How To Not Get Treated Rudely By The French

Hmmm, a ham and cheese crêpe sounds delicious right about now. 

Hungry for lunch, my boyfriend Andy and I stopped into a café in Nice, France. The woman managing the eatery eyed us with what appeared like disdain. We waited patiently — and then impatiently — for her to acknowledge our presence while she stood, elbows on the counter, doing nothing. We tried to smile at her, to wave, nothing. Nobody else was in the venue, yet we practically had to jump on a table to get her to take our order.

Another time during the trip we wanted to park our rental car in a possibly illegitimate space. We decided to ask at the hotel across the street if it was okay to park. Walking in we smiled at the receptionist, who seemed immediately annoyed by our presence.

“English?” I asked him.

He shrugged. Okay then.

“Is it okay to park on this street?”

The question seemed to annoy him more. “NO!”

We moved our vehicle, both because we were afraid of getting a parking ticket and because we had a feeling if we didn’t he would report us to the police.

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Strolling Nice’s Promenade des Anglais. France has so much to offer, but to truly enjoy it you need to understand local customs.

At a local bank the ATM ate Andy’s debit card — a somewhat common problem in France for tourists, we were told. We waited in line — again with nobody in front of us — for at least 10 minutes before we had to walk up to the desk and politely demand to be acknowledged.

But Why?

We were getting frustrated by these common unfriendly scenarios in France, until we went to a dinner in a local home through BonAppetour. Our hosts Caroline and Nicolas along with their two friends Teddy and Frederique were amazing, and a night of French wine, food and cultural exchange ensued.

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Enjoying a cultural exchange in Nice through BonAppetour

At one point Teddy asked us to be honest about what Americans thought of French people. We went silent.

Finally, I spoke up in a soft voice. “I guess there is a stereotype that French people are rude.”

“And do you find that to be true?” he asked.

“Not always. You are all wonderful!” I complimented, before continuing with the bad news. “But we have found it hard to be acknowledged when we walk into a place. Do the French not like tourists or English speakers?”

After some back and forth, it became clear that France has certain rules when it comes to pleasantries. When you walk into a venue, whether it be a shop, hotel, bank or something else, you should always say “Bonjour madame / mademoiselle/ monsieur” (hello mrs/miss/sir), as well as “Au revoir madame / mademoiselle/ monsieur” (goodbye mrs/miss /sir) when leaving. Frequent use of the words “merci” (thank you) and “s’il vous plaît” (please) are also important.

Noted Teddy, “If you don’t exchange these pleasantries you will have big problems. If you do, you’ll have no issues.”

And he was right. Andy and I began throwing around “bonjour” and “excusez-moi” quite liberally. We even got fancy, taking our “merci” to a “merci beaucoup” (thank you very much). Our experience changed completely. No longer were we ignored. Instead we had actual conversations with the locals we met. One bakery owner, who saw me taking pictures of my food, even invited me into the back to photograph the kitchen. Our trip went from frustrating to fantastic overnight.

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Getting to go behind the scenes of a cafe once we knew the rules on pleasantries in France

New York vs French Culture

The use of these pleasantries may sound obvious; however, in Andy and I’s home of New York this is not the culture. And no, it’s not because New Yorkers are rude or angry; it’s because we’re fast paced and it’s just not the norm. In fact, going into a shop without saying hello to the shopkeeper is very normal. If you make eye contact with said shopkeeper, you may say hello or even just give a smile, nod or wave for them to understand you’re acknowledging them. Neither New York culture nor French culture is right or wrong; they’re just different.

That being said, I pride myself on researching the local culture before visiting a place, and silently scolded myself that I had done a sub par job this time.

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Having a better time in France once we learned the rule on pleasantries

Remember, the problems you encounter on a trip aren’t always the fault of the place or its people. Sometimes we need to look within ourselves to see if there’s a step we’ve neglected to take to better assimilate.

For more information on greetings in France, check out French Together’s in-depth guide and French Today’s post on using madame vs mademoiselle.

Do you have any French culture tips to add? Please share in the comments below! 

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8 Comments

  1. Love this post! Recently, I spent four nights in Paris and I didn’t encounter any rude people (a couple of not so warm and fuzzy servers in restaurants, but even they weren’t too bad!). I was expecting to be disappointed in Parisians, but I found my experience to be quite the opposite. Every place I went, I walked in like I spoke French ( I do not!) and said Bon jour! Bon soir! Merci! And everyone was wonderful. I’d assumed it was because I tried to speak the language ( I didn’t think about the politeness of the culture, which I already knew), but regardless, whenever I travel, I attempt to speak the language out of respect, but also because it’s fun. I expect the same from people who travel to NYC (also my home), and I don’t care if they don’t speak English, but I love them for trying. So happy you had a positive French experience. 🙂
    Tracy Kaler recently posted..20 Destinations I’ve Traveled to and What I Remember Most About EachMy Profile

    1. @Tracy: Agreed! I definitely think it’s respectful when travelers at least learn a few common words and phrases to communicate with locals. You’re in their homeland. Travelers shouldn’t expect locals to cater to their lack of knowledge. Also, I love Paris! After this recent trip I’m craving a year or more in France 🙂

  2. You’re right, starting with “bonjour” is essential.

    In fact, as a Frenchman, I’m always surprised when I see foreigners come up to me and ask me questions without saying “bonjour”. It just seems extremely rude to me, even though it isn’t necessarily the case in other countries.

    This said, Paris is a stressful city, and it’s not rare to meet unfriendly people. But it’s important to remember that it’s usually about them, not about you. There are wonderful and awful people everywhere.

  3. Those polite forms are the key to the hearts of the French. In fact, once you get used to it, you can’t stop saying Bonjour’s and merci’s! It’s part of the essentials of good communication in France.

  4. I’ll share your article as it’s an addition to the expert interview I published recently.
    That said, I have been to Cinque Terre last week and I had to spend one night in Nice as I live in the Basque Country (south-west of France). I really felt like Nice is a so popular destination that hospitality is worse and worse. Each night was reserved through Booking. When I wrote the review for the first place, the owner almost insulted me in his answer as it was an honest, but not so good, review (eg we had one toilet in the kitchen for 10 persons). For my return trip, the second hotel (a 3 stars one) was worse. I had to pay… 20€ more because of my little westie dog! As I complained, the guy treated me very badly, telling I was hassling him, was a thief (another client and I thought we had paid for the night on Booking), a liar (I told him I never paid such a price for my 9 kgs dog) and was threatening him by telling I will review his hotel on my blog and will share my bad experience with my readers (he was ready to make me pay “only” 10€ for my dog if I didn’t write!).
    And… I’m French.
    Stephanie Langlet recently posted..Expert interview: helpful tips to enjoy your trip to FranceMy Profile

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