I have lost track of the number of times I have seen the question put out there ‘Why aren’t the French Friendly’? Or the other version ‘How come the French are so unfriendly’? Even sometimes a blanket statement ‘the French are not friendly’ or even rude.
When I see this, as someone who now lives in France and is coming to understand my newly adopted countryfolk better and better, I try always to reply to these questions or comments. In fact this post was prompted by seeing this sort of comment on one of my favourite What it’s like to live in France channels Janice in France. (About an older American woman’s journey to move here.) I replied to that comment, but realised what I really should do is write about it more in-depth for others questioning too.
So are the French not Friendly?
The answer is the same for everywhere, there are friendly people. And not friendly people. I have travelled much of the world and the higher percentage is of friendly people by far, in any country. Of course, there is the odd not nice person. But a single country doesn’t hold the monopoly. And that includes France.
I can say categorically, yes the French are friendly.
But. What prompts this question coming up time and time again is people comparing the French friendliness with what the are used to in their own country.
English versus French
It hasn’t escaped my attention that most often this question comes from Americans, but I won’t leave out the other English speaking countries. There are two reasons the French can come across as rude when looking at it from a native English speaker.
One: If you are trying to speak English to a French person, in France, you are the one being rude. Or if you like, not friendly. There is this weird supposition by English speakers that everyone speaks, or should speak, English. And this is simply not the case.
Imagine it in reverse. You are in your own (English speaking) country. A French person comes up to you and asks you, in French, for directions to somewhere. You don’t speak French. What do you do?
Most likely you will shrug your shoulders as you don’t understand. You may mumble back to them in English, saying you don’t understand. But in general you are not going to be helpful, or come across particularly as friendly, simply because you can’t help them.
Much of the concept of the French being ‘rude’ actually stems from the fact they may not speak your language, eg understand you when you speak to them in another language. (If you would like an opportunity to delve into French rudeness, in French, have a read of Comme Une Francaise’s ‘Are French People Rude?’)
Two: Their history and thus their culture is different from yours. Don’t underestimate how much this impacts on how you see things and how others do what they do. My favourite example – air conditioning. There is an expectation of pouring out cold air in the hot months in most homes and businesses in the USA. Not so in France.
The French don’t in general subscribe to air conditioning. It’s felt to be bad for your health. What’s different here is that walls are stone or brick and thicker, keeping interiors more consistent in temperature. And shutters are used at windows and doors to regulate temperatures, by opening or closing to keep sun out or let it in. (More on Shutters in France.)
Circling back to French friendliness, I have often heard the comment that the French don’t smile. They don’t greet you or say hello with a smile. There is some accuracy in this, but it is not completely true. Rather and more specifically, they aren’t brought up to smile at strangers, eg people they don’t know. It’s just not done in France. Smiles are reserved for friends and happy moments.
The word stranger is intertwined with the word strange, in English and French. So there is a cautious sense in France about strangers. Not to exclude or even ignore, but at the same time not greeted like a long lost friend that you have never actually met. I have lived in the USA and now live in France, and culturally, when it comes to smiling at first time encounters these two countries are complete opposites.
Yet, at the same time, if you are in need of assistance, have a question (and do your best to ask it in French) then people are very helpful here. They will often go out of their way to help you. Just don’t expect a smile as part of that helping package.
Don’t confuse a lack of smiling as not being friendly. Friendliness certainly exists in France. It is rife with it. But smiles are reserved for friends.
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