as it is also on my list of possibilities. Maybe there is a post further on. I must ask, though, if you felt safe there since I have seen comments from travel mags that it is known to be a bit rough around the edges. Did you ever feel uncomfortable alone in Marseilles? I am not generally paranoid, but was curious on your opinion. I did some travel solo in the Loire Valley a few years ago, but I recognize that area is a far cry from a port city. Thanks!

    • Vivian, Marseille was absolutely my favorite place in France! There are places in the city that are a bit “rough” as you say, but those neighborhoods are easily avoided. The area around the old port is lovely and I felt it to be safe. I was advised to be careful when out alone at night but of course I went out alone at night, because the night markets in the Algerian neighborhood is where I ate – it was SO cheap. I had nothing but good experiences there. Interestingly, I believe that all four publications that create a list of the top travel destinations include Marseille on their 2013 lists (National Geographic, New York Times, Conde Nast, and Travel+Leisure). I’ll be writing about Marseille in a few weeks, as I make my way through the paces I visited.

  9. The only person who was ever rude to me in France was, believe it or not, a nun in Paris. I asked her, in my not-so-bad French where the nearest Metro stop was. She turned up her nose and just kept walking. On the other hand, I happened to be in a small French town with some other Americans on the celebration day of the town’s liberation from the Germans in World War II. The French absolutely would not allow us to pay for any drinks either for us or them. The wine just kept coming to toasts of “Vive les Americains!” A wonderful day. Vive la France!

    • Tom, that is the most hysterical thing I’ve ever heard. The image of a snooty French nun turning her nose up at you is indelibly burned into my brain. LOL!

  10. I have had really good experinces the two times I have visited France. I think Heather gave you the key to make a good first impression. Me and my friends learned this the hard way. We went once to a restaurant and addressed the hostess in English. She basically ignored us. When she saw we were talking in Spanish, she took us to a table. At the end of the meal, we were all joking and she even gave us some tips (there was a language barrier but we understood her). I think everything would have started in a different way if we have started the conversation with a “Bonjour.”

    • I wholeheartedly agree Ruth. Bonjour is the “magic” word. Glad you had the same kind of experience as me.

    • Hi Mondalu: I really did enjoy my six weeks i n France and have no doubt I will return one day.

  11. thank you for your tips about starting every converstation with some French phrases. Think i’ll give it a try during my visit soon!

    ramli @ type n travel.com

    • Hi Ramli: I’m sure the “magic words” will work for you as well as the did for me. Wishing you a lovely trip to France.

  12. I’m glad you had such a great experience! I love meeting friendly, helpful people no matter what, but it’s always great when it happens so unexpectedly like that. And nice to see a picture of you!

    • Hi Ali: Thanks so much for your comment. I think I do need to add more photos of me – thanks for prompting me to do that.

  13. Paris is incredible, and it is easy to see how one can misinterpret the French as being rude, but I’ve always had a really good time there, nonetheless. Great photos!

    • Thanks Christian, appreciate the compliment. I also loved Paris, even more so because I had friends there who showed me around so graciously. I’m looking forward to going back one day.

  14. I had a very similar experience in Paris, Barbara. I just don’t understand what people are talking about when they say the French are rude. Everyone I encountered there was helpful, friendly, polite and incredibly kind. I wonder if someone invented the myth of French rudeness to keep the country all to him or herself? ;-)

  15. I had an unpleasant experience my first time to Paris when I was in college. When I backpacked there with my husband in 1987 we had a lovely time. Last year I visited the South of France – fantastic! So glad to hear your experience in France was positive.

  16. This is really encouraging to hear! I’ve always heard of the French being rude, and though I’ve never been to France, I must say, it is not my experience in traveling that French have been rude. On the contrary, the French aquaintances I have met have been delightful.

  17. I’m pleased that you had a good experience – it might give me a little more confidence to travel in France. But truly, the rudest people I’ve ever met in my life have been French people in London (where I’m from). I’ve met a couple of gooduns too, but I’m still a little scared to travel around France.

    • We might have a superior attitude when we travel or live abroad. I remember when I was in Montreal, I spent the year avoiding french people… But I don’t think we are all rude (I’m French btw). Or if it is the case it is not against tourist or foreigner, it is just a bad day… It is true that we are not all confident speaking foreign language, but a smile often work. In Paris, a lot of people speak english and are foreigners. You should come and visit France, I’m pretty sure you’ll enjoy.

  18. I think Heather hits the nail on the head when she identifies the liking of a formality which is fast disappearing from English life, and which has, perhaps, not existed for a long time in the US…which is one of its charms in an entirely different way.

    I found absolutely wonderful hospitality in St Malo. Paris I’ve only been to once and with 3 friends, so less interaction with local folk, sadly.

    However, not only foreigners think of Parisians as cold. Chatting with a waiter in Grasse a couple of years ago he claimed that southerns were much more open and friendly, and that Parisians got the French a bad name! Isn’t that typical of all countries though – that one region “calls” another? – and isn’t it typically untrue!

    I’m so glad that you enjoyed France so much. I love it, but know the south much better. I did wonder how it would seem to you after Nepal, from a country where they have so little (in material terms) to the one which is perhaps the most sophisticated in the world. A sharp contrast?

