When I used to work in a very international market in the heart of London, I was often told that the British peoples are too polite- for some this was a beautiful thrill of elegance, while for others this was little more than the quintessence of a fake interaction. I realise that not every nation will apologize (and I still have no idea why) to inanimate objects when they walk into them. There are some benches in the heart of our cities that are so blessed with ‘oh sorry’ that they should be granted with a special status. We have this inbuilt, autonomous reaction to touching things unwarranted, or disturbing someone unintentionally, or the thought of disappointing our elders, that instantly the word parts from our lips without even our desire or knowledge at times. So, in comparison then….. are the French rude?
Picture this. I arrive at the Gare du Nord in the centre of the Northern side of Paris, laden with all the belongings that I have cared to traverse with me on this next adventure- in fact, around 20kg in my rucksack and another 20kg in the suitcase. Rose tinted glasses over the streets of the city, but a preconception of the rude inherent nature of the French peoples still ingrained in my own heart. With a few hours to kill before my first accommodation, I set out to walk the hour journey to the centre of the Southern side- which turned into 2 hours with my cases in the 34° heat!
My spoken French is worse than that of a three year old when I am sober; but yes, after a few glasses of wine I can communicate as if I had no problems, relatively speaking. I walked into a Tabac to get some cigarettes and water and with my broken French I came out successful. The lady was patient, could see I was trying and so did not speed me out of the door. My smile was too good!
I continue walking and stop to get some breath. “Excusez-moi Monsieur, est-ce que vous avez besoin d’aide?” Panic engulfs my sleepy, fatigued, aching body. “Je suis si désolé monsieur, je suis anglais et si fatigué”. Boom that was good enough. With a warm smile he continues to speak to me in English, explaining the way to the road I needed to get to before wishing me a nice day.
All through the day it was the same story: stuck in a public toilet (yes, terrifying and one day I will explain why), apologise in French and they spoke to me in English saying its fine; first time in a small shop and they take their time to speak slow or make gestures so that it is easier to understand; the airbnb spoke in French slowly, or English for the important parts. So far, this French rudeness was little apparent in my interactions…. until the day after.
The Days After
I think you shall find that Paris is akin to any city when it is compared to the rest of the country. London is not the same as the Cornish countryside, nor will New York have the same manners as those who live in rural Arizona. So naturally the inhabitants will be a little more prideful, short with foreigners and have a general air of not wanting to be disturbed.
A lot of the time when Parisiens walk, they expect the world to displace themselves around them. You will be expected to move out of the way and they will never say thank you, they rarely even cast a glance in your general direction in order to acknowledge your small act of kindness. In supermarkets, there is no order. Choas is a general theme, where individuals will just expect you to move by psychically guessing their intentions to pick up something near to you; and old ladies…. the amount of times I have been standing there looking for a product that seems familiar to me and I hear ‘maintenant’ (‘now’) and a slam of a walking stick on the floor. I have no problem in displacing myself out of the way, however, this lady could simply walk around the object in her way and not treat it as one in need of discipline; excuse me goes a long way I find.
‘maintenant’ (‘now’) and a slam of a walking stickangry, rude, little French lady telling me I’m in here way
Once you start to notice the differences, then they all start to come flooding in. No recognition for individuals bumping into you, shop assistants send you away rather than help you find the item you desire, not many will actually ask if you need help- rather just stare at you if you have fallen over for example. It all can be very disdainful after a while if it continues throughout your day.
So, What do I Think?
It has now been over a week since I have been here, I would argue that is enough time to scratch the surface of the problems that have been plaguing me in regards to this preconception.
My Frenchie explains to me that cultural differences play the largest part of all. They are deep and ingrained into the culture in sometimes subtle ways; for example, the use of the words ‘s’il vous plaît’, ‘desolé’ or ‘pardon’ and ‘merci’. In French culture it is not that they are not used at all, it is that they have a stronger meaning than their counterparts across the English Chanel. When an English person wishes to say sorry for bumping into you in the street, it is not as strong as the meaning in French wherein it would be used for more serious matters. It is the same as please: my god if you have ever been to England then you know that most questions we ask will end with please, if we ever get around to actually asking them; again, the French reserve the use of the word for other occasions where they are actually really wanting the individual to do something for them.
As for the word ‘merci’… well that just seems to be a bit of a city trend. Paris is not like the rest of France and you will see various different way of reacting to you showing what is kindness from your own country; sometimes a smile, sometimes a ‘merci’ or more often just the city persona taking over and a complete lack of regard for your existence.
I can say from personal experience however, that in situations of communication I have not really had a problem when I approach the individual and start off with my limited French. There have been many instances where I have seen tourists from English speaking countries having little respect for the individuals to whom they speak, simply just expecting them to speak English. Do not get me wrong, the French actually love to practice their English with you; just saying a ‘Bonjour’ or ‘Excusez-moi, je suis perdu.e’ will produce a huge difference in the reaction that you receive, compared to loudly approaching them speaking English and demanding that they conform to a language that is not natively their own.
Maybe in a month or two my opinions will change, but for now I have only a grudge against the persona of a city individual, as well as that old lady, rather than the French themselves. I wonder if anyone else has any opinions as such?
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