Les Halles (Paris)

Right before going to France, I had a chat 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 or 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 the French were rude. Who else could better find out the dirty truth about the 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 home from the Canadians—the former loudly rushed out of the plane while the latter 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 at 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 and assertive to get business done in France.

I soon remembered something I had forgotten—the French always seem to go by two rules. One, there is never enough for everybody. Two, 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 sometimes 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 grandmother, who had already fought her way to the bus’s 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 happened 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 are!

Second, the body language is different in France. For instance, the 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. The French 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!

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  1. Soleil September 1, 2010 at 11:41 am

    I love hearing your perspective on this, and I agree with you that Parisians become rude to foreigners because it’s annoying to be harassed by them every day. New Yorkers are the same way. Outside of the large cities people tend to be much more polite. Not overtly friendly or welcoming, but at least polite and nice!

  2. Max Coutinho September 1, 2010 at 11:55 am


    Let me add so more stereotypes: Irish belong all to the IRA, Italians are all Mafia, Spanish dance flamenco, Germans are all Nazi and Africans are all lazy – ridiculous!

    “Lesson one: sometimes you need to be a little bit rude assertive in order to get business done in France.” – LOL LOL LOL LOL…the French in you re-surfaced, eh?

    “However, they are extremely friendly and generous with those close to them, such as family and friends.” – true, and there is nothing wrong with it.

    I don’t view the French as rude, and I always tell Americans that. My experience with them (in Paris and outside of it) was fabulous.


  3. Yogi September 1, 2010 at 12:05 pm

    I wouldn’t know but I think you are right about it being a cultural misunderstanding. We have it here in the USA also. I grew up in the mountain west and when I moved to Texas people thought that I wasn’t “friendly” which really meant that I didn’t act like a total stranger’s best friend. I’m friendly with my friends though.

  4. Delph September 1, 2010 at 12:35 pm

    C’est marrant on parlait de ça ce week-end avec une amie et on se disait justement qu’en France, souvent quand tu demandes quelque chose poliement on s’en fout de toi alors que dès que tu hausses le ton on fait ce qu’il faut! Qu’elle perte de temps et d’énergie!

  5. Poem September 1, 2010 at 2:06 pm

    How about French people being rude in Canada? :p I have encountered them countless times to the point I was sick of them :p But I was very surprised on how polite and nice the Parisians were during our trip. So I wonder why can’t they be all nice in Canada :p

    1. Marc September 28, 2018 at 9:55 pm

      Absolutely, I live in Montreal and was verbally assaulted by a french woman when I was parking because she thought she had right of way to jaywalk while I was backing up my car… The scene she made was from out of this world, yet she demanded that I apologize to her even though she insulted me yelling espece du débile mentale five times. A complete and utter imbecil of a woman.
      She projected a revolting superiority complex that I have never encountered in my whole life.

      1. Zhu September 29, 2018 at 1:07 am

        I’m not sure your anecdote says much… except maybe look when you back off??

  6. Pauline September 1, 2010 at 5:59 pm

    I’ve never been to France but I think it may also have to do with whoever you have the fortune/misfortune to run into during your trip. Plus, as you mentioned, people tend to be ruder in larger cities. (ie. I like Toronto a lot and know some great Torontonians, but I have also run into some EXTREMELY impolite people there)

  7. khengsiong September 1, 2010 at 8:43 pm

    Japanese are probably the most polite people in the world. But when they say ‘hi’, they mean “I am listening” rather than “I agree”.

  8. Lizz September 1, 2010 at 10:06 pm

    I find that really interesting! I think Filipinos are too immediately buddy-buddy with both strangers AND friend & family, haha. My culture may be overly warm in general, which isn’t always a good thing. XD When I went to the US for a visit, I liked the personal distance + fake warm smiles from store clerks.