  19. We found them to be friendly and helpful too! We never had an issue and people were more than willing to help.

  20. Barbara:

    I agree with you. I think the idea that the French are rude is mostly a myth, based on my experience in Paris a few years ago.

  21. I have had good experiences in France. Paris is my favorite city. I have found that if you just make an attempt at the language the French warm up to you and yes, politeness is important. In Normandy they particularly remember what the US did for them in WWII. I love France, particularly Paris.

    • Hi Lawrence: Like you, I found Normandy and the Omaha Beach area particularly touching. But I think my favorite city of all was Marseille.

  22. Glad the French made a good impression on you. I, too, tackled this myth on my blog a few months back and arrived at the same conclusion. A little effort goes a long way. If only all tourists would model themselves after you! Sounded like a great trip!

    • It was a great trip, Diane – three months in Spain and France. Can’t wait to get back to Eastern Europe this summer.

  23. Yep, good to hear that others have discovered this “myth” as did I away back in ’98, but I doubt the French have changed in the 15 years since then. In two and a half weeks in all parts of France I only had one “rudeness” encounter compared to countless pleasant ones and even a couple such as yours where folks went the extra mile to accommodate my blundering attempts at mangling their language.

    • Happy to hear you had the same experience Greg. This is one myth I’d love to bust.

  24. Really good to read because I’ve had a few prejudices in this regard after an unpleasant experience with a Parisian exchange student. (What adolescent isn’t unpleasant, anyway?) Lovely story. And a lovely photo of you.

    • Hi Kate: So sorry for your bad experience. After visiting France I have to believe it was uncommon rather than the norm, and as you say, adolescents tend to be full of themselves. Hope you get a chance to visit France and experience their kindness first hand.

  25. I’ll forward this article to my American friends who worry so much about what they will experience in France. They’ve heard so often that the French would hate Americans, and that they were especially rude to them, so they hesitated to incorporate France into their itinerary. I tried my best to convince them otherwise. As mentioned already in the comments, they are a lil more formal and reserved, as are we Swiss, than the rest of Europe, but like elsewhere, willingness to learn a bit about the culture and addressing people accordingly goes a long way.
    Knowing you, I wouldn’t have worried, not even for a moment, that you could run into difficulties :)

    • Hi Fida: What a lovely thing to say. I always try to treat people as I would want to be treated, so acting in a way that the French consider polite wasn’t too much of a stretch for me. Hope your American friends decide to visit France.I was there for six weeks and loved every minute.

  26. I’m so glad that you wrote this to set the record straight. We found the same thing. As David Lebowitz says, “They’re different. Not better. Not worse. Just different.” His book, The Sweet Life in Paris contains many tips on adjusting the culture–and in a very amusing way.

    • Hi Vera: So glad you agree (that’s been the general reaction, I’m glad to report.) Thanks for the tip on the book; I’ll check it out!

  27. I speak a little French and never have experienced any rudeness in my eight of so visits to the country and always dispute any claims when I hear them. So glad to see that you had the same experience. I agree that a polite greeting in French goes a long way and have only met kindness in this one of my favourite countries, so packed with cultural, hustoric and natural highlights.

    I do remember a lavish American woman swathed in a fur coat walk into the rail info centre and demand at the top of her voice “who speaks English in this damn place”. Several looked up, shook their heads and kept going with what they were doing. The fur-enshrined woman waited in disgust and then stormed out. A simple “bonjour, mademoiselle” may have gone a long way…

    • Ah yes, Mark. The “ugly American” syndrome.I see it quite a lot and it always embarrasses me. There’s no doubt that English is widely spoken around the world but I am always somehow amused (and saddened) when people expect it to be spoken in foreign countries and get upset when everyone doesn’t. As you say, politeness goes a long, long way.

  28. Good to hear of your positive experiences, Barbara.

    Tamara and I love France. It is beautiful, has good food, has some great art. What is not to like?

    Being only a hop. skip, and a jump from France – naturally I have been there many times. I completely agree that the key to good relations is in initiating conversation and that, very importantly, includes announcing one’s presence when going into a shop and smiling (or at least not scowling) at the patron when one does so.

    The interesting thing is that, having lived here in Scotland for a year, I see that the Scots also like it when customers come into their shops, smile and say hello. It gets things off to a good start and is really heartwarming.

    Perhaps their is some affinity between the Scots and the French?

    Having just spent a week in London, I see that it is quite different ‘down south.’

    • Hi David: Interesting comparison between Scotland and France. I didn’t feel that in Scotland, but that was probably because when I went in 2010 I stayed with Scottish friends in Edinburgh and they were doing all the introductions for me. It sure would be nice if we here in the U.S.adopted some of that politeness. We’re just a very abrupt, down-to-business culture.

  29. So pleased it all worked out well. It’s worth knowing that the French are quite big on etiquette and if you don’t understand the rules, they think that you are the rude one. Everyday life can have a formality to the interactions which seems a bit alien to Americans and even us in the UK, which is why Bonjour Madame, Bonjour Monsieur is usually a winning opening. It demonstrates that you understand the rules of formality and good manners and also shows that you are trying to make at least a little effort to speak their language.

    • Hi Heather: It worked out well thanks to you! You are now officially my France expert :-)

    • Hi Laura: Hope things have started to calm down for you. I’m back from Europe for a bit, but headed back this spring/summer. If you get a chance, do go to Paris – it’s incredible.

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