Ah, France. What girl hasn’t dreamed of being swept off of her feet by a dashing Frenchman in front of the Eiffel Tower? What man hasn’t dreamed of being the dashing man who sweeps a French supermodel off of her feet? At the very least, who hasn’t dreamed of going there with the sole purpose of eating like a king?
When it comes to living in or traveling through France, I’ve heard just about every stereotype out there: “Parisians are rude,” “People of the provence are so nice,” “Paris is so romantic,” or “Paris is so dirty.” It seems as though every person who has been to France either loves it or hates it—no in-betweens. In order to come away with a good impression, might I suggest the following tips for being culturally sensitive, and hopefully getting the positive treatment you so desire.
TRY SPEAKING SOME FRENCH
There’s a commonly held belief that Parisians don’t appreciate hearing their own language butchered, which begs the question; is it better to try to speak in broken French or use no French at all?
Generally, it is always advisable to try to use some of the local language, at least to open up the conversation, in order to show that you’re trying. I think the same is true in Paris, though there may be a few bad eggs who will be rude about it, and would have probably been displeased with you whether you tried to use French or not. This is because in every country, there are bad eggs, and/or people who are simply in a bad mood.
In general, being gracious and respectful and trying to use what French you know is a good idea. It at least shows that you are trying, and really, if your accent is that bad, English will most likely be spoken back to you (they will already know you’re a foreigner by the way you dress and carry yourself).
In our post about Italy, a commenter by the name of Dave reminded us that there’s lots of kissing on the cheeks as a way of saying hello or goodbye in Italy. The same is true of France!
I am so awkward that I typically botch this part, known as la bise, and tend to extend the hand to shake instead of giving the cheek kissing a chance. This is probably because in American culture, if someone kisses you on the cheek, they tend to mean it romantically.
In France, this just isn’t the case, and the “kissing” is more the motion and the sound (although you don’t have to make the sound) than actually planting one on someone’s face. When greeting someone, especially if it’s a female whom you’ve met before, let her initiate la bise instead of extending a hand, as it may be a faux pas if you jump the gun and extend the hand instead. Also, try to see which cheek she aims for first in order to avoid an embarrassing collision in the middle.
If you biff the whole thing, as I am wont to do, just laugh it off. It’s not the end of the world.
NO SPECIAL ORDERS
One of the main reasons why tourists go to France is to eat the amazing food, and rightly so. While menus in the States and beyond can sometimes be expansive, allowing for special orders and desiring things “on the side,” this tends to not be the case in France.
Part of respecting the local culture is to respect what is offered on the menu. It’s best not to ask for special orders. Why? Well as Dr. Guy Spielmann of Georgetown University outlines:
If the benefits of change are not sizable and immediately obvious, the status quo will nearly always be deemed preferable. In other words, by asking the server to substitute rice for fries, you are disturbing the order of things for no good reason other than your own whimsy.
Broaden your horizons and eat something that you normally wouldn’t; that’s the point of traveling!
Also, don’t be a difficult customer who asks endless questions and takes too long to order. In the US where waitresses work for their tips, you can be a pain if you want to be (although nobody likes that). However in most other parts of the world, servers are not servants, they consider themselves equals and they do not have to fear for their job if you’re unhappy at the end of your meal (thank you labor laws and unions).
IT'S NOT JUST YOU
If you’re finding that it seems difficult to make friends right off the bat, don’t feel that you’re being singled out. Dr. Spielmann also notes that the French may initially appear aloof and very formal, which leads some to think that they dislike Americans. On the contrary, this is not special treatment just for Americans—everyone is treated this way in France. This “distance” is more for a trial period, after which the relationship can blossom into something more.
Those who don’t have the time or dedication to let the initial period pass may feel disconnected and unwelcome. It’s simply a cultural thing, and there’s really no right or wrong when it comes to forming new relationships—each person and culture is different.
LET'S TALK POLITICS
Politics, and other complex social issues, are common topics of conversation. In fact, they are often preferred to any other form of banter (and really, who wants to talk about the weather anyways?). However, the idea is not to get into a heated debate. In fact, don’t let it get to the point that you’re upset, because in that case you’ve just been bated. Don’t take anything too seriously unless you want to be teased, possibly without realizing you’ve just become the butt of a joke.
- When to go: Any time of the year! France experiences all four seasons, so plan accordingly.
- How to get around: There are lots of ways including planned tours, the Euro rail, and in the city, public transport.
- Costs: Like most of Western Europe, France uses the euro and is not a cheap, bargain destination. Check the euro against your home currency when planning a trip. France can get expensive quickly and easily.
In closing, France is a beautiful country with many different cultures, depending on what part of the country you choose to visit. For the most part, people are friendly and appreciate when foreigners try to speak French. Always remember, the way you carry yourself directly impacts the way you’re treated, at home and abroad!
@thejennyli says "If you go to Paris stay at the Floride Etoile. Rooms are small but clean and it's b/t the Arc and the Eiffel tower. [Also] it's easy to take a train to travel through the country. Nice and Marseille are great stops if you're heading south."
@tuckhutchinson says "Get out of Paris and head south. The Luberon region is amazingly beautiful and is easy to get to from Marseille. True French countryside at its best."
@awanderingsole says: "The Mona Lisa is smaller than you'd imagine and always has a long line."
Ready? Explore gap year programs in France.Photo Credit: German Cheung / BigStockPhoto.com and rusak / BigStockPhoto.com