You hear it time and time again: "The French are so rude!" Before ever setting foot in France, you hear the horror stories of rude French waiters who turn their nose up at anybody and everybody. You hear about snooty Parisians who refuse to give directions or just French people in general who turn up their nose at Americans.
Truth is not only are most French people you meet thoroughly civil, outright friendly, and kind, but they will go out of their way to help you. If you've ever been to New York City, another city with a reputation for hardened, mean residents, you'll actually find that New Yorkers bend over backward trying to interpret foreigners who can't speak a whit of English. It's the same way in France.
So when you go to France for the first time, it is almost as if you are expecting and preparing for a rude experience. You might even be looking for it. Sure, you will find nasty people there (and everywhere), but it is the exception, not the rule. Don't travel with prejudice; treat everybody as you would at home and you'll have a great vacation in France.
Funny thing about stereotypes is that they can get comfortable, particularly when you’re used to them. Some French even try to fit the stereotype. For an example, there is a brasserie near the Ecole Militaire in Paris called Thoumieux in the 7th arrondissement (district). It is quite charming and a great value, all decked out as a Parisian brasserie should be. It had a tough reputation: waiters barked at you, handed you the menu without a smile, and took your order in wooden silence. They did this to everyone.
Not just tourists. It was the modus operandi. You got used to it and it became a game to try to get the waiter to relax or crack a smile. It was sometimes successful. Interestingly, in 2013, France launched a charm campaign to erase the perception that the French are rude. Waiters there were trained to say basic greetings like bonjour or bonsoir with a smile and listen to what you were saying. The experience at Thoumieux changed. It wasn't the same. Restaurant guests missed their grumpy, but genuine, waiters.
Give Charm to Get It Back
It is no deep secret. If you want to be treated fairly, kindly, and with respect, then give it in kind. There are a few tips to follow (just as you would anywhere else in the world).
Make an Attempt in French
Try to attempt to speak French. Simply saying, "Bonjour! Parlez-vous Anglais?" (pronounced bon-jouha, pah-lay vooz ahn-glay) can work wonders. It means, "Hello. Do you speak English?" Many French who would feign ignorance suddenly speak fluent English if you just try.
Put yourself in their shoes. What would you think if a stranger walked up to you speaking a flurry of French while in your hometown and expected you to reply in their language? It can be perceived as rude or presumptuous.
Start With a Greeting
Be sure to greet strangers with "Bonjour" before launching into other requests. In France, it is considered rude to just walk up and start talking without a greeting first. Whenever you visit any foreign land, it is important to learn about the cultural differences. Many times, if a French person reacts rudely it is because you may have done something that is considered extremely rude by their standards. Know French culture and etiquette (they invented the word) before you go to avoid misunderstandings.
The French are a very hushed people in public (though when animated or excited by something they can rev up the decibels). For example, imagine the distraction of a group of tourists who barge into a restaurant, loudly shouting at one another, running around the restaurant snapping pictures of patrons, and generally being rude. This loud behavior is noticeable in France where the people are more low-key. Loud disruptions like this can ruin a restaurant's relaxed dinner-time ambiance.