Many people think that the French, Parisians in particular, are unfriendly, or dare I say snobby. This was something I never particularly found to be the case, but after having lived in Paris for nearly a year now, I feel like this is something I can better comment on.
I don’t find Parisians unfriendly at all – in fact, I find that most people are friendly. Yes, there are customer service differences, but that is a more of a cultural difference than a personality issue. I first started to think about this when I noticed how overtly friendly people are when I’m walking Lily (our very popular puppy). And I’m not talking, smile and pass politely friendly. I’m talking start up a conversation, ooh and ahhh, and make all sort of noises that are only excusable when referencing two things – babies and puppies. And to a ridiculous extent. Walking has become quite difficult now with her as we can hardly make it 5 feet before being stopped. I have to say that walking an adorable puppy certainly has forced me to have more conversations with random people (aside from the boulanger, boucher, etc.). And people are genuinely nice. Not only do they try to spoil her with chicken, entire pieces of pork and fine French cheese, they stop, chat, say congratulations, wish me luck, a ‘bonne promenade’ and ‘bonne journée. Granted the later is can be a polite social convention, but still. People stop. They have hearts that melt when they see something cute. In addition, they have expanded my knowledge of french adjectives immensely.
Much of the unfriendly stereotype comes from people visiting who don’t speak any French. I can empathize – my first few times in Paris I didn’t know any French. My French is still limited and I knew absolutely none upon moving here, but even in my trips to Paris before, made an effort to at least learn ‘Bonjour’ and ‘parlez-vous anglais?’, and ‘merci’. In fact, pretty much anywhere I travel, I make an effort to learn those three phrases. Picture this – you are in your home town and a stranger walks up to you and asks you a question in a foreign language. A typical person in the US or in the UK would be annoyed. I have heard many Americans say ‘this is America, speak English’ (despite the ever-changing demographics). And certainly an English grumble or two about speaking English, especially when it concerns Americans! I’m you’re saying, ‘No, never,’ but think about it. Of course we expect people to speak ‘our’ language. If not, then we certainly expect them to at least try, with a polite ‘excuse me..’. So I’m not in the least surprised that a French person seems a bit irritated or isn’t overtly friendly when you walk up to them and speak English. Even a simple Bonjour does wonders. I find that the more French I at least attempt, the more people seem genuinely helpful. This could bring me to a bit of a rant on tourists who expect the place their visiting to be like home, but I’ll save that for another time. After 7 years living in the UK, I actually think the French are friendlier than the English. Perhaps some of my English friends would object, but many other expats have expressed similar sentiments.
My french is still a work in progress. I can sort of have a normal conversation, usually can understand the gist of what someone is saying, but my responses are still a bit limited, and I’m not yet confident enough in my grammar choices. Even so, people will try to talk to me. Many who also speak English are very willing to speak a mix of French and English with me, some even helping me.
This is not to say that I don’t feel slightly out of place in some shops – perhaps not as ‘put together’ as some Parisian women. But that is me. The same thing would happen if I walked into any higher end boutique in jeans and a t-shirt, I would probably immediately be passed off as not being a potential customer. I am not saying that it is right, but we make snap evaluations all the time – it is human nature. That being said, people in most shops here are friendly and very willing to help, but also aren’t pushy. Nothing makes me walk out of a store quicker than a pushy salesperson. And outside Paris, in the South and other areas we have traveled, people are even nicer.
So make an effort, say Bonjour. I’m willing to bet most people will be much happier to help you. I’m sure there are some who may disagree with me, but perhaps you aren’t making an effort, or you just encountered rude people – they exist everywhere!