As a visitor to Paris, you will either have an amazing time or you will hate it. Paris has singular charm still remains untouched. Parisians, on the other hand, can be rude and rather impatient at times, and give off an attitude.
There is a syndome known as the Paris syndrome, where expectations of the beautiful “City of Lights” simply don’t match reality. Like the picture above which looks gorgeous at first, but when you look closely you notice all the graffiti.
So specifically, it is local Parisians that don’t match expectations, since I highly doubt that it was a tourist tagging that wall. French people have a reputation for being unfriendly, rude, and unclean, and this is especially the case in larger touristic cities. No one wants to be asked directions to the Eiffel Tower several times during a single day.
But in our defense (because I too am now a Parisian after living here 10+ years), there are certain behaviours that tend to set the locals off and can usually be spotted a mile away.
Now, I should point out that this is changing. The Paris mayor’s office has even launched an ad campaign imploring locals to be more polite. From taxi drivers and waiters, to tourist offices and shopkeepers, we are all being asked to put on our best foot forward.
And with more and more full-time international residents, multinational companies and startups moving to Paris, there is a more cosmopolitan, friendlier vibe.
But the stereotype of the rude Parisian remains. So let’s see what behaviours tend to antagonize all those cranky French people, shall we? Allons-y!
1. Not saying bonjour
Now the basics first: the number one reason French people get cranky is when people (aka tourists) forget to say “bonjour”, before launching into a subject. Whether you are in a shop, on a street, meeting a friend, etc. there is an entire bonjour greeting ritual that has to be respected.
I’ve seen many a French person roll their eyes when someone, usually a foreigner, has walked into a store and started asking about a particular item, without first smiling and saying bonjour. It starts the entire discussion on a back foot, and makes everything much harder.
And if you are in France for business, there is an entire work etiquette to be respected as well. From occasions calling for a handshake or cheek kisses, this is not something to be taken lightly.
So next time you enter a shop in Paris, or anywhere else in France, start with “bonjour”. It goes a LONG way.
2. Saying No
One reason foreigners often think that French people are rude is whenever they ask a question, the default answer from the Frenchie is always “No”.
That one word “no” could encompass any of the following:
- no, I don’t know how to help you
- no, I don’t want to change
- no, I’m not allowed to help you
That reflexive instinct to say no is a default position and immediately invites the other person to start a debate as to why “x should be possible”.
This debate is inherent in French culture, and is just the way to express opinions and talk things through. It doesn’t necessarily mean that the person is rude, just that you have to politely go through all the possibilities for why you are getting a “no”, until you find the real cause to address.
This can be annoying and make the blood boil, but it likely isn’t personal and both locals and tourists will get the same response. As long as you keep your cool, you should be fine.
Either way, there is an expression in French: “Jamais deux, sans trois”, meaning “never twice, without 3 times”. It means if you have to do something at least twice, you will actually have to try three times. French pessimism at its maximum.
3. Small talk
Another thing that makes tourists think Parisians are rude is that they simply don’t do small talk. If you are waiting in line, on the metro, etc. you will not see people make eye contact to start a discussion.
Now, I would argue that this is just like any big city, like New York or London. People are in a hurry and don’t have time to stop and have a chat.
It seems odd to strike up conversations with a stranger, and rather like invading someone’s personal space, so this is something we simply don’t do in Paris.
You could be browsing in a shop for 10 minutes, but don’t expect to be asked how it is going or if you need help. French sales people rarely work on commission or tips, and will leave you to yourself.
It is not about being rude, but rather the assumption is that if you need help, you will ask. The fake friendliness that you see in North America is simply not a thing in France.
5. Rude Waiters
One of the big French stereotypes is that or rude waiters in restaurants. Don’t expect a “how is your meal”, “do you need more bread“, etc. In addition, the waiter will only pour your wine or water initially, and not throughout the meal. In addition, you might be greeted with a scowl if you try to change your meal too much from how it is described on the menu.
From a North American perspective, this seems rude. However, we should note that French waiters are not working for tips and already earn a proper wage. Hence there is no need for this type of “triple-checking”, this is simply the style of service here.
This is even more important if you are dining “en tête à tête” (face to face with someone else, rather than by yourself), the French dislike having their discussion interrupted. The intimacy of the dinner takes precedence.
In addition, you may notice that you have to flag down the waiter to bring you the bill. In fact, you may have to do it a couple of times, before the waiter brings it to you. This is because depending on the casual level of the restaurant, most French people get up to pay the bill at the bar counter.
