Ah, Paris. Writers and filmmakers have long used the French capital as fodder, with the glittering Eiffel Tower serving as a metaphor for all that is supposedly romantic and sophisticated. At the same time, Parisians are still assumed to possess unpleasant character traits, from rudeness to laziness. But stereotypes and preconceived notions have a way of blinding travelers to cultural diversity and complexity. So while some of the myths and cliches may hold a grain of truth, they'll often simply keep you from encountering Parisian culture with an open mind.To separate the cliches from the genuine cultural differences, I and fellow adopted Parisian Courtney Traub tackle some of the most prevalent and enduring stereotypes and cliches head-on.
Find out which of these myths stubbornly endure, and why they should always be questioned.
Stereotype #1: Parisians are all rude and snobby
Courtney: This is a stereotype held by French people outside the capital, too, and it can have a grain of truth at times (though the city counts plenty of perfectly nice and friendly people). The fact is, Paris is a big metropolis, and people admittedly sometime behave in grouchy and unsociable ways here. But for every time I've encountered rudeness or brusqueness from a Parisian, I've also encountered double the number of random acts of kindness and generosity, along with affectionate teasing, cheerful banter, etc. I think you have to take Parisians on their own terms. They respond more to sincerity than they do to wide, forced smiles, and like New Yorkers, they prefer straight talk to beating around the bush. Say what you want respectfully and matter-of factly, and you're more likely to be respected. This can take some getting used to, but having a sense of self-humor and adaptability goes a long way here.
Read related: 5 Ways to Avoid "Rude" Service in Paris
Colette: I completely agree. Unlike in most big cities in America, a Parisian will go out of their way to walk you down the street to show you the store you’re looking for, or ask you with full sincerity how your day was at the neighborhood cafe. When Parisians are nice and helpful, they mean it, which is far from the truth in most American cities, where fake friendliness and plastic smiles sometimes reign. But this passion can turn aggressive if twisted the wrong way, and I’ve witnessed more most ridiculous displays of rudeness and human ugliness here than anywhere in the world. When a Parisian is in a bad mood, everyone knows it. But when they’re in a great mood, everyone knows that too. As for snobbishness, I’d say the only times I’ve seen it is after having broken some unwritten French cultural code, like eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich during my lunch break, or crunching popcorn in a movie theater.
Stereotype #2: Parisians are all Sartre-reading, chain-smoking intellectuals
Films and TV shows routinely depict Parisians as gloomy existentialist philosophers or poets who sit around all day chain-smoking in cafes and discussing politics or art. The reality?
Colette: There’s no better way to get a sampling of people than in the Paris metro. Here, instead of beret-wearing, Proust-reading philosophers, you’ll find nine out of ten people on their cell phones – playing video games and texting friends, with electro music blaring out from their headphones. However, Parisians in general still hold culture in the highest regard, and the many people who read on the metro will be privy to stolen glances by their fellow riders, who are eager to know (and perhaps judge) what is being read. Outside of the underground, you’ll always find that small smattering of Parisians who get their kicks from throwing around Sartre’s philosophies in city cafes while chain-smoking (now outside on the terrace), but the average Parisian has left their beret and big ideas at home.
Read related: Is smoking banned in Paris?
Courtney: In my experience, the three most common conversations I hear on the street, at work, or while hanging out in cafes involve real estate, family issues, and food, in no particular order. You rarely hear anyone discussing the merits of Foucault and Derrida or pondering the meaning(lessness) of existence. On the other hand, French people in general value the arts in ways I find very positive, and I've heard plumbers cite French poet Rimbaud and barmen discussing politics. It is definitely a society in which arts and "big ideas" are valued. You just don't talk about that stuff all the time.
Stereotype #3: Parisians don't (or won't) speak English
Colette: About ten years ago, this one was slightly true. But Parisians have come a long way in adapting more tourist-friendly practices, and learn English to the best of their ability. Despite their modesty and ever-present self-deprecation, most French people have a baseline knowledge of English, if not total fluency. English has become the international language, and while the French tend to get stuck in their ways, they’ve come to realize that they can’t scrimp on this one and English is here to stay. What the French still don’t like, however, is the assumption that they must speak English like you do. So when venturing out, be sure to smile big and excuse yourself before asking for those directions to Notre Dame.
