By Jason Rittle 9/17/2019
France remains one of the most visited countries in the world, receiving tens or hundreds of millions of international visitors each year. However, there still remains the age-old question that seems to divide foreigners, particularly Americans: Are French people as rude as they say?
I think rudeness is a relative thing. What is considered bad manners in one culture could be considered normal behavior in another. I spent one week in France back in 2018 and here are 10 things I’ve learned both from fellow travelers and French locals alike:
1. The Customer is NOT the King
In the US, we’re used to that old saying “The customer is always right.” Even though that saying is slowly dying out these days according to numerous fellow millennials who work or have worked in customer service. Generally speaking, it is a business owner’s obligation to be inviting to customers. Afterall, they want your business and who is going to spend their money at a place where they know they are going to be treated poorly?
In France, it is the other way around. The culture of égalité or “equality” is deeply ingrained in French culture and takes it roots all the way back to the French Revolution. The concept of an entire collective humbling those in positions of power is something that the French take great pride in. In the customer service sense, a person’s dignity is more important to them than your money. It is not them that needs you to spend your money on them. It is YOU who needs THEM for a product or service that you want. Therefore, if you want to be provided with good customer service, you have to be respectful and treat the employee as a fellow equal rather than a non-entity that is just there to cater to your needs so they can collect a paycheck.
That being said, it’s absolutely important to exchange greetings in any situation before interacting with anyone. Never just walk up to a French person and start blabbing what you want. Even if you don’t speak French, a simple “Bonjour” will be enough to break through that hard coconut shell that is so quintessentially French. There is something a bit refreshing about this concept that we Americans could learn from. Treating people with respect in order for them to do something for you? What a concept!
2. Restaurant etiquette is whole different game here.
Have you been to a French restaurant and complained about the room temperature water? The slow service? The fact that it took 45 minutes to get your food? Well I have news for you: the French take their food experience very seriously here.
Dining out is more than just a place to get a quick bite to eat, the waitress running to refilling your water that you just took 3 sips from, then slamming the check in front of you while you’re still chewing on your last few bites. It’s an experience that they honestly take as seriously as Americans take their sports.
Eating at a restaurant is not meant to be a fast experience. The French take alot of pride in their food. It’s a highly respected art that chefs go to school and devote their entire lives towards. Every piece of food you order is treated like a piece of art that deserves time and attention to be cooked and presented properly rather than to be quickly thrown together so you can eat right away. This is probably why for many Americans, it takes your food a bit longer than it would in most restaurants back home.
With that being said, the customer is not meant to be in a rush. Many French meals start with an aperitif or a glass of red wine to sip before their first course arrives. It is a relaxing experience where you are supposed to unwind and lose yourself in good conversation or simply taking in the atmosphere. Ever notice why your check never arrived? It’s because you didn’t ask for it. Waitstaff are never going to bother you while you are eating and it is not their job to read your mind that you are finished and ready to pay. If you decide you are ready to leave, then you simply flag down your server and ask for l’addition or “bill” and they will promptly get it for you.
If you simply can’t relax or take your time or you truly are in a rush to only enjoy a one hour meal, then grab a crepe off the street and call it a day. Restaurants are practically a two to three hour max ordeal.
3. The Magic Word: Bonjour
This goes back to my first point: don’t just walk up to any French person and start speaking English. The French are much more formal in their interactions compared to us. Even if you don’t speak French, it is not only encouraged but outright expected that you greet anyone with “Bonjour” (or Bonsoir depending on what time of day it is) before proceeding with whatever else you want to say or ask.
This establishes a formal and clearly defined beginning to a conversation and also establishes a connection between two equals. Simply entering a store, restaurant, or walking up to a stranger and start asking questions without a formal greeting is considered rude and generally gives that person the impression that you think that they are beneath you and you are entitled to a response. Trust me on this. Don’t ever make this mistake in France. ALWAYS exchange greetings before speaking to ANYBODY. If you fail to do this, expect to either be ignored or given attitude.
Going back to how we define rude, it really depends on what culture you come from. We Americans are used to smiling with strangers, informal interactions between people, and speedy restaurant service that is customized to our individual liking. When these needs are failed to be met, it’s easy for us to dismiss the other person as rude. The fact is, they aren’t being rude, they are just being French.