Gurdon: Three words to crack the code of French rudeness 

It’s a truth universally acknowledged that Parisians are rude. Those who interact with tourists are widely understood to be the rudest of all, what with their hauteur and their froideur and the reluctance of the waiters and shopkeepers among them to crack even the wintriest smile at American visitors.

Scowling salespeople and snooty waiters are not pleasant, but they seem to be the price one must pay to experience the culinary and architectural grandeur of the French capital.

Embedded in this common understanding is, alas, a lot of self-serving smugness. Americans who travel to France generally go because they want to (at least nowadays). Consequently, we tend to believe ourselves to be suffused with good will toward Paris and its people.

Furthermore, we Americans carry with us an informality of manners that we regard as one of our most endearing national characteristics. We may not have fancy etiquette or continental suavity, but, by God, we’re easygoing and friendly!

So it stings when a waiter curls his lip at us. We are annoyed when a shopkeeper answers our tentative French question with a disdainful answer in English. We don’t like it. We complain to our friends. And in this way the broad consensus about Parisian insolence is reinforced, visit after visit, decade after decade.

But what if (as someone once said) everything we know is wrong? What if it’s not Parisians who are rude, but we who visit them? What if the disgusted French facial expressions that tourists endure are a reasonable reaction to bad treatment at the hands of unwitting foreigners?

Reader, it is! I’d heard there might be a way to crack the code of French rudeness six years ago, when Julie Barlow and Jean-Benoit Nadeau published their wonderful exploration of French society, “Sixty Million Frenchmen Can’t Be Wrong.” This past week, I finally had a chance to try out certain magic words.

The words themselves are laughably simple, being the basic vocabulary of “bonjour,” “merci” and “au revoir” (in other words: good day, thanks and bye).

The key is to use them constantly, with every interaction — and I am here to report that the effect is nothing short of transformative.

Say “bonjour” when you encounter a French waiter, taxi driver or shopkeeper, and the most amazing thing happens: Cold visages break into warm smiles.

Amiable crinkles appear at the corners of forbiddingly smooth temples. And a visitor’s fumbling French queries are returned in the same language. Armed with the magic words, in my four days in Paris I met with nothing but cordiality.

As Barlow and Nadeau explain, the enduring stereotype of the rude Parisian springs from the fact that Americans and the French have different concepts of public and private space.

In the U.S., we regard stores as public spaces where we can come and go without obligation. In France, a shop is regarded as an extension of the proprietor’s home.

A Parisian would no more silently enter a neighborhood shop, finger the merchandise and walk out without comment than we would march into a stranger’s living room, poke around and exit without a word while they stand there open-mouthed at our rude intrusion. So when American tourists wander into French shops without greeting the staff, we’re behaving unbelievably impolitely.

All this is not to excuse our continental friends from occasionally exuding irksome Gallic superiority, but at least in the realm of manners, it is rather nice (and rather humbling) to realize that we visitors can resist the typecasting of people who are simply living according to their culture.

Examiner columnist Meghan Cox Gurdon is a former foreign correspondent and a regular contributor to the books pages of The Wall Street Journal.


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