OPINION: The French are not unfriendly, you just made a social faux pas

Writer and French resident Janet Hulstrand explains how the casual clothes and greeting styles of Brits and Americans can be perceived as an insult in France. But it's up to foreigners to learn the French rules.

OPINION: The French are not unfriendly, you just made a social faux pas
Photo: Zdenko Zivkovic/ Flickr

Elegant, soigné, sophisticated – these are some of the stereotypes we have about the French. And while it may not be true for all of them (ahem, Gerard Depardieu) certainly appearance and generally seeming like you have made an effort is valued here.

For some of us, it may be a bit hard to understand the need to “look nice” just to run into the bakery first thing in the morning, before you’ve even had your coffee, until you understand (and appreciate) the importance of everything “looking nice” in France. (After all, that’s why it’s so beautiful here, right?)


Gerard Depardieu, not the best example of the elegant Frenchman theory. Photo: AFP

So when we go shlumping around in our sweats, hair awry, we are in a way jarring the visual perfection of the composition surrounding us.

This can be off-putting to the French, who take great care to make things look nice, and pride in doing so.

Perhaps it’s not so surprising that when people from other places, not knowing any better, break these rules, they sometimes meet with a somewhat frosty reception, or even the occasional disdainful look or sharp remark.

In thinking about this lately, and about the way many of my well-meaning (but sometimes rather clueless) fellow Americans go about their daily interactions when visiting France, it occurred to me that while Americans hear all the time about how rude the French are, I think very few of them have even the faintest notion that perhaps they are the ones being rude—according to French rules of behavior.

And surely those are the rules that should be adhered to when in France, aren’t they?

The thing is, most Americans (and many other foreigners in France) probably have no idea that they are breaking important rules of polite behavior when they don’t comb their hair or get properly dressed before going to the boulangerie or dropping the kids off at school.

Not starting out every verbal interaction (any one at all!) by first saying a friendly bonjour to the merchant (or friend, or policeman, or bus driver, or whomever) is accorded to be just as rude in France, ditto starting to pick up and squeeze the fruit on a stand, before first saying bonjour, and then asking the merchant if it’s okay to touch it.


At the market always ask before you squeeze. Photo: AFP

These are just three examples of rules of behavior that are extremely important to follow in France, but that do not necessarily apply in other places.

Unfortunately, it is lack of this kind of cultural knowledge that often causes foreigners in France to break these and other rules, leading to rather unpleasant experiences with the locals that tend to reinforce the false stereotype of the rude, cold, arrogant Frenchman or woman.

But it’s not fair to interpret this as proof that those offended by these social blunders or affronts to their sense of propriety are rude or unfriendly.

It’s kind of as if a bull crashing his way through a china shop kept looking around, seeing the expressions of shock and dismay on the shopkeepers’ faces as he breaks every piece of china in the store (or in this case, every rule in the book), all the while muttering “What’s wrong with these people?!”

But it doesn’t have to be this way. By learning just a little bit about what is considered proper social behavior in France, and trying to remember to follow the basic rules of polite interaction, the experience of travelers in France can be vastly improved.

And it will give them the chance to see that most French men and women are not only not rude and unfriendly, they can be – and very often are – downright sweet and charming.

Janet Hulstrand is the author of Demystifying the French: How to Love Them and Make Them Love You. A professional writer, editor, writing coach and teacher, she is the creator of Paris: A Literary Adventure, a study abroad program of the City University of New York, and of her own Writing from the Heart workshops. She divides her time between Essoyes in the Champagne region, and various parts of the United States. You can find out more and buy her book here.

Member comments

  1. While I agree with everything in the article, after 20 years here, there’s no denying that the French are still grumpier, more distant and more arrogant than Anglos in general. Stick for them all you want, but they’re a dour bunch

  2. I don’t find the French unfriendly exactly, but truly friendly people make allowances for people not familiar with their culture. We are all ignorant, just on different subjects.

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Thirteen sure-fire ways to lose your French friends

If you want to keep your French friends, then DO NOT do anything on this list.

