Demystifying the French: Tip #1

April 22, 2012 at 2:57 pm 2 comments

Today’s tip is THE MOST IMPORTANT thing anyone going to France can possibly know. It will make more of a difference in how well you are treated there, and the quality of your social interactions in France than most Americans would believe possible, and it is so very simple to do!

Tip #1. Instead of smiling, say Bonjour!

Better yet, say “Bonjour, Madame” (or M’sieur). And don’t forget to also say “Au revoir” as you are leaving.

It is really hard for Americans to understand how very important this simple act can be. But really, remembering to properly greet (and say goodbye to) the people that you encounter in your daily rounds in France is incredibly important.

This means EVERYONE. The cop you ask for directions on the street. The monsieur or madame at the drive-through window in a “MacDo’s” (McDonald’s). Even the security guard at the airport who you are asking an urgent question in an attempt to avoid missing your plane. OBVIOUSLY the people who serve you in the patisserie, boulangerie, etc., etc., etc.

It’s just part of treating someone like a human being, in France.

Americans tend to smile as a way to convey the information that we are friendly, polite people who mean no harm.

But this smiling-at-a-stranger does no good at all in France, because smiling has an entirely different meaning there, as Polly Platt explained in her very helpful book, French or Foe? Getting the Most out of Visiting, Living and Working in France. In this book she quoted her French son-in-law expressing a typical French point of view on the matter. “When I am introduced to another man, if he smiles, I think one of three things: he is making fun of me, he is hypocritical, or he is very stupid. If it’s a woman there’s a fourth possibility–she wants to flirt.”

People (including French people) do change over time, manners and habits evolve, and many people who notice these things say that the French are lightening up a little bit in this regard, and changing their ways. Consequently, some of the things Polly Platt wrote back in 1994 when French or Foe was first published may be a bit outdated today.

Still. Don’t count on your dazzling smile to charm the French the way it charms fellow Americans.

If, on the other hand, you can manage to remember to begin each social interaction in France with a proper greeting (“Bonjour, Monsieur,” ) and end the encounter with a proper farewell, (“Au revoir, Madame,” ) you will find yourself feeling instantly and astonishingly more at ease in France, while contributing to an improvement in the reputation of Americans in France. Not bad for a few simple little words!

Janet Hulstrand is a writer, editor, writing coach, and teacher of writing and literature who divides her time between France and the United States. She teaches literature courses in Paris every summer for the Education Abroad program at Queens College, CUNY, and Writing from the Heart workshops in Essoyes, a beautiful little village in the Champagne region. A slightly edited and revised version of this post has now been published in her book, Demystifying the French: How to Love Them, and Make Them Love You

This post was originally published in 2012. Revised and updated July 18, 2019.

Entry filed under: About France, About Travel, Demystifying the French. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , .

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. facilitutors  |  May 28, 2012 at 1:40 pm

    Very sound advice Janet. I’m big on smiles and I think French men do take it as come on, but I can’t do the stoney face thing. My tip apart from the greeting is, if you haven’t understood something that is said to you in French, is to say “Comment?”, so they will say it again and you get a second chance to catch it.

    • 2. Janet Hulstrand  |  June 13, 2012 at 1:17 pm

      Thanks, Wendy! I always tell my students that it’s not really that you shouldn’t smile, you just shouldn’t expect smiling to mean the same thing in France that it does in the U.S. 🙂 Or in Britain, I guess!

      There have been some very funny things written about what can happen when you don’t really understand what’s going on in a French conversation. One is by my friend Adrian Leeds in her piece “How to Fake Speaking French” (“One way is to respond to whatever someone says with “Ah, bon?” And then, they just continue on saying whatever they were saying and you continue saying “Ah, bon?” until you both say “Au revoir.” It works…for a while…”)

      Another is in one of David Sedaris’s very funny essays about learning to speak French, in which he shows what can happen when you just keep saying “D’accord…” and all kinds of crazy things begin to happen…I can’t remember the name of that essay, does anyone out there know what I’m talking about?


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