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Cultural Misunderstandings

One topic that inevitably comes up in my talks and seminars on French travel and culture is le comportement (the behavior) of French people in France. I suppose this is understandable as the rudeness of the French, particularly Parisians, is legendary among American travelers. Participants want to know why some French people can be so gruff and stand-offish…and worse. They want to know what they can do to avoid offending French people they meet and how to come across as a 'nice American.' I wonder if the French have any forums where they discuss how to come across as a 'nice French person.' Hmmmm.

In any case, I explain that there are many factors at work. First, some Americans, wherever they travel, come across as overbearing, demanding and arrogant. I have watched my fellow citizens abroad act as if they own the world. It is not surprising that the French, who are proud of their country and their history, resent this type of attitude and respond accordingly.

We also discuss how the French have had an ongoing love-hate relationship with the U.S. While this tap dance is most visible between the governments of the two countries (think "Freedom fries"), it plays out in ordinary life as well. The French love American pop culture-movies, music, television-and the open, friendly demeanor of American people. At the same time, they begrudge the fact that a young, upstart country such as the United States is a major world super-power given France's centuries of world dominance in the past.

The most interesting part of the discussion occurs when we explore interpersonal dynamics in the U.S. versus in France. For the most part, Americans place a high value on being pleasant, polite and positive in social situations. Par contre (on the other hand), the French have a tendency to look at the glass as half empty. They speak their minds more freely and do not hesitate to disagree with friends or strangers. And they place a high value on the ability to engage in spirited conversation and debate. These characteristics can play out at a dinner party, in a corporate conference room or in a boulangerie (bakery). It is as if a rude boulanger (baker) provokes a timid or too nice client for the sport of it. If that customer has enough mettle to stand up verbally to the baker, or better yet, to give some back, the provocateur relaxes, knows he has a worthy adversary and suddenly behaves.

Last but not least, I bring up that we are talking about stereotypes, and exceptions to bad impressions abound. For every rude French experience I hear about, there are multiple examples of how kind the French can be. And in the past few years, I have noticed that more people in France speak English or want to speak English than ever before. When they realize you're American and start speaking English in response to your French, it's not that they want to snub your (in)ability to speak their language. Rather, it's because they want to practice their English!

So what's an American in France to do in response to a "challenging" French person? My advice is to: 1) Stand your ground if you know what you want, 2) Speak in the language you have most control of (tone and authenticity come through even when words aren't understood), and 3) Don't smile too much. The French don't trust people who walk around with a perpetual grin.

If none of these tactics works, then I just walk away. And remind myself that anywhere I go in the world, someone I meet who is less than civil could just be having a really bad day.

August 6, 2008

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