The Friendly French


Oct 8th, 2004, 12:09 PM
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The Friendly French

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
justretired is offline  
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Oct 8th, 2004, 12:13 PM
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Hi Larry, those are very accurate observations.
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Oct 8th, 2004, 12:18 PM
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Even the French find the French unfriendly at times. Though i wholeheartedly endorse everything in the original post, my observations of the French with each other in public interactions is often curt and formally polite but not casual. You rarely have anyone say hi anonomously on the street, something that doesn't bother me at all. But i spend time with my French son and his family and they say that the French are often rude in places like cafes, train stations, etc. their public demeanor seems to be cool; Americans may perceive this to be rude. anyway, a tourist who takes you thoughtful comments to heart won't have any problems.
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Oct 8th, 2004, 12:59 PM
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I found that saying "Bonne journée" (basically Have a Nice Day) works wonders and even frequently elicits a smile--the phrase is used mostly by the French themselves, not by tourists, thus the pleased looks.
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Oct 8th, 2004, 02:00 PM
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I don't spend time in Paris, but visit the provinces, coast to coast.I speak a little, and I mean, alittle- French but have found only friendliness. And when we walk into the dining areas or pass on a path, people often say hello or goodbye in French to us. The French also smile, laugh more in these places.
Have been helped on so many occasions without asking, from our latest trip breaking down on the Rte de Napoleon to a french woman in Normandy in trouville teaching me how to eat my mussels using one hinged shell as a pincher.My memory book of my mind overflows with such acts of kindness.
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Oct 8th, 2004, 02:23 PM
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Very nice observations....we do what is described and have had the same friendly reactions...toll takers too. Too bad more don't follow this advice.
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Oct 8th, 2004, 02:33 PM
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Hey Cigalechanta!
A French guy in a cafe in Paris taught us how to eat the mussels that way too! He was more friendly and willing to chat than the Americans in the cafe each evening.
I noticed that even the most aloof clerks in shops became friendly when I offered one of my limited French phrases.
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Oct 8th, 2004, 02:35 PM
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We found the French to be wonderful! I speak enough French to get by and make simple conversation and this made all the difference in the quality of our French experience. It's a little bit of effort that pays HUGE dividends.
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Oct 8th, 2004, 02:47 PM
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Except for one glaring exception, we found all the French people we encountered during our stay in Paris to be at the very least, pleasant - but for the most part, friendly.

My French speaking ability is non-existent and whatever I said was probably pronounced quite horribly - but I made an effort to learn the basic phrases and words that I thought I would most likely use when approaching anyone. Everyone was very gracious with the mangling I did to their language and seemed appreciative of the effort.

As for the rude person - she worked in the souvenir shop on the second floor of the Eiffel Tower, and was probably irritated in general with the mob scene of tourists. I saw that experience as the exception, not the norm.

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Oct 8th, 2004, 03:07 PM
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Polly Platt's books are an excellent way to help Americans understand French culture and why there can be so many misunderstandings between the two. Her first rule of how to behave in France is "Don't smile," which of course goes completely against the American way of life. If I remember correctly, her rationale is that the French find Americans' constant smiles insincere, because their culture is much more formal. We think they are unfriendly; they think we are rude.

At any rate, I highly recommend her two books, "French or Foe" and "Savoir Flair." Check out her web site at
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Oct 8th, 2004, 04:37 PM
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Well, I can understand the smiling part.

Naturally a smile on meeting is pleasant - but my grandmother taught me long ago to mistrust people who smile all the time. Her point of view - no one has reason to smile constantly - so anyone who does so is either the village idiot - or plotting against you. (I have found this is frequenty true - the idiot part - not the plotting.)
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Oct 8th, 2004, 04:41 PM
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That is sad and a wee bit think that the only reason someone would smile is that they are idiots or up to no good.
I would automatically expect that a smiling person is Happy.
Could this have something to do with being a nyer? LOL
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Oct 8th, 2004, 04:42 PM
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No one smiles all the time! The French smile when they are pleased or amused as most of us do. I , thankfully don't know Americans who Smile ALL THE TIME!
I disagree with your grandma. I knew a beautiful young woman who ran the Harvard book store, she always had this beautific smile, that touched everyone who met her, When she was killed one day, hit and run, thousands of her customers payed respect and bought her favorite books.
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Oct 8th, 2004, 04:46 PM
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You do know someone who smiles almost all the time.
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Oct 8th, 2004, 05:16 PM
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Yes,Scarlett, the lady who passes out roses
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Oct 8th, 2004, 05:21 PM
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do not stare whatever you do. i found out the hard way...i thought a man was a pickpocket ( long story, but i had pretty good cause) and tried to stare him down...was i ever embarrassed when he gave me a thorough yelling to...(an elderly lady finally came to my rescue) i say keep your eyes down on the metro...
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Oct 8th, 2004, 05:37 PM
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LOL, wondering,
I was warned before our first trip to Paris that everyone stares on the Metro.
(I got into the habit too, it does make a long train ride more entertaining)

I would be more worried about making eye contact and someone thinking you were interested in them ~
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Oct 8th, 2004, 06:55 PM
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Justretired - good points all, esp. greeting shopkeepers, since in the States that may encourage aggressive selling. The smiling was explained to me also along the lines of being reserved. Initial conversations with the French are often formal, and not very personal. However, I was in Frnce last year, and I made a return trip to Paris this April, with the help of this forum, no tour, just a few weeks on my own. I had studied french in school, and used it occasionally for work, and last year. This year, I found the French so receptive, warm and very generous, even --imagine my delight-- several (who were not trying to sell me anything) told me I spoke with almost no trace of an American accent. And my last nine days there were in french only, as you say many don't speak English or are shy about trying. So this experience, 2 years running, has completely dispelled my first adult experience in a french airport in 2000. Of course airport personnel should not be construed as representative of a country's population.
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Oct 9th, 2004, 07:26 AM
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Justretired: Why did you think the French would be UNfriendly? The answer to that is what worries me...
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Oct 9th, 2004, 07:29 AM
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TopMan, everyone who's never been to France "knows" the French are unfriendly. I just had a coworker ask me why we return - her friends were just there and so many people were rude to them. Then, she offered up that her friend was a very impatient type. I can picture it now.
It's just that they have a reputation, whether deserved or not.
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