At first glance, foreigners, especially North Americans, may think French are sullen and rude. Indeed, most French don’t smile unless they find something amusing and they don’t display a chirpy attitude by default when dealing with strangers. French care about their acquaintances, their friends, their family—but no so much about people they don’t know. They use very basic social niceties, bonjour, merci, that’s all. Real friendliness is for friends, don’t expect the usual “hi, how are YOU today?” that often prefaces small talk in North America. Customer service isn’t that helpful and I’m sure you’ve heard about bitchy salespeople who think they are doing customers a favour when they reluctantly agree to take their money.
That said, French are still nice people. No, seriously. These past few days, I witnessed several unrelated little acts of kindness that made me realize that even though politeness is expressed differently, it’s still here.
For instance, a family with a full cart invited me to go first at the cash register because I didn’t have much in my grocery basket. Keeping in mind French hate queuing, this meant a lot to me. The other day, a teen in front of me at the bureau de tabac announced he wasn’t buying anything but just bringing back ten cents because a week earlier, he was five cents short and the saleswoman had used loose change from the cash register to help out. “Keep the extra five cents,” he said. “Someone else may need it one day!” Finally, I noticed that shopkeepers become very friendly after one or two visits. One of the bakers close to my grand-parents’ place always says bonjour when I walk by because he sees me almost every day, even if I rarely buy bread from his boulangerie. The bakery we most often go to knows what bread I usually like. In Saint-Gilles-Croix-de-Vie, when I bought Mark a panini, the saleswoman gave me a lollipop for him because “I may need it later on when he will be grumpy”.
Everywhere I look, I see strangers who can be unexpectedly nice—if I’m nice as well. So sure, I’m sometimes annoyed with drivers who don’t slow down when they see pedestrians, with people who walk abreast and block narrow sidewalks, with the occasional rude customer service experience. But I try to remember that for one rude person, I see plenty of nice people.
I like people.
Most of the time, anyway.