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Suggestions on how to avoid offending the French people

Hello. My family and I will be visiting Paris this summer. I have heard all my life things such as "The French hate Americans," and that they won't serve Americans in restaurants, bring the check, make eye contact, etc. I've done some reading and believe that some of these things are the result of poor manners and cultural awareness of the part of Americans. Even so, I feel a bit uneasy. I am looking for some suggestions (maybe your top 5) for ways to avoid offending the French people, and ALSO ways to cultivate a nice conversation/friendship with them. It is a bit unnerving to think they may hate us before we even open our mouths. What are the little things we can do to try to win favor with them and also, what should we avoid doing? I already know that we need to be quiet in restaurants, not assume everyone is from Paris, avoid discussions about politics and religion, etc. What are your thoughts or suggestions? Can you help me represent the United States well?

Thanks

Posted by
333 posts

The most important thing to do is when you are speaking to anyone, the first word out of your mouth should be Bonjour. I got some not so pleasant looks when I forgot.

Posted by
2353 posts

Much of what you've heard is exaggerated I am sure. The French are really lovely people.

Always greet first for sure. Learn & use the polite words.

That is what we do and other than a conductor on a train one time that I could not understand we have not offended anyone in France.

Posted by
1878 posts

The thing about how the French and Parisians are hostile to Americans is not true at all as far as I have experienced in four trips. Maybe at one time long ago. It's polite to know a few words in French and start with bonjour, etc. It's also normal to say hello to shop keepers, and goodbye in French. Don't touch the merchandise yourself, ask for help. If you are normally loud speaking and brash in your body language, definitely tone it down. (There are contexts where I think the body language of Americans in the U.S. is aggressive, actually). The norms about sort of thing are different in different places and contexts in the U.S. too, and I find this very noticeable when outside my local bubble. Be patient when they take forever to serve you in a cafe, waiter is not chatty or want to be your friend. In general in Europe they don't have the customer is always right value set, it's like a social interaction between presumed equals. So the desk clerk at the hotel may not drop what they are doing immediately when you approach the desk, etc. You will find guidelines about these kinds of cultural differences in Rick's books. Don't worry about it too much though, it's really not a big deal.

Posted by
3 posts

Miranda is right ! I am French and when I go back for a visit and although I thought I was polite and said the equivalent of Would you please tell me ..... Thank you. I will be met with an icy look. My cousin reminded me that it was rude not to say Bonjour first, then ask your question.

Posted by
989 posts

I was a bit worried when we went with our kids a couple years ago because of what you hear... also my husband and I visited very briefly when we were around 28 and did not have a great experience (we were only there passing through).... (in retrospect, perhaps we were jerk-ish young people then...)

We had a great time in Paris! I thought everyone was kind and my kids even said at the end of our 2 days there "Why is everyone in France so nice and such a good cook?" :)

I of course made the effort to learn a few French words and always started off that way. Even got some people to help me with some new words! In general, we always find people friendly when we travel and we have been all over Europe. We always engage in their language and if it is something I can't obtain by smiling, gesturing and pointing, I always ask, in their language, if they speak English before I launch into my request.

I think the main reasons people run into issues while traveling are:
1. Expecting to get everything just how you want, especially with meals. Just order it and make the best of it. Don't ask for a million special requests.
2. Getting bent out of shape if they perceive someone as rude, etc... You don't know why they say no, or may seem rude, and it may not have anything to do with you and likely doesn't. Just be pleasant to everyone regardless and brush it off.
3. Not trying to engage in their language/culture... you have to try even if you don't do it well!

Just have a smile, a flexible positive attitude, and a few French phrases and you will be all set! Have fun! I am dying to go back to Paris.. 2 days obviously was not enough, but it was what we had at the time! :)

Kim

Posted by
2747 posts

I ageee with saying "bonjour". And not just when specifically conversing - walk into a store and say it to the clerk. At a cafe. To the waiter. The hotel clerk when you pass the desk. Etc.

Ask "parlez vous anglais" before launching into English. Even if you don't speak French - it's rude to just assume a French person speaks your language although most in the tourist areas will speak some.