Read related feature: 5 Ways to Avoid "Rude" Service in Paris
Courtney: I agree. In my experience, there' s also a big generational gap: younger Parisians have grown up under the European Union, and in a much more globalized context. As a result they more readily (and easily) speak English. I do suggest learning some basic travel French before your trip. That goes a long way in winning the locals over and showing them you respect their language and culture, even if you can't really speak French.
Stereotype #4: Parisians are all uberstylish and thin
Colette: Paris has always been considered one of the fashion capitals of the world, and in certain posh and wealthy parts of the city, this does hold true to a degree. Step into the Saint-Germain-des-Prés or Champs-Elysées neighborhoods and you might indeed wish you had left your Crocs at home and gone on that pre-vacation crash diet. But it must be remembered that the price of real estate in parts of Paris usually correlates to one's capacity to keep up with the dictates of fashion, and the ultra-posh areas are few and far between. The majority of everyday Parisians live in the more affordable outer ring neighborhoods, where rent doesn’t break the bank and getting dressed or counting calories is not a priority. One thing is true, however: while Parisians may not always be stylish and thin, they are almost never sloppy, no matter their size, age, or bank balance. Even a pair of sweatpants takes on a new meaning here. So why not put a little thought into what you put on your back before stepping out of your hotel? It's not a place to break out the oversized tee and holey jeans look.
Read related: How to transform into a Parisienne in Five Easy Steps
Courtney: I did read somewhere once that French people spend a larger amount of their income on clothes than Americans do, but I don't know how factual that was. Back when I was teaching English to business people in Paris, I was surprised to note that some of my students who couldn't be earning much above minimum wage as secretaries or receptionists always seemed to have endlessly varied and put-together wardrobes. But on the street, most Parisians just look like "normal" people, come in all shapes and sizes as anywhere else, and Fashion Week barely registers as an event for 95% of the population, despite WWD or Marie Claire proclaiming otherwise.
Stereotype #5: Parisians smell/don't bathe
Colette: I remember that ten years ago, before my first trip to Europe, I thought this one was true. I assumed that French people, in their berets and sailor-style striped shirts, recoiled at the thought of daily deodorant. Oh, how wrong I was. I’m not sure where this myth came from, but there is virtually no truth in it. French people, with their historic love of perfume, are certainly concerned about smelling nice when they walk out the door. And the only thing you could chalk up to any lingering body odor is the fact that France’s deodorants truly stink. And not in the olfactory way. They really don't work, despite their claim of sticking around for 48 hours (and who wouldn’t take a shower by then anyway, one wonders?)
Courtney: Interesting-- I never noticed anything about French deodorants being less efficient! This is a completely baseless stereotype, but I've been told that it has some history to it. Pre-World War II, Paris, like much of Europe, had very limited indoor plumbing. This meant that most Parisians did not have access to baths and showers in their homes and often had to either share bathroom facilities with neighbors, or use public bathing facilities. You can see many of these historic buildings, called les bains douches municipaux, around town to this day, and they are still used by economically underprivileged Parisians. As a result, this stereotype of bathing relatively infrequently stuck, despite Paris rapidly modernizing and becoming a center of wealth after 1945.
Stereotype #6: Parisians are all natural seducers
Colette: Who hasn’t dreamed of a dapper Frenchman, flicking his luscious locks over his ear and reciting poetry in your ear, or the ever-charming French woman, whose classic style and snobbery leaves you wanting? When you tell a French person that they are thought of the world over as some of the greatest lovers, most will laugh in your face. They can’t understand how “French kiss” has entered into the common English lexicon or why French men are considered to be romantic beyond limits. While the French do love good wine and witty conversation, their relationship habits and tribulations are virtually the same as anyone else's.
Courtney: Um, no comment. This one is just laughable.
Stereotype #7: Parisians all take alcohol-laden, two-hour lunches
Colette: If you go into France’s smaller towns, this common myth can be found to be true. But here in Paris, hardly anyone has time to take two hours to dine in the middle of the workday. More often then not, Paris is becoming more like an American city, offering expedited service or lunch deals in restaurants at noon. Fast food is also becoming increasingly popular, with the hamburger van outside my workplace seeing lines halfway down the block at lunchtime. More often than not, though, Parisians will stop into one of the many bakeries in the city, grab a sandwich and eat on the go. And what about wine? Drinking at noon is less common in the big city, but for those who choose to partake, the practice is certainly not frowned upon.