Thirteen sure-fire ways to lose your French friends
Photo: nullplus /Depositphotos
There's a myriad of irritating things you could do to put off potential friends pretty much anywhere, like ordering the most expensive thing on the menu and asking to split the bill, or retelling that one story no one laughed at in the first place.
But there are some that might particularly get on the nerves of French people and are best avoided, unless of course your aim is to use this list to intentionally annoy your French coworkers, friends or partner (which we're not condoning).
Do all of these and you'll be on track to being the least popular Anglo at the soirée. 
1. Get sloshed at an apéro
Photo: contrabland/ Flickr
Although “le binge-drinking” is alive and well in France, apéro culture is a whole different ball game. Don't mistake this for a house party, at the apéro (short for apéritif), the nibbles aren't just there to help you absorb the alcohol, and you're actually meant to have a civilised conversation. 
Downing liqueurs like shots and dancing on the tables might firmly cross you off the guest list for next time. 
2. Sit inside at a café, meaning they can't smoke
Photo: razvanphoto/ Deposit photos
Every season is terrasse season in France. When it comes to siting to eat or drink outside while having a smoke or watching people go by, the French become impervious to the elements.
Your French friends might not appreciate making them move inside, so make like the locals, wrap yourself up in a big scarf and find a spot near the heater if you can.
3. Insist bien cuit is the proper way to eat steak
Photo: Michael Stern/ Flickr
It might physically pain a French person to cook a steak until it's bien cuit or “well done”. In France, it's the bloodier the better, and asking for steak beyond à point (rare to medium rare) is only for tourists who '”ruin” the flavours. 
If you really want to lose their respect, ask for très bien cuit, we dare you. 
4. Refuse to go and watch French films in the cinema
France is proud of their cinematic heritage, so watch your popularity plummet as you decline their invitation to go see the latest French art house film saying you'd rather go watch Die Hard on DVD at home. 
Photo: wavebreakmedia/ Deposit Photos
5. Laugh at their French accent
We might think the French accent is sexy and cute, but the French can be quite sensitive about it.
They tend to mock each other for having imperfect English accents, so what you might have meant as a light teasing could go sour.
6. Think it's funny to say 'sacre bleu', 'zut alors', 'mon dieu' 
Photo: kues/ Depositphotos
French people really love when you say hackneyed phrases no one really uses to them. Try it out and see how many eye rolls you get from your French pals.
7. Break with cheese etiquette
Photo: Reddit/Facebook
Having cheese as a starter, asking if they have any crackers, cutting the cheese however the hell you like. All big no-no's according to French norms on cheese eating and could provoke the ire of purists, like when one French mum broke with convention on Camembert cutting (pictured above).
8. Say you love France (when you only mean Paris)
Photo: tsyganek/ Deposit photos
Little will rile non-Parisian friends more than equating the capital with the whole of France, they might snap back at you with the old phrase “Paris is not France and France is not Paris“.
9. Say the bread at the supermarket and boulangerie tastes the same
Photo: grafvision/ Deposit photos
There's a reason the fresh bread section of the supermarket is so small, strictly for emergencies and convenience only. 
Bread from supermarkets like Carrefour is not to be compared with “the real thing” from the numerous local bakeries.  
10. Say you're envious of their 'easy' 35-hour work week
Photo: AFP
Everyone knows the 35-hour week is a myth, the average French person puts in 39 a week and certainly won't thank you for bringing out the old “French workers are lazy” stereotype. 
11. Turn your nose up at French cuisine 
French people, by and large, will tell you they're proud of their country's cuisine, so wrinkling your nose at a boeuf bourguignon and asking if you could go get sushi or tacos instead won't make you many pals. 
12. Tell them you're a vegetarian (or worse, a vegan)
Photo: p.studio66/ Deposit photos
Meat free diets are gaining in popularity in France, especially in bigger cities, but in the wrong crowd, telling French people you can't share their planche mixte might get you some concerned looks.
13. Make jokes about them going on strike all the time 
“Hey if you don't like it, why don't you strike about it! Because you're French…get it?” 
Your French friends are unlikely to be impressed by your spot on observational humour. Unless they work in the transport sector, they've probably never been on strike in their lives. Save the jokes for friends who work in SNCF or AirFrance where they might at least hit the mark.
By Rose Trigg