Smashing the Myth of French Rudeness

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 so much about French rudeness.”

“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.

No French Rudeness when I got lost, trying to find my hotel after visiting the Eiffel Tower. A local shopkeeper pulled out his cell phone and happily gave me directions.
No French Rudeness when I got lost, trying to find my hotel after visiting the Eiffel Tower. A local shopkeeper pulled out his cell phone and happily gave me directions.

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. 

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.

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.

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75 thoughts on “Smashing the Myth of French Rudeness”

  1. Well… hostels international rated nationalities. Japanese came up on top, french near the bottom. Having grown up in France and worked there 10 years, it a while to explain everything that is dysfunctional and self sabotaging about french culture. You can meet lovely people in the countryside, much less in the cities especially Paris.

    LaRochefoucault said ” les francais sont malveillants et medisants” ( the french are malicious and slanderous.) Also a canadian entrepreneur in chamonix said ” what it is , is they have to make everything difficult “. Lack of frankness , a way of answering you without looking up, lack of generosity, a certain lack of courage in reforming a failing country.

    Having greyhounded and hitched in the west of USA, i can truthfully say Americans are the most open and generous people i have met. With some assholes and snobs of course. More generous than aussies, who would come second. There you go… culture exists and it matters. It correlates directly to economic prosperity ( see Greece) .

  2. I am very impressed by your traveling France.
    90%of tourists (and 99% of Americans …) would say they have an extensive knowledge of France after two weeks vacations in a hotel in Provence or Burgundy.

    French can be seen as very arrogant especially by Americans who I know quite well after 50 years of traveling in your country.
    I surmise you didn’t feel the same way simply because you are e genuine traveller who loves seeing new places, meeting new people and befriending them.
    It’s not so much a matter of “saying Bonjour Monsieur” as we can be as rude as anybody else in any country but a matter of openness… 
    Again I’m very impressed by how extensively you travelled in this country : I’m sure that by know you know someplace as much as many other French…
    Thanks for posting ! …

    • Hello Vincent! Thank YOU for taking the time to comment. I’ve probably been to more places in France than any other country, with the exception of my home country, the US. I’ve rarely had an unpleasant experience there and I absolutely adore all of France.

    • I agree Barbara. I have had the pleasure of visiting Paris twice and both times I found the people who live there to be helpful and kind. I’ll never forget the sweet pharmacist who went out of his way to be helpful but also gave us gifts. Viva la France!

  3. Is anyone else tired of this topic?! There are polite and rude, kind and unkind and good and bad people in every single country in the world. Treat people how you would like them to treat you. When you travel, be respectful, be open, try new things, keep your voice down and mind your manners. It usually works quite well!

    • My visit to Paris dates back to 1992. I found most of the people to be as polite as in any other city except for a hot dog vendor near the River Siene. I used basic cordial French whenever possible, Merci, Bon Bonjour Monsieur, Madam, S’il vous plait, etc… not knowing the word in French I politely and discreetly requested with hand motions that I would like a napkin. The vendor then shouted “Monsieur-Monsieur, then grabbed a stack of napkins and slammed them down in front of me” He may have been an exception but his rudeness was so shocking that I still speak of it today.

  4. We were pleasantly surprised in Paris this summer as well. We found everyone to be friendly, and in general, we find people give back what they receive. We also try and speak a few words of the local language, it does go a long way! If anything, we find the worst of the rude behavior is typically coming from tourists!!

  5. I have come across rudeness in France … but it’s been far outweighed by courtesy and helpfulness. And, it’s probably the same anywhere you go.

    However, having seen the way some tourists behave … like opening a conversation by bellowing ‘Speak English’ like the person addressed was retarded or deaf … that won’t get friends in any country.

    • Ain’t it the truth, Keith! Sometimes I’m so embarrassed by my fellow countrymen who get angry and start being rude or yelling.

  6. 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.”

  7. 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.

    • 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+.

  8. 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!

  9. 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.

  10. 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!

  11. 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!

  12. 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.


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