“French people are rude”. “French people are snobby”. “They hate Americans over there.” I hear this frequently, mostly from Americans that haven’t traveled much. Where does this idea come from, that roughly 65 million French people, living out their lives in their hexagon of a country, in between munching on baguettes, are beside themselves in a constant state of rudeness, snobbery and hatred of Americans? In my experience, the opposite is true: French people are exceptionally polite, and will get upset or annoyed if you don’t behave politely in return.
Whenever you travel in France, it’s important to observe the following rules of politeness. 1) When you enter a business greet the staff by saying “bonjour Madame” or “bonjour Monsieur”. 2) Say please “s’il vous plait” and thank you “merci”. 3) When you leave, don’t forget “au revoir”. These basic phrases will make your interactions 100% more pleasant. Now, if you don’t speak French, that’s okay—just don’t walk up to random French people and shout at them in English. Wherever I go, I try to learn the phrase “I am sorry I don’t speak your language” . Let’s say you needed assistance in France; you could approach a person and say “Excusez-moi Madame, je suis désolé, je ne peux pas parler Français.” Then go ahead and speak in pigeon or sign language or draw a picture. Everything is going to be fine now that you’ve established yourself as a polite person who is sorry for not being fluent in their language. (Actually, there have been many times I haven’t even had to ask for help–a kind French person will just come up to me and say “do you need assistance?”)
I think part of the issue is many American who visit France only go to Paris. Not that there’s anything wrong with Parisians, but thinking all French people are like Parisians is the same as only visiting Manhattan thinking all Americans are like New Yorkers. Meeting French people in regional areas is quite endearing. The first time we visited Alsace I was completely charmed by the way people would enter a room and try to make eye contact and greet every single person there, with a rapid fire “Mesdames et Messieurs” accompanied by a swiveling head.
Of course we are human and we all have stereotypes about each other—just don’t let your preconceived notions keep you from enjoying the culture and people you meet while traveling. And remember, if you often find yourself meeting rude people when you travel, strongly consider that you yourself may be a jerk.
Writing this made me consider my own stereotypes of Europeans, which I list below, simply to air my own biases, and not to be taken seriously:
British: dry sense of humor and pleasing tendency to pun, have crooked teeth, eat all meals with squishy green peas.
Italians: affectionate, wear shiny sun glasses, seemingly more enthusiastic about soccer than about the incredibly rich cultural heritage that surrounds them, people in the North quite different from those in the South.
Hungarians: deeply serious, women all have hair dyed a flat shade of burgundy, talented musicians.
Dutch : tall, liberal, ride bikes.
Belgians: great language skills, eat unhealthy food.
French: formal, cultivators and preservers of their culture to the point of nationalism, studious.
Spanish: eat late, stay up later, get up early, smoke lots of cigarettes, constantly eat cured pork and deep fried foods and despite this are really good-looking.
Germans: organized, environmentally conscious, will stink-eye you for not following rules.
Austrians: trendy eyeglasses.
Turks: outgoing, aggressive salesmen.
And to be fair, let me add the European stereotype of Americans, obtained by a non-scientific survey of European friends.
Americans: loud, friendly, overweight, poor language skills, obsessed with guns, naïve about foreign politics.