Right before going to France, I had a discussion with an American friend of mine. His parents had been to Paris many years ago and remembered French people as pretty rude folks. I wasn’t surprised nor offended because it is a pretty common stereotype on this side of the Atlantic Ocean. Japanese travel a lot and take pictures, Chinese kick ass at math tests, British have bad teeth, Australians wrestle crocodiles down under… you’ve heard them all before.
I entered France with my Canadian passport and I decided to become a woman with a mission. I was going to find out if French were rude. Who else could better find out the dirty truth about French than a former French?
About an hour after setting foot in my former country, I was ready to say yes. As soon as the plane landed, you could tell the French returning back home from the Canadians: the former loudly rushed out of the plane while the later politely let each other go first. The same thing happened at passport control: fortunately, there was a special line for U.E. passport holders so all Europeans were able to complain together about the uselessness of European policies.
I was still dazed and confused when I showed up at the train ticket booth in Roissy CDG. Yet, it was the kick I needed to find my French fighting spirit back. “The only tickets we have left are first class tickets”, claimed the bored employee. “For all the trains today?”, I retorted. “You didn’t say you wanted to leave today!” Feng watched me arguing and finally buying the cheapest tickets available, slightly taken aback. “I’m not rude, honey, I’m just getting us tickets”. Lesson one: sometimes you need to be a little bit rude assertive in order to get business done in France.
I soon remembered something I had forgotten: French always seem to go by two rules. 1) There is never enough for everybody 2) The system hates you and is screwing you. Case in point, public transportation. People board the subway/bus/train the way Chinese people do: they queue vertically and rush inside, grab a seat and defend their territory. When we arrived at the terminal to take the local regional bus to St Michel, about 25 people were already waiting. As soon as the bus arrived, people crowded together at the door. Feng and I looked at each other, slightly bemused. In Canada, the Greyhound is sometime very busy and there isn’t enough room for everybody – that’s no problem, another bus is brought in to accommodate the extra passengers. “I got you seats”, called my grand-mother, who had already fought her way to the bus front door. You should have seen the last few passengers fight! Because indeed, not all of us were able to board the bus, and the next one was scheduled… the following day.
But this “French are rude” stereotype is mostly just a big cultural misunderstanding. First, a lot of foreigners’ bad experiences with the French happen in Paris. In bigger cities, people usually mind their own business and may have less patience with tourists. Imagine being asked every single day where Notre Dame and the Eiffel Tower is!
Second, the body language is different in France. For instance, French don’t smile as much as Americans and they certainly don’t smile unless they mean it. I personally found these perky coffee shop baristas annoying when I first came to Canada, because I could tell they were not sincere, they were just told to smile and sound upbeat to please customers.
Finally, the notion of personal space is different in France. Instead of the regular North American’s arm’s length of personal space, you may find people squeezing you and even — gasp! — inadvertently bump into you or touch you in crowded areas. Don’t be offended… it’s just the way it is.
I eventually developed a theory: French people are not rude, they just defend their territory and tend to be distrustful at times. However, they are extremely friendly and generous with those close to them, such as family and friends. On the other hand, Canadians tend to be polite and treat strangers better. But they value their privacy and personal space and are more reserved, even around their friends and relatives… and all that can be interpreted as rudeness by foreigners!