I’ve lived in Paris for over seven years, during which time I’ve been asked a lot of questions about what it’s like to live in France. And by far the most common question I get asked is whether or not the French really are as rude as their reputation. The short answer? No. They aren’t. The long answer, however, is a bit more involved, because it requires understanding the various cultural differences that have led to the stereotype of the rude French. Here are some of the biggest ones you should be aware of while you’re in France.
Greetings are VERY Important
Every interaction, whether it’s with people you know or with strangers, must begin with a proper greeting. I always tell people that the most important word to know in French is Bonjour. Even if that’s the only word you know, if you start every interaction with Bonjour, your time in France will go exponentially smoother. This is especially true in stores. When you enter, always look the shopkeeper in the eye and greet them with a Bonjour. If you don’t, you’ve actually been rude to them first, and you can expect a chilly reception when you get to the cash desk. Always, always start with Bonjour. It’s my #1 life hack for living in France.
Correcting Your French
All that being said, if you know a bit more than Bonjour and want to try out your French, don’t be surprised if French people correct you along the way. This often comes off as rude, but it’s not intended to be. French is a beautiful language, but it’s also notoriously difficult to master. What’s great is that the French are very much aware of this. Therefore, if someone interrupts you to correct your French, they’re not being rude or mean. They’re genuinely trying to be helpful because they know that French is really hard. I used to take it personally, but now I just laugh at my mistakes and try again.
Forget About Small Talk
Exchanging “How are you?”s is a common greeting where I’m from, and small talk with strangers is a normal occurrence. Not so in France. Here, you only ask people how they’re doing if you know them and you genuinely want to know the answer. Otherwise, the French don’t do small talk. As a result, they can come off as unfriendly and aloof, but they’re not. They just need time to get to know you. That’s why it’s a big deal when they starting asking how you’re doing. It’s a sign of friendliness that is reserved for those for whom they actually want to know the answer. I vividly remember the first time the cashier at my local grocery store added a “Ça va?” (How are you?) after her “Bonjour”. I may or may not have mentally done a fist bump in that moment.
Enjoy Your Meal
Eating in France is an experience. The French take their food very seriously, and meals are not to be rushed. This is why good service in a French restaurant often means being left alone. Which can be confusing for those who are used to being checked on every ten minutes. Therefore, if you’re dining out in France, just remember that your waiter is not ignoring you. They are leaving you to enjoy your meal in peace, and they will wait for you to ask if you need anything. This includes the bill, which you have to ask for when you’re ready to leave. It will not automatically appear once your plates have been cleared.
The Dreaded Vous vs. Tu
There are two ways to say “you” in French. The formal “vous” and the informal “tu”. Unfortunately, there is a myriad of complicated social rules for when you should use “vous” vs. “tu”, and seven years in, I have yet to master any of them. Which means I’ve inadvertently been very rude to many people on many an occasion. Thankfully, everyone has always been very understanding about these blunders, especially since I’m not a native speaker. But nowadays I don’t take any chances. I use “vous” until the other person tells me I can use “tu”, and not a moment sooner. Fun fact. There is actually a French verb for each of these actions. Tutoyer means “to use tu” and vouvoyer means “to use vous”. I love the French language.
The Rude French?
I must admit that I now get quite defensive whenever people ask me about the rude French. Partly because I’ve lived in France long enough to understand the many cultural differences that cause this stereotype. But also because I know the truth about the French. They may not be as naturally friendly as other cultures, and they will definitely take a while to warm up to you. But once you’re in, you’re in. French friendships are deep bonds, and my French friends have been there for me, time and time again, in more ways than I can count.
So are the French really that rude? No. And that’s absolutely the hill I’m willing to die on.
Laura Moore is a professional storyteller who loves history and the many stories that make Paris one of the most fascinating cities in the world. Join one of her signature tours to learn the story of a city.