Old Apr 16th, 2002, 03:25 AM
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I know this is trivial, but when I go to Paris in September, I do not want to offend anyone through a lack of knowledge of local customs. I have been studying French two years in preparation for this vacation, can read fairly well, but speak poorly because I have no one to practice with.

I have seen many messages indicating how understanding the French are if you just do your best with the language and 'smile'. This seems like logical to me, but according to Polly Platt's book, the French do not smile with stangers and think the stanger is an idiot for smiling.

Again, I know it's trivial, but what's the real scoop on smiling when you meet strangers? Thanks.
Old Apr 16th, 2002, 03:35 AM
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I think you bring up an excellent question! I am a woman, and tend to smile a lot when travelling. But I need to learn to stop, because men take smiling and eye contact as an "invitation." You will notice that the local women don't go around smiling at guys in the street. Now, I'm assuming you're male, so I can't answer directly, but I'd also guess it isn't really the norm for men to smile at strangers.
Old Apr 16th, 2002, 03:40 AM
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If you normally smile at home when you meet strangers, then smile in Paris; if you don't, then don't start now. Anyone who'd dislike you because you smile is not worth knowing anyway, and anyone who'd assume the worst about you because you're not especially smiley would be a hard person to know, too. So just do your best to communicate, be nice, and have a good time.
Old Apr 16th, 2002, 04:02 AM
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Ray, I think, emphasis on I, that in Paris you should not be afraid to smile-the French do know how to smile- but that you should avoid using a smile in place of words. For example, when you are fluent in a language you do not start a sentence and stop midway and end with a smile in place of words. Because the French do smile less this seems to especially annoy them. However, they have a wonderful sense of humor and often smile with their eyes insead of or in addition to their mouth. Try it. Smiling with your eyes can be great fun and if they notice that you know how to have fun in this more subtle manner it can be a wonderful moment. I guess my advice is this:
-approach an individual politely and pleasantly
-ask you question to the best of your ability using a proper greeting and not using a smile to fill in the blanks
-smile in gratitude for their respoinse whether they were able to help you or not

You will have a great time I'm sure!

Old Apr 16th, 2002, 04:24 AM
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Ray -

We've just returned from 10 days in Paris and I found that people indeed did look at me like I was an idiot if I smiled at them. I'm wondering if this is because it's Paris or because it's a big city. Is New York the same way? I loved Paris but these people need to relax. Everyone walks around looking at the ground except the tourists!

Enjoy your visit. One thing I cannot stress enough is to watch your wallet. We were pickpocketed once and robbed once. Please be careful. DOn't leave anything unattended and do not wear anything on your back, ie knapsack, backpack with accesible pockets.

I'm just getting ready to make a post so you may want to read up on all sorts of thefts.

Bon Journee
Catherine S.
Old Apr 16th, 2002, 05:43 AM
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Living in NYC for some time now, I'd tell you that having to deal with so many people (strangers) on a day to day basis, I've pretty much needed to develop a way to cope, which means not making eye contact or smiling all that much with most people. Men often times will take it as a come on. If you're in a good mood in the park, or relaxing somewhere, and see a mother with kids, you may say hello and smile. I'm sure part of the Parisian experience may be cultural, but I can assure you that another chunk of it can be chalked up to living in a large city, with good and bad people. You basically have to take on a persona of "don't mess with me, I know the scoop."
Old Apr 16th, 2002, 05:46 AM
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Hi Ray:
Speaking from experience, this is what I found works in Paris. I go into a shop, smile say "bonjour" then I say good morning (afternoon, evening). We have established a open line and I have found most shopkeepers will say "Bonjour, smile and say Oh my english is not that good!" To which I reply, oh my French is definitely not that good!!!! We end up having a marvelous time with hand gestures, high school English and French and lots of smiles. Believe me, their English is much better than my French. Have fun.
Old Apr 16th, 2002, 05:51 AM
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I did notice that the French mostly did not return my smiles. I'm sure my attempts to speak the language were comical, so I'd smile at my own mistakes(like saying "bonjour" at night) and also smile when I made no mistakes, because I was happy to have made myself understood. Generally the smile would not be returned, and I'd then almost feel a bit snubbed, but reminded myself not to take it personally, as I'd heard Americans smile at strangers more.
I remember being on a train from Paris to Montpellier, and quietly practicing from a book "Wicked French for Travelers" such phrases as "The wine has wrinkled buttocks" or "The repulsive Citroen burps like a rhinocerous." I noticed a twitch on the lips of the young man sitting opposite and felt a moment of glee that I got him to (almost) crack a smile, though he probably though I was an idiot.
Old Apr 16th, 2002, 05:53 AM
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I have what my husband calls a "smiley face"...can't help it, I smile a lot!
When we travel of course I am happy, so the smile is there pretty much all the time.
No one has ever looked at me like I am an idiot, although maybe behind my back?.
But I have never- ever been treated badly on any of my travels,Paris or elsewhere. Sometimes even here in New York City, a lot of people are not big on smiling, and my opinion is,
if someone walked up to you with a scowl or just a blank face and said something to you in a language that you could not understand, how would you deal with them,how would you react? Smiling and gentle? Brusque? So when I am asking someone in France for directions or whatever, and I have a smile, they react the same way,one lady even going so far as to apologize for not having better English!
So, this is my humble opinion.Have a wonderful time in Paris~).......(smile)
Old Apr 16th, 2002, 05:58 AM
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The thing is, when you are speaking to a French person and s/he does not know you, he or she has no reason to smile with you bc there is no established repore there. A smile at someone you do not know seems suspicious - they wonder what it is you are hiding instead of being upfront and to the point. But once the ice is broken, if the French person seems inviting and the conversation is more involved than "where does this line go to?", a smile is surely o.k. This does not preclude greeting people in a shop, though. Like the other person wrote, it is customary to give a "bonjour" to the shopkeeper upon entering and exiting, it just may not be a smiley exchange.
Old Apr 16th, 2002, 06:19 AM
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I think it’s great you are you not just learning the language, but trying to delve more deeply into the culture. Because of my major in college I had to take many cross-cultural and international communications courses. As I understand Polly Platt, before publishing these books, taught cross-cultural seminars specifically related to the French

