The French are not rude, it’s just one big misunderstanding
But what if this is all one big misunderstanding?
Julie Barlow, co-writer of ‘The Bonjour Effect’, believes that’s certainly the case.
“The root of the problem is not that the French are rude, it’s that we don’t understand the codes of French conversation,” she told The Local.
Basically French society has different codes of behaviour and standards of what is considered polite. In day to day interactions with the French, you could be breaking any number of those rules without even knowing it.
The good news is that to get back in the good books of the French doesn’t require years of formal etiquette training, just a few simple guidelines to follow.
One little word “BONJOUR”
The most simple one starts with ‘B’ and ends in ‘R’, and it was probably the first word you ever learnt in French. The word ‘Bonjour’ is frequently disregarded, or used improperly by foreign visitors to France. Even people who have lived here for years still haven’t caught on to how to use it.
Polite sentences to be found : http://french.about.com/od/vocabulary/a/politeness.htm
“You can’t have any interaction with the French unless you say bonjour, you say it in a meaningful way, and you give them a chance to say bonjour back,” said Barlow.
By not waiting for a bonjour in return before you ask a question, “you’re not giving them time to acknowledge or give you permission to continue the conversation.”
Given France’s history of revolution and motto of egalité, you can imagine why they may be a little touchy when they feel like they’re being spoken down to.
It’s all coconuts and peaches
A common reason French people are perceived as being rude is a certain ‘frostiness’ and lack of desire to engage in small talk. The reason we might feel that way is all to do with fruit or nuts – metaphorical fruit that is.
The world is divided into “peaches” and “coconuts”. Or at least that’s according to German-American Psychologist Kurt Lewin, who says that cultures can be divided into these two foody labels.Peaches are warm on the outside, and share personal stories, but make the mistake of thinking that is genuine intimacy and you’ll hit the core ‘inner self’ stone, Lewin argues.
Whereas coconuts seem aloof and cold at first, but once you get through to their tough outer shell, they become genuine and open.
“French people are definitely coconuts in comparison with all the Anglo-Saxon countries,” Erin Meyer, author of The Culture Map told The Local.
“That’s one of the reasons that French people are considered arrogant is because they don’t smile at strangers, they’re very formal”.
If the French are coconuts, then that makes English speaking visitors mainly peaches, and that clash can create some awkwardness. The immediate openness of “peaches” can be off putting for “coconuts”.
Meyer says “the French can perceive that as being superficial and invasive”.
Meyer advises approaching French people in a humble but very friendly way, which can often result in their outer shell “melting away”. Just don’t be surprised if a French person doesn’t want to share their own personal life right away.
To learn more about how to behave in France : http://www.pariscultureguide.com/french-etiquette.html
in New York, a typical interaction at my local Duane Reade would go like this:
(yea I know not all American cashiers are impolite. Just an example):
Me (approaching cashier): Hi
Cashier: (Silence)…. $9.34
Me: (hands over money)
Cashier: (Silence and hands me change)
Me: Thanks, bye.
Here’s a normal exchange at the grocery store in France:
Cashier (as I approach): Bonjour!
Cashier: That’ll be 9.34, please.
Me: OK, here you go.
Cashier: Thank you very much. Here’s your change.
Me: Thank you
Cashier: You’re welcome. But it’s me who thanks you. Have a good day! Bye!
Me: Thanks, you too! Bye bye.
— takes 5 seconds to gather up bags —
Cashier: (As I finally leave and step away) Thanks, bye! Bonne journée
French politeness — what to do:
- Be polite back and just go with whatever the person says to you first. A simple thanks and bye is fine. No need to go over the top.
- If you’re going to be interrupting someone (even with a phone call or a question in a store), it’s best to say “sorry to disturb you but…” even if you’re not really bothering them. I hear this all the time. Even in stores where it’s the employee’s job to help you, still say excusez-moi de vous déranger before just firing off your question.
French politeness — what NOT to do:
- Never leave a store without saying merci or au revoir ou bonne journée, even if you didn’t buy anything. And especially if you’re the only one in there. This isn’t necessary at a big supermarket (no need to say thanks to the security guard on your way out), but when it’s a smaller shop or market, say thanks!
