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FRENCH LANGUAGE COLLECTION

Decoding the French: They are not rude, it’s just a big misunderstanding

Rudeness is often considered by the rest of the world to be as typically French as smelly cheese, baguettes or drinking red wine every lunchtime. But it shouldn't be, argues Rose Trigg.

Decoding the French: They are not rude, it's just a big misunderstanding
Photo: Zdenko Zivkovic/ Flickr

A 2012 survey by flight comparison site SkyScanner revealed users ranked France as the number one rudest country for travellers and a thread on the travel site Tripadvisor is packed full of complaints about French rudeness.

Indeed a quick search on Google reveals that “Why are the French so rude?” appears to be one of the great unanswered questions of our time.

But what if this is all one big misunderstanding?

Julie Barlow, co-writer of ‘The Bonjour Effect’, believes that's certainly the case.

“The root of the problem is not that the French are rude, it’s that we don’t understand the codes of French conversation,” she told The Local.

Basically French society has different codes of behaviour and standards of what is considered polite. In day to day interactions with the French, you could be breaking any number of those rules without even knowing it.

The good news is that to get back in the good books of the French doesn’t require years of formal etiquette training, just a few simple guidelines to follow.

One little word

The most simple one starts with ‘B’ and ends in ‘R’, and it was probably the first word you ever learnt in French. The word ‘Bonjour’ is frequently disregarded, or used improperly by foreign visitors to France. Even people who have lived here for years still haven’t caught on to how to use it.

Photo: Corey Templeton/ Flickr

“You can’t have any interaction with the French unless you say bonjour, you say it in a meaningful way, and you give them a chance to say bonjour back,” said Barlow.

By not waiting for a bonjour in return before you ask a question, “you’re not giving them time to acknowledge or give you permission to continue the conversation.”

Given France’s history of revolution and motto of egalité, you can imagine why they may be a little touchy when they feel like they’re being spoken down to.

It’s all coconuts and peaches

A common reason French people are perceived as being rude is a certain ‘frostiness’ and lack of desire to engage in small talk. The reason we might feel that way is all to do with fruit or nuts – metaphorical fruit that is.

 

Photos: Public Domain Pictures 

The world is divided into “peaches” and “coconuts”. Or at least that's according to German-American Psychologist Kurt Lewin, who says that cultures can be divided into these two foody labels.

Peaches are warm on the outside, and share personal stories, but make the mistake of thinking that is genuine intimacy and you’ll hit the core ‘inner self’ stone, Lewin argues. Whereas coconuts seem aloof and cold at first, but once you get through to their tough outer shell, they become genuine and open.

“French people are definitely coconuts in comparison with all the Anglo-Saxon countries,” Erin Meyer, author of The Culture Map told The Local.

“That’s one of the reasons that French people are considered arrogant is because they don’t smile at strangers, they’re very formal”.

If the French are coconuts, then that makes English speaking visitors mainly peaches, and that clash can create some awkwardness. The immediate openness of “peaches” can be off putting for “coconuts”.

Meyer says “the French can perceive that as being superficial and invasive”.

Meyer advises approaching French people in a humble but very friendly way, which can often result in their outer shell “melting away”. Just don’t be surprised if a French person doesn’t want to share their own personal life right away. 

'French and arrogant'

The US research centre Pew Global found that of the eight EU countries surveyed, France was voted the second most arrogant country. 

Meyer argues that this perception is largely due to French attitudes to disagreement and negative feedback.

“The French are much more direct with negative feedback than any Anglo-Saxon country” says Meyer, “this is a big part of why any culture is considered to be arrogant”.

Photo: Alena Getman

When a French person disagrees with what you’re saying, or think something could be improved, they’ll tell you straight away.

It’s simply not considered rude in France it’s just seen as normal. 

But the French criticism isn’t reserved for others, they’re just as critical of themselves. In the same Pew study, French people also ranked their own country as the most arrogant in the EU, which ironically, is actually quite humble.   