Speak fairly quietly. A loud voice is distracting and considered rude to those around you. Listen to the volume level in the restaurant/subway/museum and mimic that.

Restaurant service is slower than at home. That's considered a good thing - rushing people out the door is rude, leaving them alone to linger over a nice meal is good!
***Don't expect them to bring your check or check in in your table all the time. ** some tourists get offended but this is just the local culture - it in no way means they dislike you etc. Just ask politely for what you need - sometimes you will need to alert the waiter by making eye contact - and they will get it. But be patient because it may take longer than at home.

Don't assume everything will be like it is at home. The cliche problem American whines about lack of ice, slow service, small coffee, etc etc.

Posted by
120 posts

You got great advice here CM. Don't worry, smile and with a "bonjour" you'll see that we are just like you. ;) Welcome to France!

Posted by
223 posts

Not to complicate things, but it would be better if, when addressing a male, to say "Bonjour monsieur" (bone ZHUR miss SYUR) and, when addressing a female, to say "Bonjour madame" (bone ZHUR muh DAM). And always remember the s.v.p. (s'il vous plaît; or please) with a request.

French people, in general, don't hate Americans. Many of them are fascinated with the USA. A lot of them will apologize for their poor English when it actually is quite good -- they're just embarrassed about it; just as you probably would be about your French.

That said, I doubt you'll have many (if any) nice conversations or a friendship with French folks when you visit. There's a pretty deep canyon, linguistically, between the two languages. I would advise you to be happy if can handle the mechanical part of a transaction (settling a bill at a restraurant; buying an item at a store) without too much embarassment. Having said that, you may be amazed at how hospitable the French may be. I remember when my wife and I first came to France: we were in Alsace, and we went to a restaurant recommended by the B&B owner where we were staying. It was a tiny spot -- fewer than 10 tables -- and we had some typically Alsatian meal. But then the owner/chef came out to talk to us in his terrible English. He brought a bottle of Alsatian crémant (the generic name for French sparkling wine not from Champagne) and shared several glasses with us while he tried to understand just where in the U.S. we were from. No extra charge.

As for the bill at a restaurant (l'addition), it's not that they're not bringing it to you because you're an American. It's that they usually don't bring it unless asked. A lot of restaurants settle the bill at the register. Some bring it to the table. You have to ask, either with "l'addition s.v.p." (la DEE seeOHN sill VU play) or by making a writing motion as if one hand was holding a pencil and the other hand's palm was a paper pad. My advice would be to watch other diners to see how they sette their bills and then follow their lead.

Posted by
8889 posts
  • "Bonjour" before every conversation.
  • "Parlez-vous Anglais?" - do not assume anyone speaks English, that is rude.
  • Even if you know someone speaks English, always start with Bonjour or good morning/afternoon. It takes a short time for your brain to switch languages, if you are thinking in one language and somebody just starts straight out in another, by the time you have figured out "what is that, or yes its English" you have missed the first half of the sentence. So always "good morning/afternoon", wait for the reply and only then start your question.
  • "La carte" = the menu. "Le menu" = the set meal of the day, 2 or 3 courses. This is usually a good deal, cheaper than eating "à la carte".
  • Just because "La carte" is in English, doesn't mean the waiter understands all the words on it. It will have been translated by the one member of staff that speaks the best English, and it is his day off. Don't ask awkward questions.
  • Le menu is often a hand written sheet, or on a blackboard. This will not be translated.
  • "L'addition s'il vous plait" - the bill please. It is rude to hand someone the bill before they ask.
  • "combien" = how much. Pointing and saying "combien" with a questioning look on your face goes a long way. Often people scribble the price on a piece of paper, or type it into a calculator and show it to you.
  • "pardon", "excusez-moi" - an apology defuses most problems.
Posted by
1783 posts

Hi CM, slow down. Start every interaction with Bonjour or Bon Soir (if it's after 5pm). When you enter a shop take a minute and make eye contact with the proprietor. Don't just barge in and start touching stuff. Paris is a lovely city. It's beautiful, cultured, and rich with architecture and history. I love it and if you give it half a chance you will love it too!

