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French People Are LOVELY!

My wife and I just spent three weeks in France. For years we've heard all the stories about the rude, unfriendly, stuck up French. They are SO not true. I just have to share this example:

We were in Chartres. It was pouring down rain so we ducked into one of the restaurants across the street from the cathedral. We sat at one end of the bar. We ordered from les formules déjeuner. Another American couple came in and sat a few stools over.

The woman practically confronted the barman, and in a loud voice demanded, "Do you have sandwiches?"

He looked a bit confused.

"Sandwiches?" she said, louder, looking at him like he was an idiot. "Sandwiches?" she practically yelled.

He looked down his nose at her. "No, madame, we don't have 'sandwiches.' Perhaps you could try a grocery store."

"Well, give us a menu then. In English." She gave him a sour look.

A few minutes later she announced, "We're going to have a salad and a cheeseburger. Does it come with French Fries?"

Now it was the the barman's turn to look sour. He said curtly that it came with frites, not "French Fries."

"What are those? Freets?"

He pointed at another diner's plate.

She corrected him. "Those are French Fries." And then a demand couched as a question, "Will you cut the cheeseburger in half so we can share it?"

The barman walked all the way around the long bar and crouched down next to them. Quietly and with obvious distaste he said, "No. I am not going to cut up your food for you." Then he walked all the way back around the bar.

A little later, when they had finished, the man motioned the barman over. With a little sweeping motion of his hands, he indicated the dirty plates and said sharply, "Take." He glared at the barman for a second, and then he and his wife threw some money on the bar and left.

The best part of the story? The whole time this was going on, my wife, the barman, and I were have the most delightful conversation. Partly in our worst tourist French, partly in his real French, and partly in English. We joked and shared stories and talked about the food, and what it was like growing up in Chartres, and how proud he was of his town, and what we should do while we were there. He was very funny and gave us a little extra with our dessert.

Everywhere we went, we met people like him, fun, happy, knowledgeable, helpful. We apologized for our bad French, they apologized for their English (even when it was pretty good), and many actually asked us to please speak English so they could practice! (I even learned a joke about people like me: Je parle française comme une vache espangnole [I speak French like a Spanish cow]!)

My recommendation: first, learn at least a little French. Rick's phrasebook is especially good. I took a couple of months of weekly online lessons; my wife tried Duolingo. And then at least try to have conversations with the people you meet! A little bit of Italian in Italy and German in Switzerland and the Süd Tirol have all had the same effect: you'll find really friendly people all over Europe if you give it a try!

Posted by
341 posts

Dear LADTM

Thank you for this story - and how you and the bartender came together for a happy ending story. It takes all kinds to make up the world. Hopefully the “Ugly Americans” next to you didn’t sour the bartender. I have been traveling to France for many years and rarely encounter anything but kindness from the French especially if you reach out with a little of their native tongue as you suggest.

Posted by
40 posts

@NoAkuBirds I assume you are questioning why a Frenchman, like the barman in my story, would tolerate my broken French? First, my French, while basic, is actually pretty clean: I really work at getting the accent and conversational language down, and I keep it simple. In most cases I think the person I'm speaking with knows I'm trying to practice their language and get better just as they are trying to practice English and get better. My overall point stands: try to communicate in whatever language you have at hand! The key word isn't "language," it's "communicate."

Posted by
301 posts

Wow. ETA: (In response to comments above and other guests in OP's story) I teach fifth grade. I teach the students to THINK before saying something.

T--is it True?
H--is it Helpful?
I--is it Inspiring?
N-is it Necessary?
K--is it Kind?
If it's not, then it doesn't need to be said.

ETA--And thank you, OP, for such a positive report!

Posted by
7468 posts

Thank you for this uplifting story of your experience which I hope made the barman’s day and offset his other experience!

I’ve also found the French people I’ve encountered to be very cordial, kind and helpful! I came to France prepared ahead of time of how I should interact and be respectful by asking a co-worker who had lived in France what to do & not do. Obviously the obnoxious sandwich couple didn’t - whew!