  9. Sidney September 1, 2010 at 10:45 pm

    Spot on as usual ! 🙂

  10. Kim: kiwi in France September 2, 2010 at 3:40 am

    I don’t think they are rude per se, just different. The culture and the way in which they go about things are different and we, the anglais, see it as rude. Yes, there are some horribly rude people around but there are in every culture! Actually the rudest French person I encountered was at the French Embassy in NZ, I was worried that that would be how the French were. I still get agitated when I line up only to find as soon as the doors open everyone just merges and tries to get there first, but that’s how it’s done in France. I actually find it nice that the people in the shops (even in the hairdresser and doctors) say bonjour and au revoir when you enter and leave, and they don’t pester you when you are just browsing through the clothes racks. But, it’s taken a while to get used to waiting for the cashiers in the supermarket to finish their conversation before they acknowledge you, similarly in the préfecture. But, that’s life in France!

  11. Em September 2, 2010 at 8:45 am

    I generally agree with your theory. French people do indeed care about people close to them, whereas in a country like Ireland, people might be a bit unreliable in their friendship despite swearing that you are their best friend forever. It’s something you have to learn to know and live with.
    Saying that, I think some, not all, French people are quite ignorant, or think themselves superior, particularly when they travel abroad.

    Cultural differences, such as the personal space, certainly; but being courteous, particularly when you work in the service industry, has never hurt anybody. My stepmum is always amazed, when she visits me in Ireland, by the smile on the sale assistants’ faces; she would have a heart attack in Canada: in each shop I’ve walked in I have been welcomed. Most of the time, in France, you feel like you disturb them.
    I was also quite surprised by how helpful people are in Canada, even in a big city like Toronto, and that’s without even asking for help.

    So, yes things are culturally different, but that doesn’t excuse everything.

  12. DianeCA September 2, 2010 at 5:06 pm

    I didn’t find the French in the south of France. The people of Ollioules seemed genuinely pleased to meet us when we were there last year.

    Another point a friend of mine has learned. Manners are different in France then in Canada, US or in our case Norway. In France when you go into a shop you should always say Bonjour, Bonsoir, and Sil Vous Plais, while in many other countries we go directly to the point, or our order as it may be. Many of the French who work in public positions may well consider us quite rude!

  13. DianeCA September 2, 2010 at 5:07 pm

    The first line should say I didn’t find the French in the South of France rude!! hehehe I did indeed find plenty of French there.

  14. Zhu September 3, 2010 at 6:40 pm

    @Soleil – I think it’s the same everywhere. I must admit that when tourist in Paris ask me for directions because I seem to speak French, I get a bit annoyed after the 50th tourist (plus, I’m a tourist too, I have no idea where is whatever they are looking for!). But in Nantes, I’m super nice with tourists who are generally more polite and more curious about French culture.

    @Max Coutinho – I’m glad you has a good experience in France! The ones who complain the most about the French are the Americans, which let me to believe it was just a big cultural misunderstanding.

    @Yogi – I think you are spot on. Different regions/ countries treat people differently.

    @Delph – Nan, c’est clair que pour certaines vendeuses (ou vendeurs) en France, y’a des claques qui se perdent!

    @Poem – Really? I don’t see many French in Ottawa so I don’t notice it. Maybe in Montreal, where they are so many French immigrants…

    @Pauline – I always hear Canadians complaining about rude people in Toronto, and I have always had good experiences there. Funny! Politeness is very subjective after all.

    @khengsiong – I think we consider them polite because they apologize a lot etc. but I’m sure I would experience a culture shock in Japan too.

    @Lizz – I don’t know any Philippino (other than through blogs!) but the idea of meeting friendly people makes me wanna go there!

    @Sidney – Eh eh 😆

    @Kim: kiwi in France – I think being rude is a pre-requisite to work at any French embassy around the world. Each time I had to visit the French embassy, I met rude people!

    @Em – I agree with you, I also find Canadians pretty helpful, including in big cities like Toronto. And bad customer service in France really annoys me… unfortunately, there isn’t much to do!

    @DianeCA – Yes, indeed, French are expert at greeting and they certainly respect foreigners who can say “bonjour”, “au revoir” and “s’il vous plaît”! People in Southern French are said to be very welcoming.

