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The Friendly French

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The friendly French

On our recent trip to France, Margie and I found that virtually all the French people we interacted with were friendly, welcoming, and gregarious. I think that two of the major reasons we got that reaction were:

1. We approached them in French

2. We observed the basic French rules for public interaction

Point 1: As a generalization, the French, like Americans, are not great with foreign languages. A great many French people don't speak English, or speak it poorly. Even shopkeepers and others in the tourist industry may be strong only in the limited vocabulary they need for their jobs. If you're a tourist in France, it displays a certain arrogance to just start talking in English.

Point 2: When you interact with others in France, you greet them when you first meet ("Bonjour / bonsoir, monsieur / madame / messieurs-dames"). When you leave, you say goodbye ( "Au-revoir messieurs-dames, bonne journée"). I saw this even with highway toll takers, and certainly when entering a shop. This is a real cultural difference. If you don't greet people, you're considered to be rude. In the US, we tend to avoid addressing a shopkeeper, unless we want him or her to come over and help us.

I suspect that one reason American tourists think the French are unfriendly is this language and cultural barrier. Many French people don't want to risk exposing their limited (or nearly non-existent) English, and so pull back from conversation. But in fact the French are very gregarious, and consider good conversation an art form. When approached in French, we found them to react warmly.

I speak French pretty well, but Margie is only at an intermediate level. Nevertheless, she and I both got similar reactions when we started conversations in French. It doesn't matter how well you speak; it seems to be the thought that counts.

But what's the use of saying this to someone who doesn't speak French at all? The average American has no need for foreign languages in everyday life. I've gotten great pleasure from my foreign language study, but I don't expect everyone to necessarily share my interest.

Still, I'd recommend that you spend at least some time learning a limited number of phrases in the language of any country you travel to: "please", "thank you", "where are the toilets", and so on. I also always learn to say, in language X, "I'm sorry, but I don't speak X". If you can get a native speaker to help you say that as perfectly as possible, it always gets an amused reaction. I don't speak any Japanese, but the small number of phrases I learned in two weeks of study from tape cassettes prior to a trip to Japan opened many doors.

If you can go further with a language, it brings even more pleasure. Even a little bit can give great benefits to a tourist. After all, tourists don't discuss philosophy. They shop, ask directions, and make small talk about the weather. A little bit goes a long way.

- Larry

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