We learned that in France you ‘earn’ a smile. They tend to reserve smiles for family and friends. Yes, this is different than the US, where people move a lot and need to quickly develop support systems in a new community. One thing we constantly battled in the courses was the automatic urge to place value judgements on the differences between cultures.

Another book you might look at is called Au Contraire! Figuring Out the French by Gilles Asselin and Ruth Mastron. It’s geared toward students, ex-pats and business people, but may be of interest given your language study.
Old Apr 16th, 2002, 07:20 AM
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There are a couple of reasons that the French (and other Europeans as well) do a lot less smiling and a lot more looking at the ground when they're out and about. One has to do with living in close proximity to others and so putting on what I call a "city face" (though it's used outside of cities as well, of course). The other has to do with the fact that there's generally a lot of dog waste on the sidewalks (at least in France), and a moment's inattention can have tragic (or at least disgusting) consequences.

It's not just the smiling that American's do, it's the amount of eye contact and looking around at things outside of one's own little personal sphere of influence that strikes Europeans as odd. Along the lines of the village idiot. If you're trying to get by with no or very little French you're not going to be treated like a rocket scientist in any case, so it doesn't make much difference. It's not a question of the French being rude, as exactly the same thing happens in the U.S. with non-English speakers.

The smiling that you do when entering a shop is not effusive, it's more of a loosening up of the city face. And you do make eye contact, and greet the salesperson.
Old Apr 16th, 2002, 08:32 AM
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I put on my city-face in any city not just in Europe. It's a protective mechanism against muggers and beggars. To me a smile on the street means "I'm an idiot and you can bother me."
Old Apr 16th, 2002, 09:12 AM
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Good God!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! smile and don't worry. Just be yourself and you will get along fine.
Old Apr 16th, 2002, 01:08 PM
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I was just reading linda's reply. This is probably a very stupid question but, how the heck do you "smile with your eyes"?
Old Apr 16th, 2002, 02:16 PM
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IMHO, you'll probably look more stupid being insecure about how to act than you will if you just relax and be yourself. Now, if you're in the habit of speaking loudly and berating waiters in restaurants, you will definitely want to tone it down, but for something as simple as smiling I wouldn't worry about it.
Old Apr 16th, 2002, 02:36 PM
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Jeeeez, who would have ever thought that whether to smile or have a "city face"!!! would be such a topic of discussion!!
What next!!
Does everyone have to analyze every expression on ones face, every gesture?? I would be exhausted by lunch time if I had that many things to be concerned about!
Can you not just walk out the door and do what you normally do? Smile when something makes you smile? Be polite.It really should be a no-brainer.
Old Apr 16th, 2002, 02:38 PM
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I manage it this way - I try to be aware of my habit to smile for 'no reason' as I'm walking about, and try not to smile at strangers I'm passing by. But if I'm trying to talk to someone, in French or English, I don't worry about smiling and don't worry if they don't smile back. I haven't had any unpleasant exchanges, and haven't been made to feel stupid after 6 trips. I am aware that I will look out of place if smiling all the time, but it sure isn't a priority to worry about it. The only time I was ever 'chastised' was when I forgot to begin a request at the Metro ticket window with a 'bonjour, Madame', and rightly so.
Old Apr 16th, 2002, 03:13 PM
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When I am relaxed and having a good time, I tend to smile. When I am upset, confused, about to be pickpocketed, lost, or on a crowded street being pushed and shoved by strangers, I tend not to smile. I have traveled all over the world with this face and its expressions, and have never been thought an idiot yet (to my face at least, and who cares if a stranger thinks I am an idiot behind my back).
I am friendly and polite and try to speak at least a few words in the local language. Don't worry about smiling, for heaven's sake. Maybe the unsmiling ones should smile, not the other way around.
Old Apr 16th, 2002, 05:26 PM
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I also have noticed that a lot of Europeans don't go for random smiles and casual small talk. I always thought it was because people where lazy. It takes a bit of an effort to smile and say a few nice things even if you don't feel like it.
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