I find it necessary to write this piece, as I constantly see and hear the same things over and over about the French. “Parisians are so mean, nobody speaks to me in French“. Before I came to Paris for the first time, I read an amazing article about the etiquette here, the writer was French; which I believe really helped me understand some cultural differences. It’s 2018, I started this blog to help people get to know Paris, along with understanding French people. I don’t like to hear from family and friends that Parisians are mean, I think they’re just misunderstood. I will be writing some things that might be offensive to some people, so I will be starting with a trigger warning in red letters. I will start out with the hard to hear advice, and then continue with my advice and key phrases to use! Please try to take what I’m saying with a grain of salt.
French people don’t speak to you in French because your French* isn’t as good as you think. OR you might be coming off as rude, even though you’re not trying to be.
I’ll start with the former, I hear A LOT from friends, family members, etc “I took French in high school or college, I’m fluent.” and then when they speak, they cannot put together a correct sentence or they don’t pronounce words in the French pronunciation**
*If you are French Canadian, and people speak English to you when you speak French. LET THEM KNOW. Ask them why they’re speaking to you in English and explain that French is your first language. I’m sure they’ll get the picture.
**I say French pronunciation, because in Canada for example, they pronounce some words differently than they do here in France. And sometimes French people have a very hard time understanding when you say something wrong or if you have a strong accent or a French Canadian accent(not always, but sometimes). Most people don’t mean to offend you, they simply cannot understand what you’re saying. Take a moment to look at these two words and think to yourself, how do I pronounce these?
au-dessus (above) vs en-dessous (underneath)
French vowels are very difficult to pronounce, and if you don’t know the combinations of vowels with other vowels or with consonants; people seriously cannot understand you. Try to not take it personally.
ps. It’s not your accent that makes someone not speak to you in French. You can still have an accent and pronounce a word correctly. Improper pronunciation of many words will make someone believe you don’t know French.
Alright, now that we’re done with the negative, let’s move on to the typical etiquette here in France.
There are many little mini things, you might not think of because you don’t live here. For example, it’s customary in France to say BONJOUR(good morning) or BONSOIR(good evening) when passing people in the building you’re staying in. If you’re in a hotel, that means when you pass by an employee say bonjour or bonsoir. If you’re staying in an apartment building, when you walk by someone in your building, whether you are in the courtyard, next to the door, in the staircase. You say bonjour/bonsoir. If you don’t say it, people will think you’re rude.
That same etiquette goes for when you walk into ANY shop, restaurant, boulangerie, WHEREVER. You ALWAYS say bonjour/bonsoir. If you are lost or you need someone’s help in a shop, you always say “excusez-moi, bonjour…“. Please don’t do this:
person: walks into boulangerie, doesn’t say anything.
a person who works at boulangerie: Oui, bonjour. Qu’est-ce-que vous voulez ? (yes, hello, what would you like)
person: one croissant and one baguette. thanks
The people working there will think you are incredibly rude. Because you didn’t say hello, and you’ve now assumed they speak English. I’ve actually seen this happen before, and the person who worked at the boulangerie was very blunt and not very nice to that person. Please also don’t assume everyone speaks English because they don’t. Trying a little bit really goes a long way, I promise you.
When leaving any establishment you always say “merci, au revoir“. You can also say “merci, bonne jounée” (thanks have a good day) or “merci, bonne soirée” (thanks have a good night). These are crucial steps in how someone is going to treat you when you’re here.
REMEMBER: ALWAYS SAY “BONJOUR/BONSOIR” TO PEOPLE IN YOUR BUILDING OR WORKERS AT THE HOTEL. ALWAYS SAY “BONJOUR/BONSOIR” WHEN ENTERING ANY BUSINESS. AND DON’T FORGET TO SAY “MERCI AU REVOIR” WHEN LEAVING.
UNDERSTANDING CULTURAL DIFFERENCES
If you’re from the United States, I’m sure you’re used to people asking you how your day is going, out of respect. Here’s a typical conversation with a checkout person in the US.
checkout worker: Hey, how’s your day going?
you: Yeah it’s going well, how about yourself?
checkout worker: Yeah it’s good. Thanks for asking.