My French is basic tourist French, plus some DuoLingo, etc. practice, but it has been appreciated as not expecting someone to speak English to me unless they want to switch over to it.

Posted by
2597 posts

After using the local buses for several days in Nice I realized that I had been asking questions incorrectly - instead of asking "arretez-vous" near the museum or whatever, I was saying 'vouz arret' at the museum and raising my intonation at the end to make it into a question. I honestly didn't realize until some time later that I had been telling the bus drivers to stop near the museum (etc) rather than asking them if they did! Oopsy.

Posted by
2716 posts

Yes, they are lovely and so are most Europeans we have met. But, we too, encountered the American behavior which sours many. We were in Spain on a high end tour last month (I’ll withhold the name of the company but they are 2-3X the cost of RS) and there was a couple from FL who had been on 20 tours with this company, all over the world. Now, they obviously can afford this, and live in a state with a large Spanish speaking population. So every few nights during an otherwise splendid dinner, she would wave her arm in the air while shouting “waiter, waiter, mah meat is raw, mah meat is raaaw! Waiter, waiter!!” I can’t get her voice out of my head!

Posted by
5144 posts

Thank you OP, for a very illuminating post. We too have found the vast majority of French people to be friendly and courteous. As have the majority of citizens of other countries we've visited. But I might put courtesy slightly ahead of attempts at speaking the local language when it comes to local interactions. The Ugly Americans you encountered (and unlike a previous poster, I've encountered enough of them myself to know they exist ) could have been 90% less ugly, even as monoglots, if they had been taught politeness and courtesy by their parents.

I also do not share the opinion of the previous poster who thinks everyone must speak English if your French or Italian or Kurdish isn't perfect. Thankfully not everyone is so intolerant of imperfection. I appreciate the attempts by others whose primary language isn't English, and try to encourage any conversation by speaking simply in return. And I appreciate the patience and encouragement of others when the shoe is on the other foot. Weve had many an interesting and enjoyable conversation in a mishmash of languages with people we have met on our travels. Of course that can only go so far, and if an offer is made by the other person to switch to English only, it would be rude to refuse. But I WILL have made the effort .

Posted by
40 posts

@CJean: you are so right! Courtesy would have changed the whole story, whether in English, French, Italian, or Kurdish!

Posted by
40 posts

@Alan: my wife can't get something she heard loudly forty years ago out of her head, in the Louvre via Brooklyn: "OH MY GAWWD! IT'S DA MOWNA LEEEESA!"

Posted by
2597 posts

Another contrasting anecdote: at an RS-recommended coop in Antibes I had been using English with the waitstaff and when a remarkable looking dessert whisked by on its way to another table I asked in French what was in that formidable-looking glacé the waiter did a hockey stop and mock-annoyed said to me 'hey - if you can speak a little French then you should use French!'

No doubt his English was a lot better than my French, but he warmed up to me even more after that, and I learned about his previous jobs and some of the drama behind the changing management at this and other area restaurants. So the idea that you're burdening or being presumptuous by using French when you're not that good at it is too quick of a judgment imo.

Posted by
2492 posts

I'm laughing about not being able to get a voice out of your head. Unfortunately, I have two etched in my memory from 15 years ago.

One from Venice where an American couple kept shouting "Biscotti! Biscotti!" at the waiter.

The other in Pisa walking from the station a man in a nearby group burst out "Dammit! I don't see nothin' leanin' 'round here!" I guess he was tired. In retrospect this one was funny, not rude.

Posted by
189 posts

A number of years ago, my husband and I joined another couple and we travelled through some of the medieval villages of France. I had my trusty RS guide book and a English French dictionary.
Not knowing French grammar, but wanting to try using French, I ordered “croissant avec chocolate”. And it worked, although the person in the bakery looked at me oddly. .
We were in one village that had a hotel that Rick recommended…you know,” turn left at the stop sign and it’s the 3rd building on your right kind of thing”. I butchered asking for 2 double rooms, using my dictionary translating each word directly across. The gentleman behind the counter listened to my request and said very slowly…DO…YOU…SPEAK…ENGLISH? Turns out he was Scottish, and had no idea what my native tongue was. He was a delightful young man and we all had a good laugh. It still makes me laugh thinking about it.
My point is, as you all have said, it is polite and respectful to try speaking in the language of the country you are in. They appreciate your effort, and it is them, and not you who will then dictate which language is used to continue the conversation.