Posted by
1425 posts

Don't throw things at the French. They don't like that and none of their national sports involve throwing things. Petanque doesn't count as the ball is tossed. Kicking something toward them is a different story.

Don't make "surrender" jokes. Not cool. Besides, it was an armistice.

Don't inquire about purchasing one of their children. They love their children and would be insulted if you accidentally low-balled them.

Don't dine-and-dash.

Posted by
5267 posts

"Bonjour" for sure (it almost rhymes). And I think FastEddie nailed it -- before offering to purchase one of their children (enfants), say bonjour, ask the price (combien?) politely, say s'il vous plait, and above all, as you leave with the enfant, say merci, au revoir. ;-)

The two bad interactions I've had have been my fault for failing the "bonjour" with a ticket agent on the Metro. A stressful enough job as it is.

But don't expect to have a lot of pleasant chats or instant friendships with French people, even in the hospitality industry where they're used to us and want to please us. There's much more formality in their interactions. Men who have known each other for years will shake hands when they meet, even the next day. The air kiss (don't try this at home or abroad) is mostly air. Politeness is key. Smiles are OK but not as automatic or effusive as in our culture. The waiter won't introduce himself by name or check up on you often. Good advice above about the pace of service. Don't worry, you'll be fine. At worst, they'll humor your odd American friendliness. Have a great trip.

Posted by
764 posts

I won't repeat what all the other posters have said, other than to agree that "bonjour" said with a sincere, friendly smile is the magic word in almost any situation you, as a tourist, will find yourself in. Enjoy your trip. Paris is wonderful and so are most French people you will encounter.

Posted by
2349 posts

An exception to "bonjour"- don't say it to people that you pass on the street. Don't take offense when they don't even make eye contact. They won't even look at you, will be heading right at you, and somehow don't run into you. This is not rude. It just is.

Posted by
16941 posts

Why is everyone so afraid of offending the French. Belgians, Dutch, Danes, Italians can all be sensitive too.

As far as discussing politics, I just got from Italy and Netherlands, and believe you me, EVERYBODY wanted to hear about The Donald, for good or ill.

Posted by
285 posts

Learning a few words in the local language shows good manners and respect for another person's culture. A little politeness goes a long way towards maintaining a civil society, but obviously some people will exhibit boorish behavior and attitude wherever they go.

Posted by
7146 posts

Always sing out "Bonjour" (or "Bonsoir") when you cross the threshold entering a shop. Then again "Bonjour Madame/Monsieur" when being served, but not so singy this time.

Posted by
2466 posts

Don't touch fruit or vegetables unless you see bags displayed.
Always say "Bonjour, Monsieur" or "Bonjour, Madame" whenever you enter or have to address someone.
Always say "Merci. Au revoir, Monsieur (or Madame)" when you leave.
Don't worry about tackling politics or religion unless your French is perfect.

The check will be brought when you can catch the waiter's eye, and not before.
You may raise your hand to do this, you don't have to say anything.
No tipping is necessary, unless you have some coins left over.

Just relax and smile. The French have had lessons on how to deal with Anglophones, and most people will attempt to speak English.

Posted by
2466 posts

If you go shopping for food, you'll either have to pay a few centimes for a flimsy bag, or will not be given anything.
Better to buy a fabric tote bag for 1 EU in the store, than to try to juggle bottles of wine, sausage, etc.

Posted by
1689 posts

I have not the idea that the French hate Americans, there are always exceptions ofcourse or likely in many cases based pure on misunderstanding, but not something to be worried about.

But in general French are introvert and feel not always easy with extravert people and in some cases meeting some extravert Americans can be a reason to avoid the conversation. It does not mean that the extravert person is not nice or behaving impolite or so, it is more that extraversion for some is too direct for entering their comfort zone and they not really know how to deal with it, so responding unlucky. French like to beat a bit around the bush (in some cases bouche too :) ) before coming to business, and I think you can gain a lot if you know how that non verbal part of the communication works. Guess for some it can be a reason that it is so hard to feel at home in France, hopefully just being aware of extravert vs. introvert can make it more easy.