In France, the only people you ask how they are, are your friends or family. But if you were buying something at a store and you said “ça va ?” to someone, they would look at you very weirdly. People will not ask how you are or care from where you’re visiting from. I know that seems a bit harsh, but those types of conversations don’t happen between strangers here.
REMEMBER: PEOPLE WILL NOT ASK YOU HOW YOU ARE, DO NOT ASK PEOPLE HOW THEY ARE. DO NOT EXPECT SOMEONE TO ASK WHERE YOU’RE VISITING FROM.
SLOWNESS IN RESTAURANTS
This is something you’re just going to have to accept. First off, service is included, people here don’t work for tips so they’re not going to constantly be checking on you like in the US. In France, people take their time with their meals, chill out. People will not treat you differently just because you’re flaunting a lot of money, honestly, that will probably make them want to treat you worse. So, sit back, relax and expect your service at a restaurant to be slow. ALSO in France, you order your drinks AFTER you order your food. NOBODY will ever ask you what you want to drink, and then ask you for what you want to eat.
TONE OF VOICE
In general, English speakers are pretty loud. I don’t know if most people understand how loud they speak but in comparison to how quiet French people usually speak in public here; English speakers stick out. Remember to lower your voice when speaking to a friend or family member in public. Lots of travelers shout which is a big no-no here and French people will definitely look down on you for being loud and obnoxious.
This might sound like a weird one, but people don’t smile as much in public here. Just because someone doesn’t smile at you or doesn’t smile, it doesn’t mean they’re mean or angry. If you see a French person walking down the street by themselves, it would be incredibly rare to see them smile. Feel free to smile at people, but don’t expect a smile in return. Also smiling at the opposite sex usually means that you’re sexually interested in them…So smile with caution, some people might take it the wrong way.
Assuming people speak English and assuming people don’t speak English, it’s not a great thing to do. I’ve overheard many people talking shit about someone, thinking they don’t understand. Keep your private, negative thoughts to yourself in public. Because even if one person can understand they could translate what you said to the person who didn’t understand. Remember to be kind.
REMEMBER: RESTAURANTS/WAITER ARE SLOWER HERE. THEY DON’T WORK FOR YOUR TIPS. LOWER YOUR VOICE, DON’T EXPECT PEOPLE TO SMILE/SMILE AT YOU. DON’T ASSUME PEOPLE DO/DON’T SPEAK ENGLISH. DON’T TALK SHIT.
7 WORDS YOU NEED TO USE
bonjour good morning/hello
bonsoir good evening/hello
merci thank you
s’il vous plaît please
au revoir goodbye
bonne journée have a good day
bonne soirée have a good night
je voudrais un/une/des* I would like…
l’addition s’il vous plaît The check please
parlez-vous anglais ? Do you speak English?
avez-vous une carte en anglais ? do you have a menu in English?
pardon excuse me(generally used for politeness, like on the metro, etc)
* if you don’t know if a word is masculine or feminine, just download a French dictionary on your phone(it’s probably free) and just double check.*
MY BIGGEST PIECES OF ADVICE
JUST TRY. I can’t express this enough, just saying “bonjour” will seriously do wonders.
Do you think French accents are cute in English? Well, most French people think the same of your accent in French, it’s cute to them. So just try your best.
Remember that people can be rude/mean everywhere and ESPECIALLY in touristy areas. If you’re only hanging out in touristy spots, they’re more likely to be rude because that’s how most people treat touristy spots everywhere. Are people nice at the Starbucks in Time Square? I don’t think so( I lived in NYC, I can assure you they are not cheery there)
Be open-minded. Just because one person was rude to you, does not mean that all 70 million French people are assholes.
If you are a decent enough French speaker and people still speak English to you, ONLY RESPOND IN FRENCH. Whenever someone speaks English to me after speaking French, I always respond in French, they will get the point. If not you could always say “pourquoi vous me parlez en anglais ? ” BE BOLD.
I hope this helps you understand a little bit of the cultural differences. I believe strongly that if you take into mind what I said, you will have a much better experience with French people. Please let me know in the comments below your thoughts and opinions! Bonne chance !
If this is your first time in Paris, check out some of my other posts!