It happens all the time. Someone you know will visit France and though they might rave about the country, the food, the sights, they rarely give a shining review of the people. The reality is not that the French are terrible people; they just have some basic cultural differences that Americans perceive as rude.
Yes, it is true that most of the French are bilingual and that second language is most often English. However, many will opt not to accommodate you through the language barrier. No, they don’t enjoy torturing you. Well, not all of them. The reality is that you are in France and the language spoken there is in fact French. Put yourself in their shoes and have them in America demanding you help them in French. Even if they speak English, it is rude of us to assume that they can or will in their own country. The secret is to attempt to speak French right out of the gate. I know that it can be embarrassing to fumble through a foreign language, but they will appreciate the effort and most likely switch to English if they can. Just knowing the words for “hello,” “goodbye,” “please,” and “thank you,” can be enough to break the barrier, get a smile, and a quick switch to English. Though I do warn you, the word for “goodbye” in French is translated as “Adieu,” which for the French is a more final and often rude way of parting. It is a word you might use as your current boyfriend/girlfriend becomes your ex. This is a tidbit the French translation books fail to mention. The less formal “Au revior,” is more polite and accepted within the general population.
Commonalities versus Differences
As Americans it is our habit to seek out common ground with someone new, which gives you something to enjoy together, agree upon, and talk about. It makes sense, find something you share, discuss it, and everyone feels good, right? This is not at all true for the French. In fact, they enjoy the exact opposite-disagreement. The French have been debating passionately in pubs and cafes since the day they could talk. To them finding a difference and discussing it at length and in ever increasing volumes is enjoyable. It doesn’t imply a dislike for the person, or even necessarily their opinion (depending on the topic, of course). Instead, this is how they relate to each other. So when you find yourself talking to the French and you attempt to find common ground and they disagree at length with everything you say, they are not being rude or difficult or any other expletive you might attach to their behavior. The truth is they are attempting to relate and enjoy your company according to their social rules, which are unfortunately the direct opposite of yours. So, take a deep breath, listen to their opinion, find something you are passionate about, and leap into a debate. You may just find yourself having fun and even more odd will be when they offer to buy you a drink for your willingness to disagree.
Eye Contact versus Staring
In France you might just find yourself ducking an unfaltering stare by many of the people around you. It can be disturbing to have men and women alike unabashedly examine you top to bottom and then dare to maintain eye contact if you catch them. Very disturbing. The interesting thing is that as Americans we have multiple rules about observing other people openly and maintaining eye contact. It is probably our Puritan heritage, but we are taught to hide our interest in someone else, or to avert our eyes if they catch us looking. Even for eye contact with someone you know there is a few seconds difference between friendly eye contact and hostility. Our interpreted intent can flip in the blink of an eye (forgive the pun). The French, on the other hand, have no such issues. It is perfectly acceptable to look, admire, or downright stare at anyone. This doesn’t indicate like or dislike, just some sort of passing interest in your appearance. It can be very hard to adjust to the scrutinizing eyes of the French, but if you just realize that there is no hostility in their stares you can move past it easier. Even better, you can join them and enjoy a good stare at anyone that catches your eye with no repercussions.
You see, the French aren’t really being rude, not according to their culture. In fact, many of the behaviors that American’s take affront to are welcoming or complimentary actions according to French culture. If someone French is trying to bait you into a debate they may be making an overture of friendship. While being stared at in the States can imply derision or hostility for the French it is just a sign of interest. Interest in something you are wearing, the way you look, or in you. When traveling abroad you should approach visiting other countries as you would visiting someone else’s house. Keep in mind that they have different rules than you do, be respectful of their customs, and as long as you are under their roof, follow their lead. It might feel strange at first, but chances are you will learn new things about them and most importantly, about you.