Noisiness

Muriel Damarcus of the blog French Yummy Mummy told The Local that one of the reasons that French people are considered to be rude is that they like their peace and quiet, and will tell you what they think in no uncertain terms if you disturb it.

“We don’t like noisy people, and can be quite snotty with them. For instance, it is not polite to speak too loudly in a queue or in a restaurant” she said.

French people will have few concerns about appearing rude by, for instance, telling parents to keep their children under control. If you’re the one making the noise, you’re fair game.

Photo: Boudewijn Berends/ Flickr

So the next time you have a problem with a French person, have a think about whether it could be down to any of these underlying reasons. And if after that, you still think they’ve been rude, then you’re probably right. Rude people do exist in the world, but perhaps they’re not all concentrated in France.  

By Rose Trigg

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Member comments

  1. PS French people ARE (more or less) quiet, depending on what part of the country you are visiting. BUT, give them a few drinks, an evening together, and they rival Neopolitans! [well, not really, but…]

  2. I have taken my vacations in France for 25 years and now live here permanently. Apart from Parisiens, who the French think are rude, I have found the French to be among the politest people I have encountered. But as the article suggests they are very formal. I have known waiters who have kindly helped me understand a menu in a mix of my poor French and their poor English, become aloof and uncomprehending when faced with a table of Anglophones who they think have not showed them sufficient respect, or have behaved in a manner they consider impolite. A simple purchase requires observance of some rituals. “Bonjour monsieur” from the salesperson/till operator, requires a “bonjour” in response. On conclusion the minimum from you should be “Merci, au revoir”, or if they have been particularly helpful “merci beaucoup, au revoir”. Better still is “merci (beaucoup), bonne journée, au revoir”.
    I have had till operators giving me an eye-roll when the person ahead of me in the queue, invariably a tourist, fails to observe such niceties. In Provence, where I live, motorists will readily stop to allow you to cross the road, but will expect a wave of thanks in return.

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LANGUAGE AND CULTURE

French phrases that language learners just don’t get

International Francophonie Day: Even if you've lived in France for years, there are some French phrases and expressions that might still catch you out. Here are a just a few of the many that we often get wrong.

French phrases that language learners just don't get
Photo: Gustavofrazao/Depositphotos

C'est n'importe quoi

Ni'importe quoi is one of those terms we hear thrown into French sentences a lot, so we naturally try to do the same, but don't always get it right.

Often used to express exasperation, “C'est n'importe quoi!” can be a tough one for foreigners to grasp but usually means something like “That's nonsense/rubbish”. N'importe quoi by itself can also mean “whatever”.

Du coup

This filler phrase meaning something like “so” or “therefore” pops up in French conversation similarly to how “like” peppers the speech of an American teenager. It can bewilder French learners who don't understand how it can be so omnipresent yet have no actual meaning. 

In this case it's not that we use it incorrectly, but more that we never use it (but would really love to) because we haven't a clue when it's appropriate.

Photo: Sara Dinu/Flickr

Quand même
 
Two words with so many meanings.
 
“Quand même is a very common and versatile French expression,” writes Laura Lawless from the French language learning section of the site Thought Co. “You can hear it several times a day, every day, and each time you think you understand all of its meanings, another one seems to come along.”
 
The site has a few examples to illustrate their point:
 
  J'avais peur, mais je l'ai fait quand même.
   I was afraid, but I did it anyway (or but i still did it).
 
   C'est quand même difficile.
   It's actually quite hard.
 
   Quand même !
   Really! Honestly! (disbelief, outrage)
 
   Quel idiot, quand même !
   Really, what an idiot!

Désolé(e)

This word isn't used with nearly the same frequency as “sorry” in English. The French are far more likely to say “pardon” or “excusez-moi” for everyday blunders and save désolé for when they're truly sorry for something they did. 
 
