Everyone knows that Parisians are rude, right? It's admittedly a stereotype that even French people outside the big capital tend to fiercely cling onto. If you ask residents of Toulouse, Nantes, or Lyon, they may likely respond with a little knowing smile and a dramatic sigh if you ask them what they think of the capital city, even going so far as to comment: "I can't stand it there! People are so snobby, stressed, and rude!"
Why, then, is it important to challenge what seems to be common knowledge even among French compatriots, and sometimes even noted by Parisians themselves? Well, as we explain in our amusing look at the most common stereotypes about Paris, the concept of "rudeness" itself is, to a large degree, culturally relative.
This interesting Guardian article explores, for example, how the idea of Paris' "rude" restaurant service comes down, more often than not, to cultural misunderstandings: while Americans are used to servers coming to ask how they are every five minutes, French people tend to prefer to be left alone to eat their meal. They especially don't like to be given the bill before they've asked for it, feeling as if they're being pushed out by the servers.
Let's not kid ourselves: sometimes service really is rude. And tourists have the right to expect basically courteous treatment from servers, shop owners, or information bureau staff. If you're insulted, left to wait for hours without service, or refused service for dubious reasons, feel free to complain.
But more often than not, there's a grey area that needs to be better defined. Rudeness is sometimes a question of perception, and learning some basic cultural conventions and attitudes common in Paris can go a long way in smoothing your experience. Our bottom line? If you're anxious about suffering from unfriendly service in Paris and want to learn how to navigate some typical cultural exchanges in restaurants, shops, and in the streets, read on.
In contrast to the US, the UK, and even European countries like Spain where the informal "tu" is the norm, in Paris and the rest of France, formal greetings are widely used and considered part of polite behavior. Whether you're ordering a croissant from a Parisian bakery, requesting maps or advice from a staff member in a local tourist office, or asking for directions in the street, always begin your exchanges with "Bonjour, Madame", or "Bonjour, Monsieur" (I don't generally recommend "Mademoiselle" for younger women, as some find it condescending or presumptuous). Use these Every. Single. Time.
Why? If you don't open your exchange with this basic polite greeting, your Parisian server or street goer will likely perceive YOU as rude. So don't be surprised if someone responds in a clippy or irritated tone when you charge right up to him or her and say "Hi, gimme a croissant" or even a more polite "Excuse me, how do you get to the Eiffel Tower?" without saying "Bonjour" or "Excusez-moi, Monsieur?"
You might retort that French people should know some English. And of course, most do. But, really, how hard is it to learn a few basic polite greetings in French? It's a small but significant sign of respect for your host culture, and a signal that you've taken some time to get to know something about general local etiquette ahead of your visit.
We all but guarantee that your experience will be at least a bit friendlier if you follow this rule. Unless, of course, you have bad luck and run into a series of angry and grouchy types (who'd probably exhibit similar personality traits whether they lived in Paris or New York).
Another source of cultural misunderstanding that leads many to assume that Paris is plagued by an incorrigibly rude service culture? Standards for good service in restaurants, cafes and bars are often just different in France.
While Americans, for example, are accustomed to servers coming by every five minutes to fill water glasses and cheerily ask whether the meals are up to snuff, French people generally like to be given space and time to eat and converse without too many interruptions. You can expect your server to come by several times over the course of the meal to clear plates, bring your next course, and fulfill any requests you may have, but aside from asking, "C'est terminé?" (Have you finished?), they'll rarely make small talk, and may not offer beaming smiles.
They generally also leave a bit of a gap between courses, to allow time to digest and properly enjoy your meal. French people tend to take more time during restaurant outings: unless you've been waiting hours for some attention, try to enjoy the experience rather than huff and sigh about the slow service.
Read related feature: Words and Phrases to Use in Paris Restaurants
Another major cultural difference? In most instances, servers will not bring you your bill automatically. To do so would in fact be seen as an incredibly rude gesture, since for the French it implies they want you to clear your table as soon as possible to let the next customers take it.
While some tourists might find service slow or aloof, in short, some of the behaviors you might associate with coldness or even rudeness are in fact seen as a part of normal, courteous service in France. So don't deprive your server of a tip just because he or she didn't grant you a wide smile and coo at your baby. A bit of professional distance is seen as appropriate in the French service industry.
Read related: How to Tip in Paris?
Don't expect everything to operate like it does in your home country
You're used to having non-Dijon mustard on your favorite baguette sandwich, but the bakery doesn't have French's mustard (a big misnomer, of course, since it ain't French, kids.) Even more infuriatingly, they don't make sandwiches to order: you'll have to be happy with the ones they already have out. Your children like to eat fish sticks for lunch and dinner, but the supposedly child-friendly brasserie outside your hotel only has pasta and hamburgers to offer young eaters (Read related: Visiting Paris With Kids). You're used to clerks in American department stores beelining across the room to help you find your size when you look like you've been searching for a while, but in Paris, the staff remain aloof and distant behind cashiers. When in the Paris metro, you try to strike up a conversation with a woman about her cute grandchild, only to have her briefly smile and brusquely turn away, just as you were trying to tell her about your own adorable 6-year old granddaughter...
What gives? What have you done wrong? Why can't things be just like they are at home?
The first step here is to breathe. Remember that travel isn't just about visiting glorious historical attractions and enjoying foreign cuisine. It's about being immersed in an entirely different place, with a whole set of different assumptions about how the world should work, and strangely alien conventions and rules. Part of the fun of travel is learning to adapt, to see that your own assumptions and rules, including what makes a good sandwich, how store owners should respond to your presence, and how children should behave in public, are in fact culturally relative.
Read related: Top 10 Most Annoying Things About Paris
Ok. Have you caught your breath? Now, rather than getting upset that things aren't exactly as they are at home, enjoy the adventure of being somewhere remarkably different. In this age of globalization and corporate sameness, that's a pretty exciting thing.
Read related: How to Find Unique Gifts From Paris
Don't ask strangers personal questions, or chat their ear off unless encouraged
This tip is related to a point made in the previous one. While in many cultures, gabbing with strangers is considered perfectly normal and even desirable, Parisians tend to be a bit more reserved. They are generally friendly and polite when approached with a practical question (assuming you use those basic French greetings we talk about in item #1), and it's common to observe locals go way out of their way to give directions, help visitors find the perfect restaurant, or give advice on which metro line to take. They're less enthusiastic about hearing your life story, however interesting you may feel it to be; and they certainly will be taken aback if you start asking them personal questions. Unless your interlocutor invites you to lunch and initiates a more personal conversation, don't ask him or her where they live. Don't ask them about their religion, political beliefs, or whether French people "really" hate Americans (most really don't). It's fine to ask for advice on their favorite bakery or museum. But stay away from divulging your soul, or asking them to do the same.
Let's face it: empowered and informed visitors are more likely to enjoy their trip, understand the context of the place they're visiting, and in turn feel more relaxed and in control. By visiting one of the city's many tourist information centers at the beginning of your trip, you can talk to one of the (usually very friendly) staff members about any special needs or concerns you may have, give you maps and other documents to help guide you in your stay, and offer advice on how to handle any problems (or at least direct you to the right service).
Some of the welcome centers' city guides and maps can be downloaded online here.
On a related note, read our guide to staying safe in Paris. Nothing's ruder than getting pickpocketed or being harassed while traveling solo as a woman. Take our advice on how to avoid these unpleasant experiences during your stay, and take care.