Posted by
178 posts

Lots of good ideas. From my point of view I can't even imagine what it's like to work in a service industry anywhere in the world where tourists flock. Having to deal with the same questions on a daily basis from tourists who are spending their hard earned money taking in the local sites.These service people don't earn all that much and face it, lots of people treat service people rather rudely.

Anytime they are treated with a smile and some level of civility must make their day. JMO

Posted by
1068 posts

Why is everyone so afraid of offending the French. Belgians, Dutch, Danes, Italians can all be sensitive too.

The OP mentioned going to Paris, the topic may well have been different if another destination was mentioned

First, who cares what the French or anyone else think.

Polite people care, and travelers who think of travel as a political act. I can see your point though, there are people who post here and I don't care at all what they think.

Posted by
7718 posts

The suggestions for "Bonjour" are good, but in fact, please pay close attention to the recommendations from K and Chexbres.

It's extraordinarily important in France -- and indeed, is one of the secret codes for being considered "correct" - to say Bonjour *Madame*** or Bonjour *Monsieur*** as appropriate. The Madame or Monsieur is every bit as important as the Bonjour.

It sounds like a little thing, but it will make a big difference in how people perceive you. You're being thoughtful in asking, so you might as well get the best advice out there!

Signed,
A Fellow Okie in Paris

Posted by
6734 posts

I have spent months in Paris over the years, just spent a month there this fall. I can count on one hand the number of unpleasant experiences with the French. I have no worse luck with rude waiters or whatever there than in the US. I suspect people who have lots of problems are either rude or projecting. Of course that is why the OP began the thread.

The basic rule is that you great people before ANY interaction. If you want directions, if you are buying croissants, if you are checking out at the grocery store, if the waiter has just come to your table, you say 'bon jour' before you begin the interaction and you say please and thank you and you say au revoir when you leave.

The French are not as loud, they don't grin as much, and their waitstaffs are more formal than is common in the US but we have always had good luck in shops with people who work to understand us and our needs. Most people I know who fuss about the French traveled in tour groups where they whined to each other about how horrible wherever they were was.

Posted by
54 posts

Agree with the great advice about showing courtesy and restrained friendliness and being prepared for the different process around getting and paying your check at a restaurant. I think much of the behavior that might at first seem unfriendly (lack of eye contact on the street in Paris, etc.) is a city thing as much as it is a Paris thing (for example, New York is certainly like that compared to other parts of the US just because there are so many people around all the time).

Also, don't necessarily expect to engage in as much chit chat as you might in the US, but you should definitely be attuned to signals that the person you're talking to would like to chat with you more. Especially in the summer when a lot of students are working, we've experienced a lot of younger people, in particular, being eager to talk to us in English because they like the practice. And we've had some lovely conversations with people when they realize that we're sincerely engaged and interested in talking about the food, culture, etc. And finally, yes, be prepared for some curiosity about the state of US politics. Enjoy your trip!

Posted by
308 posts

I just spent a week in Paris and I didn't noticeably offend anyone! I can't add any additional advice except just try to relax and take everything in.

Yesterday my husband and I were doing one of the self-guided walking tours from the RS Paris book and a local Parisian stopped to ask us if we were lost and needed help! We had several very lovely experiences with the locals, mostly in neighborhoods outside the big tourist attractions.

Posted by
162 posts

Before you travel this summer, read recently published "The Bonjour Effect". It will enlighten you with perhaps more information than you seek, but will provide confidence for your interactions with the French. Any French language you can learn or relearn before you depart will also be quite useful. A "Bonjour' and your attempts at the language will be well received. The effort to learn French is perceived as a respect issue. I have had nothing but happy travels in France on five trips and my primary second language is German. My stumbling French is appreciated for the effort behind it.

Posted by
11450 posts

CM I am horrified that in this day and age there are such horrible ignorant people as those who gave you that rubbish information . Seriously , it actually nauseates me that a grown man or woman would say such things about an entire nation of people . And likely bars in little to no real experiences of their own ! Mayb the bus tour they took in 89 stopped in Paris for two days so now they are experts . Please tell them that Pat , from Canada would happily ounch them in the nose but that they are lucky they live so far away lol !!!