Désolé… Photo: Flickr

Oh là là

First of all, it's not Ooh (là là) but Oh. In English this phrase has taken on a sexual innuendo, but that's not the case in French, where it's basically used for everything else. Here's a comprehensive guide on how to use these three little words.

Oh là là - How to really use the best three words in French

Visiter / rendre visite

English-speakers need to be careful not to mix these two up. “Visiter” is for a place, such as a monument or a city, while “rendre visite” is used when talking about people. If you just say you're going to visiter someone, it can have a sexual connotation. 

Sacré bleu

English-speakers might whip out this phrase to express astonishment thinking it makes them sound oh-so-French, but in reality it's extremely out-dated and almost never used by French people these days, except perhaps in jest.

J'ai chaud

In English it would sound ridiculous to say “I have hot” as opposed to “I'm hot” on a sweltering day. But in French saying “Je suis chaud” could land you in trouble, as it actually translates to “I'm horny”.

Bonjour

Bonjour seems like the simplest of French words — a no-brainer, right? Au contraire. Foreigners too often get it wrong by not saying it at all (which some argue is the root cause of why French people are said to be so rude). Read this to make sure you actually know how to use the most important word in French

And don't say it twice to the same person in the same day. Say “re-bonjour” instead.

This is by far the most important word in French

Adieu

Say this to a French person and you're wishing them a final farewell, as in you'll never see them again. Just stick with au revoir to sound a bit less dramatic.  

Plus
 
This tricky little word consistently stumps French learners because it can mean two opposite things – either “more” or “none”, depending on whether you pronounce the 's' or not (pronouncing the s means “more”). 

Putain

The greatest of French swear words is so ubiquitous that foreigners often overuse it and forget it's not meant to be used in polite company. Better safe than sorry with this one. 

Je suis plein(e)

“It's common to hear an Anglophone say after a good dinner: 'Ce dîner est excellent et maintenant, je suis plein(e),' French teacher at French a la Carte Florence Harang told The Local. “But Je suis plein(e) means “I am pregnant” (and is only actually used for animals, not humans). 

Saying J'ai bien mangé is far more appropriate for when you can't eat another forkful of Gallic grub.

C'est bon/c'est bien

Another couple of pesky phrases for French learners as we often confuse the two.

Camille Chevalier-Karfis, who runs the language learning website French Today says: “For this one, the answer is simple: memorise an example that rhymes. C’est bon means yummy. So remember “c’est bon le jambon” – ham is yummy.

C’est bien means approval, so 'c’est bien Julien' or Damien, or Félicien… pick a name you know!” 

C'est pas terrible

English speakers can be forgiven for getting confused with the word terrible in French, as saying “c'est pas terrible” actually means something is terrible, rather than isn't, as you would think at first.

Je suis confus
 
“At the question 'Vous comprenez?' ('Do you understand?') some English speakers might answer: 'Non, je suis confus' ” said Harang. “But in French this means “I am embarrassed”, not confused. They should say instead: 'Ce n'est pas très clair pour moi.'”

Au fur et à mesure

“The French expression au fur et à mesure (meaning “as/while/gradually”) is a perfect example of why you can't translate word for word from one language to another,” writes Thought Co's Laura Lawless.
 
“In this case, English speakers need but a single word to express something for which the French commonly use five.
 
“Fur is an old word meaning “rate,” and mesure means “measure” or “measurement.”
 
“Au fur et à mesure is less flexible than the English equivalents: you can only use it for active, progressive actions,” she added.
 
 
Je fais la vaisselle au fur et à mesure qu'il débarrasse la table.
 
I do the dishes as he clears the table.
 
Au fur et à mesure que la fête se rapproche, ma sœur s'inquiète.
 
As the party draws nearer, my sister is getting impatient.
 
If you are confused by fewer than five of these phrases then you're doing well.
 
But the problem is there are far more than 17 confusing phrases in French. Can you name any more?

 
By Katie Warren
 
Another version of this story was published in 2016
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