Posted by
9436 posts

LADTM, Wonderful story, thank you. I’ve seen many ugly Americans in Paris/France and it always upsets me. I grew up in France and i know that most French people are really lovely. It’s like nails on a blackboard for me when i hear Americans say the French are rude. So untrue, as you said. I immediately think, no, you must have been the rude one if you weren’t treated well.

Posted by
14580 posts

Before I went to France the first time in 1973, I had heard the same "stuff" you refer to above, rude, stuck up, anti-American (this was during the Vietnam War), etc but then so what? Hearing all these negative views. opinions and the like, is that suppose to deter me from going? Never entered my mine. I have been going back ever since that first trip.

Language-wise my French now only goes so far, especially in terms of listening comprehension, so I use English or German, whichever the interlocutor prefers.

Posted by
118 posts

No Aku Birds: I think the key is more respect than communication. It’s respectful to attempt the language of the country you are in and I’ve found that goes a long way. And, I’ve found that many locals seem to enjoy helping me with their language and thank me for attempting. Yes, they tend to switch to English since it is better than my attempt at their language, but I would never expect it or ask them to switch. Also, don’t be so surprised by the ugly American story. I’ve witnessed similar in my travels and I am appalled and embarrassed. Recently I listened to an American get perturbed in Norway because a shop would not take their US dollars in payment. They couldn’t believe they would have to go find a bank and try to exchange it first. So if someone is rude to me as an American (which has been very rare if at all), I don’t get too bothered as I expect its because they experienced some ignorant US tourists at some point. Respect goes a long way and that’s what LADTM showed by practicing their French language skills in France (imo).

Posted by
2403 posts

I totally agree with you that learning a few phrases makes a world of difference.

For all the stories of the “rude French”, I have to consider the many, many times I’ve witnessed the “ugly Americans,” both abroad AND at home. I agree that it comes down to respect. Respect THEIR culture (which may equate to service that is slower than what Americans expect/demand) and THEIR language - by making the smallest effort to learn some basic words. It’s very true that the majority of the world is better educated than Americans and therefore speak multiple languages (usually including English). But to assume that they do, is disrespectful. A brief exchange usually proves that their English is better than most Americans’ attempt at other languages, but it is respectful and opens up the lines of communication.

Posted by
15723 posts

Learning a bit of the local language, even if just enough to ask if they speak english is being respectful.

I speak a bit of French. A bit. I always start in French and in most cases we will switch to English. I was told that it was appreciated that I try to speak French. I never assume they speak English. In some cases, I wanted to practice and they were happy to help.

Think about it. How would you like it if someone came up to you in your home town and started speaking French to you?

Thirty plus years ago, my French was better. I was staying in Paris at a hotel where no English was spoken. I got by. One day, upon returning to the hotel, the receptionist asked, in French, if I spoke English. I said yes and he asked me to help a couple who spoke no French with directions. I agreed. I met the couple, from Texas, and helped them with directions to the Louvre. The end of our conversation went like this:

Wife: Thank you so much for your help. We couldn't understand one word he said (pointing to the guy at reception) but we understood everything you said.

Me: There's a reason for that. I'm American.

Wife: (Looking astonished) But you spoke French?

Me: Some of us know other languages besides English.

The couple looked at me in disbelief.

Posted by
4308 posts

I wonder if the French being so formal can contribute to the perception that they're rude? Like the other comments, I found the stereotype so wrong. But I remember an encounter on our 2nd day in France at a subway station in Paris. We were hopelessly lost and confused of where to buy tickets and where we needed to go. We approached a ticket counter and made our best attempt at a formal greeting and asking (in French) if she spoke English. With no attempt at a smile she responded "I will try." It turns out her English was fine and she was friendly and helpful, but that initial encounter had us fearful of the stereotype.