And again, waiters in France are not expecting large tips. So there is no pressure to turn the table over to a new diner. Clients are allowed to enjoy their meal and dawdle as they want. You can read more French dining etiquette here.
So it may not really be a secret, but French people like to complain. Praise is rare, while complaining is not. It may strike you as rather rude, to hear a French person complaining about something you find rather innocuous, but rest assured it isn’t particularly exceptional.
This is partially the fault of the French education system, where grades given are low and a 14/20 is considered “a great mark”. This type of negatively and finding fault goes back to the instinctive “no” that is so common here.
7. Driving and Road Rage
Walking through the streets of Paris, you may have noticed a lot of rude drivers. Drivers that plough zebra crossings, do the “french kiss” while parking, honking, etc.
I will admit, driving in Paris is a bit of a nightmare, given the amount of roads under construction, detours, traffic jams, etc. It is not just a Paris thing, however. Swearing and insulting one another is an art form in France.
And if you are driving on a highway in France, you too are going to be cranky. In North America, we are taught defensive driving, where you minimize changing lanes to reduce accidents. French law, however, says that when driving, the priority is to move back to the right as soon as possible. And there are fines for not staying on the right, unless passing.
This means cars in France will ping-pong across the highway like hyperactive bunnies, even if there is no urgency to change lanes. In addition, drivers will aggressively come quite close behind you, especially if you are driving on the left, to get you to move.
Is this rude? Perhaps, but it is the law. You can read more about French driving laws here.
8. Speaking French
Now, if we are looking for things that French people find rude, it would be tourists who don’t say bonjour, and then launch into a topic in English. If you are trying to antagonize a French shopkeeper into being rude to you, this is the way to go.
Even if you don’t speak French, you will be expected to ask politely “Parlez-vous anglais?” meaning “do you speak English?” before continuing.
Most French people do speak a certain level of English, although they are loathe to admit it. I’ve noticed that it mostly comes down to a fear of not sounding perfect (i.e. without an accent). Perhaps your French is better than their English, you will just have to test it out to find out!
9. Frequent visitors
On a positive note, French people tend to be quite accomodating to those who they see often, aka les habitués. Even if you don’t speak French, or forget to say the odd bonjour, if you are a regular in the neighborhood, you will likely be greeted warmly.
There are several people in my neighborhood whose names I don’t know just crossing on the street, and yet we always nod and smile. Local boucheries (butcher shops) will give you choice cuts of meats, the farmer at the Sunday market will give you the ripest tomatoes, etc.
To be clear, there is still a distance in that you won’t be asked about your personal life. French people don’t easily share details like that. There are a lot of topics that are conversationally off-limits in France, but you will get a friendly acknowledgement and assistance.
10. Making friends
Expats and foreigners living in France may tell you that it is quite difficult to make friends. It is not a question of rudeness, just that a lot of French people consider their best friends to be people from school or people that they have known for a very long time. And it becomes quite hard to break into those circles.
But, I think in general it becomes harder to make friends anywhere, the older we get. That college party where one makes friends easily gets much harder once you are 30+ and only meeting coworkers. Which is not to say it isn’t possible, but it can feel like much more of an effort if you have the added complication that French isn’t your first language.
11. Paris vs. Province
The difference between Paris and Province (i.e. the countryside) is the difference between New York and Ohio. As in, you cannot judge all of France based on Paris.
If you are in the French countryside in a little village, you may find that things run slower and people are in less of a hurry. They may be more likely to provide assistance and make allowances. As with everything, it depends on the day and mood of the person in front of you.
One thing that is always considered offensive and discourteous, even to French people is the level of uncleanliness that you find in a big city like Paris.
Even with city services cleaning twice a week, you will still find dog owners not picking up after their dogs and trash on the ground. Not to mention the unsightly cigarette butts.
It is getting better, especially since this is something that both locals and visitors expect from the City of Lights (and Romance). Certain tourist zones are hosed down and cleaned daily. But as in any city this size, this unsavory part of Paris can always be improved.
Now, regardless of all the discussion of whether French people are rude or not, you are not going to enjoy your time in France if you have been robbed. It will change your view of any country, regardless of anything else.
And unfortunately, scam artists, pickpocketing, beggars soliciting, etc. is all very common in Paris. People on the metro are usually the top target, since everyone is in close quarters, but really, it could happen anywhere. So keep your eyes open, leave your valuables at home and exert precautions. We don’t want to spoil that lovely holiday in France, after all!
If you enjoyed that article, you may enjoy reading more about the ups and downs of living in Paris. A bientôt!