Most French people are kind and lovely , yes , they are more formal , especially with strangers , but being fake nice is just as aborrent to me than cool formality in business relationships , trust me , they hug their kids too , they are not cold monsters ! Grrr

Posted by
11450 posts

CM I am horrified that in this day and age there are such horrible ignorant people as those who gave you that rubbish information . Seriously , it actually nauseates me that a grown man or woman would say such things about an entire nation of people . And likely with little to no real experiences of their own ! Maybe the bus tour they took in 89 stopped in Paris for two days so now they are experts . Please tell them that Pat , from Canada would happily punch them in the nose but that they are lucky they live so far away lol !!!

Most French people are kind and lovely , yes , they are more formal , especially with strangers , but being fake nice is just as aborrent to me than cool formality in business relationships , trust me , they hug their kids too , they are not cold monsters ! Grrr

Posted by
7273 posts

This is sad.
C.M. you've been hearing b.s.
C.M. Please delete this topic so others don't see it.

Posted by
341 posts

So, the 'bonjour' thing...I learned it also applies when you're moving from one room in the Louvre to another, and you need to ask the security guard/attendant where the restroom is. LOL. This was me, trying to be quick and not bothersome:

Me: quietly, because it was very hushed tones where I was - Restroom?

Security guard: I swear to god there was a snarl on his face...and for good reason - Excuse me, Madame. My name is not "restroom"

--pregnant pause--

Me: Bonjour, monsieur. Can you tell me where the restroom is located?

Security: gives directions, but I never find it.

So! The moral of that story is even if you're aware of the 'bonjour' rule, remember that you may occasionally fall back into your American-ness. It happens. Just reverse course and then laugh about it later.

I like the notion that the French are just more formal and introverted. This seems fairly accurate. I've been there 4 or 5 times and don't know that I've run into a terribly extroverted one. :) But they are lovely people, and they have a beautiful country.

Just relax and enjoy your trip. Good luck!

Posted by
13026 posts

Hi,

Who has been telling you this misinformation, to put it politely? Should you care about what you have heard? Basically, nothing to be concerned about, groundless. I've heard the same "stuff" you indicate over forty years ago. I could care less when I decided to go to France flying SFO to Paris on my second trip to Europe in July 1973, and Vietnam was still fresh in the news then. Since that trip in 1973, I've been returning to France ever since, the last time on French soil was last May landing at CDG from SFO. Everything you listed has never happened to me in France (not being served, ignored, etc, ) either when I did not know the language or afterwards, ie now I know the language enough, certainly not fluent or at advance level in conversation. No doubt knowing the language is better than vice versa. I've talked history and politics (somewhat) in English in France but not religion...no big deal. I'm not going there to represent the US, neither in my younger days nor now.

Posted by
308 posts

I grew up on the North Dakota/South Dakota border and we tend to be extremely reserved until we get to know people. The people are generally very polite but reserved. After college, I lived in Texas for ten years and was initially very shocked at how overtly friendly, in a very casual way, strangers were to me. At first I thought it was fake but it also helped me come out of my shell. This is one example of the cultural differences to be found within the U.S. Europe has the same differences, which should be respected and appreciated.

You should download the free podcasts RS has on Paris. A lot of the cultural differences are explained. There is one that helps you understand the cafe culture and communicating with waiters.

Posted by
1068 posts

I must agree with many of the posters. Many times I had heard of how rude Parisians were (but people in other parts of France were nice.) That was not my experience. Almost everyone was extremely nice to me in Paris (and elsewhere in France) and, like another poster, when lost one day had several people stop voluntarily and offer me help. I did not remember or know about saying Bonjour and did have two incidents. In the first, someone was a bit rude and it was only afterwards (after incident #2) that I figured out I was perceived as the rude person. In the second, a shopkeeper (and I was there) was working with a disagreeable customer. The other customer left and I put my purchases and Euros next to the till. He looked at me a second, then I got an exaggerated and loud "Bonjour." I said it back and he said, (in great English) "See, isn't that much more pleasant?" He then became very personable and we chatted about his year of living in America and what to see/where to eat in Paris. I don't think I forgot that lesson again. As an aside, I took a tour of smaller French towns and villages after that and always heard our guide start every conversation with Bonjour!