As for ugly Americans, my theory is that all countries have some uglies, but we don't notice them because they're speaking another language. It does seem though that some Americans are so proud of being American that they can't help themselves. In an early morning in Venice I hopped onto a Vaporetto and got to watch a show as a group of American seniors screamed at a Vaporetto employee who was ticketing them for riding without paying. How do I know they were American? They were yelling at anyone that would listen, "How did we know we had to pay, we're American."

Posted by
10369 posts

Great stories. Avirosmail--you were fine. The rising final intonation made it into a question. One less thing to think back on in life as an oops. Not an oops

Yes, yes say whatever you can in French. They might come back in English for either efficiency or to practice but that's okay. I used to get annoyed because I'm bilingual until I realized about half want to practice. So now I just ask if they want to practice and it's led to some interesting stories and encounters where I live in France.

When I'm with Americans here in France who are fumbling and practicing their French, I step back. They are proud trying and the clerks appreciate it. Last weekend my wine-seller sent me a wink as an American friend was finding her way to the end of a sentence. We were impressed with her effort and determination.

Keep up the effort and the great stories.
Sorry, but I don't have any ugly American stories. In nearly fifty years here, I just don't remember huge problems except for seeing a few cokes at dinners.

Posted by
6383 posts

From our very first visit to France, on a tour in 2011, we realized that the stereotype of the rude French was just that: a stereotype. Almost without exception, every French person we've encountered has been charming and helpful.

I do speak some French, and it has been obvious to me (and my husband, who understands a bit but doesn't speak it,) that the people with whom I interact are generally delighted with my attempts. And usually, they are more comfortable when we stick to French. The only exceptions I found were with the desk staff in some hotels; many of them insisted on English, even when my French was fine. I suspect in some cases it's company policy.

I remember on one of our first trips to Italy, at a mid-range hotel in Florence, I spoke Italian, and the courtly desk clerk spoke English. We communicated that way for our entire stay, and it worked for both of us.

Posted by
2507 posts

I love the French. When we are in France, my husband and I attempt to speak French and, with one exception, have always been treated with kindness. People have literally gone out of their way to help us. We have traveled to small villages and b&b’s where no one speaks English and our attempts at the language are appreciated. It’s fun to improve our language skills and sometimes hysterical in my husband’s case. And has been mentioned, the French want to practice their English language skills with you as much as you want to practice your French.

Posted by
1696 posts

I agree. I found the people in Paris to be particularly courteous and kind, and a few went above and beyond to be helpful, on their own initiative.

Posted by
308 posts

Thanks for sharing. You remind me of a couple of my own experiences. Speakng with my rusty, high school French with a vendor along the beach in the south of France. When we had a failure to communicate ... he said, 'pas de probleme.' Or trying to get directions from a woman in Paris. After I asked, in French, if she spoke English, she replied, Non, je ne parle pas Anglais. So I went forward in French and after a few moments, she offered that she did speak a little English. And quite well, I should add.

Bonjour ... Comment ca va? ... Merci ... and Bonne Journée or Bonne Soirée are always appreciated.

Politeness? Nous l'avons oublié en Amerique. Tant pis.

Alan ... We ran into those same Texans, or their friends and neighbors, 20+ years ago in the south of France.

Posted by
7030 posts

Seems strange that someone who speaks fluent English would want to speak broken, baby French.

No Aku Bird, I find it strange that someone would make such assumptions. I speak German at the A2 level and I encountered many people who responded in German when I tried to speak it. People are kind, in general. Occasionally they would sense that I was having some difficulty with the language but instead of just abruptly changing to English, they would ask me if I would like to switch.

The same thing happened in other countries, like Turkey and Spain (and I definitely do not speak at the A2 level in those languages). If I know that someone is making an effort to be friendly and speak in my language, the last thing I would do is throw it back in their face. I'm very sorry you feel like this.

Posted by
14580 posts

I find that with my limited, simple and halting French, the chances are that sooner or later the interlocuter will switch over to English not because s/he necessarily wants to but that I need it which is plain to be see. I also resort to talking partly in English, partly in French too, ie, do what you can linguistically.