- Don’t ignore a bonjour or au revoir. Always follow up a greeting with one of your own. If someone says hi, say hi back. If someone says thanks or bye, say the same. If you don’t know French or are unsure, saying something in English is better than ignoring someone!
French Table Manners
Bad French Table Manners Are…
- To start drinking before everybody has a full glass in front of them (and someone has a chance to make a toast).
- To keep your hands under the table.
- If you are a man, to serve yourself before offering the food to the woman sitting next to you.
- If you are a woman and there are men at the table, to pour yourself some wine. (So if you are sitting next to me, you better watch my wine glass: it’s a full time job!)
- To eat with your mouth open or make a lot of noise when eating. No slurping allowed either. Absolutely no burping.
- To push your food around with your knife in a picky way, and only eat some morsels.
- To spread pâté or cheese on a big piece of bread as if you were making a sandwich. (click here to see what you are supposed to do)
- To mop up the sauce with bread (certainly not holding the bread with your finger. You are not even supposed to do it holding a piece of bread with your fork… don’t tell anyone but I do it all the time, especially with Olivier’s boeuf bourguignon !!)
- To touch your food with your fingers, in particular cheese. (More about cheese and French etiquette)
- To empty your glass in one gulp or finish your plate in 2 seconds.
- To say you don’t like it…
- To put your elbows on the table and rest your face in your hands.
- To not sit straight.
- To lick your knife or your fork.
- To make food spots around you.
- To pick your teeth at the table.
- To ask “où sont les toilettes ?” (where is the restroom) while at the table.
- To speak loudly in a restaurant, or burst out laughing.
- To call the waiter by snapping your fingers.
On the Contrary, This is Considered Particularly Polite At the French Table
Of course, everything that is not the above is already considered polite at the French table – but let’s see what will really get you some perfect host points.
- To pull a woman’s chair to help her to sit if you are a man.
- To wait to sit down until the hostess does, and to stand up when she gets up (although it’s really old-fashioned, and kind of a pain for the hostess if you ask me…)
- To comment positively and with wit on the smell and look of the food, on how pretty the table looks.
- To offer a toast to the hostess (if the occasion is not too formal).
- To delicately wipe your lips before and after each sip, without leaving any food or lipstick marks on the napkin.
- To use only your fork to eat salad, eggs, pastas, pâtés or foie gras, very tender meat or pastry.
- To know how to peel a peach or a shrimp with your fork and knife.
- To send flowers and a thank you note the day after the dinner.
‘French and arrogant’
The US research centre Pew Global found that of the eight EU countries surveyed, France was voted the second most arrogant country.
Meyer argues that this perception is largely due to French attitudes to disagreement and negative feedback.
“The French are much more direct with negative feedback than any Anglo-Saxon country” says Meyer, “this is a big part of why any culture is considered to be arrogant”.
Photo: Alena Getman
When a French person disagrees with what you’re saying, or think something could be improved, they’ll tell you straight away.
It’s simply not considered rude in France it’s just seen as normal and helpful.
But the French criticism isn’t reserved for others, they’re just as critical of themselves. In the same Pew study, French people also ranked their own country as the most arrogant in the EU, which ironically, is actually quite humble.
Noisiness (French do not like noise)
Muriel Damarcus of the blog French Yummy Mummy told The Local that one of the reasons that French people are considered to be rude is that they like their peace and quiet, and will tell you what they think in no uncertain terms if you disturb it.
“We don’t like noisy people, and can be quite snotty with them. For instance, it is not polite to speak too loudly in a queue or in a restaurant” she said.
French people will have few concerns about appearing rude by, for instance, telling parents to keep their children under control. If you’re the one making the noise, you’re fair game.
So the next time you have a problem with a French person, have a think about whether it could be down to any of these underlying reasons. And if after that, you still think they’ve been rude, then you’re probably right. Rude people do exist in the world, but perhaps they’re not all concentrated in France.
By Rose Trigg