Posted by
50 posts

Duolingo helps. Bonjour, au revoir, etc.

99% of folks have been awesome. Customs official was fabulous. Sixt rental guy was a <$%$#> ! (Not so nice).

People have been so nice, that i asked a stranger in my limited french for directions and she was great and solved our confusion.

Despite all your efforts, you will find a grumpy person anywhere. My polite broken french questions to understand the translation of a "to go" coffee price vs "stay" price was perceived as exhausting. One notre dame service attendant could find no joy for some reason either.

Just don't be the guy i was behind at a bakery a few years ago who said in a heavy Brooklyn accent "give me one of those, one of these, one of these".... i was really embarrassed as it was quintessential ugly american.

Most grumpy travel country in my limited travels? Nassau in the Bahamas.

The people in france have been awesome.

Posted by
425 posts

I read an interesting book a while back. French or Foe. Pretty good read and addresses your topic perfectly.

Posted by
223 posts

Well, if this horse weren't dead I am quite sure he'd be on the phone to the ASPCA by now. However, I'll add one more comment:

Karen wrote:

An exception to "bonjour"- don't say it to people that you pass on the
street. Don't take offense when they don't even make eye contact. They
won't even look at you, will be heading right at you, and somehow
don't run into you. This is not rude. It just is.

That's good advice, in general, for Paris, Lyon, and Marseille; probably for a few other large cities as well. It's not good advice for small towns. More often than not, if you make eye contact with someone on the street or in a pedestrian area, they'll say "Bonjour Madame" (or Monsieur or Madame et Monsieur, depending on your specifics) as they pass. It's polite to respond accordingly.

Posted by
11978 posts

So I now have a French girlfriend whom I met on my last trip in September (she's also visited me here in the US). I would say, judging by the coaching I'm getting from her, the list of things Americans do that could potentially offend the French is nearly infinite.

As an example, they prefer a bis to a hug. The French consider a couple of kisses on the cheek to involve less touching - thus less intimate - than a hug. We're almost opposite. When you do hug a friend, they really don't like if you pat their back while you hug - it's seen as condascending. French women don't particularly like holding hands, especially for a long time, because that's something you do with a child rather than an adult. It can be seen as controlling. Smiling all the time, something Americans are known for, is seen as having dementia.

Long story short, the best you can do is always, always be polite. I don't think the French, especially Parisians, are particularly nice people (not to say they are mean either), but they are dead set on being polite. If you always begin a conversation with a greeting and use polite words, maam, sir, please, thank you, hello, goodbye - you will do more than most tourists and can expect the vast majority of French people to treat you decently.

When I was there, I was actually surprised how many French, including Parisians, went out of their way to be helpful. I can only surmise my extremely weak attempt to speak French and my politeness made a big difference.

Posted by
2349 posts

Thank you, K, for clarifying my posts about greeting people on the street.

I remember a woman visiting from a small town in Scotland. We'd taken her to downtown Cincinnati, and she kept saying "Hello!" to every possible person on the street. We had to explain that they all thought she was crazy. Really, it was a constant, "Hiya! Hello! Hi! Hello!"

I was recently in New Orleans, and in the French Quarter on quiet mornings, people will call out "Good morning!" to you from across the street.

Posted by
8515 posts

Brad--I think the hand holding is particular to your friend, though arm-in-arm works well too. True they smile less in public with strangers but people let loose and laugh heartily around a table during a meal. In any case, one thing we've realized after forty years of a Franco-American marriage living in both countries, is that people are more alike than different though all individual. I have not personally encountered so much criticism that I felt the potential to offend is infinite, not from my husband, nor my in-laws, nor friends, nor work colleagues. That would be very uncomfortable.

Posted by
2349 posts

I just thought of something. Don't try to help the waiters. Let them do their job.

Posted by
13026 posts

@ Brad...From your comments/observations on distinct and different cultural cues between les français and Americans, it seems to me you are doing fine, if you want to view this as in regards to acculturation. It also depends on how "American" one is when one comes from here. Notice too that they set the dinner table differently.