There have been occasions even in the service industry , eg., at a small hotel check-in or talking with a museum curator when it was obvious my French was slow and halting, yet the staff member just allowed me without interruption to proceed in French. Not all French will switch over, (I've encountered them too, in Paris and elsewhere, ) maybe preferring to listen to the limited French on my part than to communicate in "their" English. In German "they" never switch over.

Posted by
3250 posts

Well……interesting!
I have been to Paris five times over the years and not once have I ever encountered anyone unfriendly or unhelpful.
I also learn a few words of the language of the country I happen to be visiting at the time, and have never been asked…or told…to switch to English.
Sometimes that doesn’t go too well, as I know a few words in a number of languages and can end up speaking a sort of mangled version including them all at once!
Never have I had anyone be rude or dismissive of my attempts at their language.
People in general are thrilled to hear you make an effort.
One of the whole reasons for travel is to find out about others…..what better way than to try and communicate verbally in their country?
At worst you’ll make a mess of it, at best you might just make a new friend.

Posted by
380 posts

I’ve been to France roughly 20 times, speak passable French, and am constantly trying to dispel the myth of rude French. Only once have I encountered outright rudeness, from a waiter who served me a charred black sandwich and got snooty when I declined to take it.
The long-ago voice in my head I can’t shake: in Venice I was with a female friend and we were both wearing tank tops in August. Across the square a Texas woman shrieked and pointed at us: oh my GAWD! American gals - ‘cause they shave their armpits!!!

Posted by
1536 posts

I was recently in Paris for 2 weeks. I had a fabulous time. I have a decent chance of being able to read a sign or menu in French and have a level 1 Duolingo French vocabulary. My grammar about the same. I always started a conversation with a polite greeting. If it was a restaurant, I would order in French. If it was a different setting and I had no French at my disposal for the situation, I would go right to English after the greeting. This worked very well for me and everyone was very pleasant and courteous.

My experience was that with the exception of three instances, the friendly and helpful French person spoke back to me in English as soon as it was clear I didn't understand them. I had many instances where my juvenille attempts were either praised verbally or with a smile and a nod. The three instances of no Englishe were: 1. my taxi driver from the airport to my hotel, only spoke to me in French. We did some gesturing and repeating, but we got through it. I was able to give her the address to the hotel in French because I practiced that ahead of time. 2. A waiter at a cafe in the 16th. Again, I had practiced ordering. There was a bit of gesturing when he asked me a follow up question. But it was a positive experience. 3. A young waitress in the Latin quarter. I went to the restaurant at lunch time because I was told it was mainly attended by French workers in the area. We did well throughout the meal. At the end of the meal I could not for the life of me figure out what she was saying. That is when I brought out Google translator. I pushed the button and extended my phone toward her and she pleasantly spoke into the phone. She was apologizing that my receipt was "corrupted" by being soaked with water. I let her know that it was no problem and then asked her where the toilet was in French. I got a great big smile and an answer in French.

My experience in many other countries was very similar to the above. I don't think it is wasting the person's time to attempt to speak with them in their language. I think it is a sign of respect and a sign that you are attempting to connect with them.

Posted by
14580 posts

Re: "...wasting a person's time to attempt to speak with them in their language." Never, be it in French or German. If so, then continue. Very much so a sign of respect. That's exactly what I do , so aptly put, in French....".to attempt" before I can no longer proceed linguistically.

Posted by
290 posts

Not once have I dealt with a rude French person.

However, I have witnessed the quiet rebuke to a disrespectful English speaking tourist on a couple of occasions.

Whether it was to the young Dallas girl (being from Texas, I recognized her SMU sweatshirt) screaming in frustration into a museum ticket booth “ DO YA’LL SPEAK ENGLISH IN HERE?” or the family on the train car speaking so loudly that everyone on the train was staring them down as the family kept asking “Why is everyone looking at us?”

It is all about respect, regardless of the language spoken or attempted. Show respect and you get respect.