  15. micki September 4, 2010 at 1:44 am

    Thanks for your observation and sharing! I did not find French were rude while I was there, but I was there only a few days. However, I did find that French do not smile as much as Americans..

  16. Linguist-in-Waiting September 4, 2010 at 2:06 pm

    Great article. And as always, I like your observation that these clashes are just the result of different cultural aspects that don’t necessarily match up with one’s own.

  17. shionge September 5, 2010 at 9:24 pm

    What a great post Zhu 😀 Having visited Paris thrice, we had our fair share of ‘rude’ French but apart from Paris itself, we have visit Bordeaux and that’s a different story all together 😀

    We felt the most intimated when we were taking the subway but during our last trip, we bought a French language tape and all of us learned to speak basic French and once we do that, viola!!! Seems like everyone is much nicer to us.

    I love Paris!!! 😀

  18. London Caller September 7, 2010 at 4:53 am

    >Chinese kick ass at math tests…

    Ha ha… Me too! Do you think this is genetics?!
    I got A1 in Maths for my O Levels.
    But you know what, I have forgotten all the formulae now…
    Though I hate Trigonometry the most!

  19. Tanya September 7, 2010 at 7:35 pm

    Great post. I have a different take on the rude question. I think it’s a question of social harmony – do a people value it or not? French people don’t highly value social harmony, so they push to get on the bus and you have to fight with them to get the correct information, for example at the train station. When I go back to Minnesota I see how much the people of my home state value social harmony. They strive for everyone to get along and to not have conflict and so they don’t push to grab and protect their territory and try their hardest to get you the right information. It’s more important that everyone get along, even if it’s just on the surface. Or am I imagining things?

  20. Jorge Miyashiro September 10, 2010 at 6:17 pm

    Hi Zhu!
    i’m big fan of your blog! This post is superb!
    Years ago, I’ve been in Porto by 3th time. I got upset with portuguese manners. With prejudice that suffer all foreigner in other country, even tourist. I’m brazilian with japanese face, so, decided answer to anyone portuguese with rude manner from now will deal. But the first people ask me were some two old french guys:
    – Óu est le…
    – Je ne parle pas françáis! I cried and left all shamed for annoyed with them.
    As you see, brazilians aren’t ever happy people too!

  21. Rich B September 11, 2010 at 10:27 am

    I find it really interesting these little cultural differences!
    Americans tend to think that Chinese (and asians in general) to be very “proper” but I saw this article and it made me laugh.
    I originally saw it in the ottawa citizen and thought “wow, China has rednecks too!” spitting on the ground, wearing pajamas in public! Hilarious!


    My wife thinks folks from Quebec are rude. She has the idea that they’re either A. talking about her rudely or B. trying to make her life more difficult. I told her neither of these is true.
    I’m new here, but I’m thinking they are just keeping some french attributes you have mentioned here.

    The only thing I can’t stand is cutting in line/queue- I can’t tell you the number of times it happens to me in Canada. By everybody!
    I have three kids to watch and every place we go, there’s always somebody somebody (or their whole family!) cutting me after I’ve been waiting 30 minutes for whatever (tickets, food whatever).
    I usually call these people out. Canadians are some of the most polite folks on earth but they love to cut! (my favorite is in traffic- where getting in front of you as fast as possible will allow them to get to their destination exactly 0.02 miliseconds faster!)

    talk to you soon!

  22. Fariha September 4, 2012 at 6:49 am

    I do feel, however, that most French people have a problem with queuing. I have seen them cutting lines several times. I don’t know. Maybe it’s because I’m short, which is why they don’t see me standing in front of them 😛

    1. Zhu September 5, 2012 at 10:49 pm

      No, you are absolutely right, French do skip lines a lot… and they pretend they don’t see you. I sometime feel invisible too, and I can tell you that at 5’7 (1.70 m) I am not 😆

      Thank you for your comment!


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