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.
French dining etiquette certainly differed from what we were used to in the USA.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. You can also check out this Europe travel guide for more general trip information.
Bonus France Travel Guides
Do you have any French culture tips to add?\
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