Courtney: As with so many other stereotypes on this list, there's a class factor at play here, in my opinion. I've noticed that executives and people working in the higher echelons of government or business do tend to enjoy fancy, long lunches most days-- but your average office worker or teacher takes an hour or less to eat a sandwich at their desk or chat with co-workers in the company cafeteria. One thing I do find humorous-slash-exasperating: Parisians will sometimes scold you for eating in the street. I've had people sarcastically wish me "Bon Appetit" while I unceremoniously scarfed down a sandwich and rushed to my next appointment. Decorum is still important here in ways that I, as a native Californian, sometime find excessive.
Stereotype #8: Parisians are lazy and hate working
Courtney: This one is patently untrue, but you have to throw out assumptions about what "loving work" means. Parisians do not have a Protestant work ethic that Anglo-Saxons associate with being enthusiastic about one's job. Instead, they believe there's a time and a place for everything. While they're at work, they concentrate much harder and are more efficient than Americans per work hour-- and may be the world's most productive workers, according to this study. But when they play, they play-- and guilt-free. They relish their free time, and they have lots of it-- upwards of seven weeks of paid holiday per year, for those lucky enough to have permanent contracts. So you can be jealous of the free time, but calling them lazy is simply unfounded. I still do enjoy Pink Martini's inspired song on the subject of wanting to blow off work, "Je ne veux pas travailler", but nevertheless...
Colette: It’s true that if you work for the state (in French public service workers are called fonctionnaires) and have a regular 35-hour work week, you are probably counting down every last second until you can clock out at the end of the day. In this case, one is not lazy but simply hates one’s job. This phenomenon, of course, can be found the world over. But as for everyone else – salaried, working for private companies, etc – you don’t leave work until the work is done, especially in Paris. While Parisians generally pull fewer 70-hour work weeks than the likes of New Yorkers or Tokyo-ites, they as a whole work longer days than anyone else in France. So as Courtney said, when it’s time to take a vacation, they jump at the chance and don’t think twice. Here in France, people work to live, not live to work. This appreciation of the good things in life is what makes France’s quality of life so enviable.
Stereotype #9: All Parisians hate Americans
Colette: There was admittedly a bit of animosity in the air a few years ago, during the Bush administration days and the onset of the Iraq war, when it sometimes just seemed wiser to tell Parisians that you were Canadian when out and about. These days, though, Americans are seemingly looked upon with seemingly never-ending fascination. While Parisians’ attitude towards Americans certainly swings back and forth between disgust and jealousy, to obsession and admiration, “hate” is a strong word.
Courtney: I think Parisians often pride themselves on supporting the underdog and criticizing the powers that be, so many, if not most, can be critical of American foreign policy, for instance. Also, the French, like Americans, believe in their own "exceptionalism". But they also eat out at McDonald's (locally referred to as "MAC-Do") more frequently than other Europeans, rave at any opportunity about their fantastic trip to "Le GRAHN Can-eeon" or their roamings on Route 66, flock to exhibits like the recent tribute to Bob Dylan, and love American TV shows and blockbuster summer movies like anyone else does. Someone once said that France and the US have the equivalent of a stormy but very passionate marriage, and I think there's a grain of truth there. A little rivalry and resentment? Sometimes. But lots of love and mutual admiration, too.
Stereotype #10: All Parisians are white and live somewhere near the Eiffel Tower
Courtney: I blame filmmakers like Woody Allen and his cute but ridiculously unrealistic Midnight in Paris for circulating this myth. Paris is an incredibly diverse metropolis that does include a wealthy minority, but most of the city is working class to middle class, with all skin colors represented and an incredible panoply of languages spoken. I really think it's a shame that those who depict Paris in entertainment continue to propagate a myth that all the city's inhabitants sit around drinking Dom Perignon, eating Laduree macarons and gazing out their bedroom window at the Eiffel Tower or the Arc de Triomphe. It's simply untrue. Even the beloved French film, Amelie, has rightly been accused of whitewashing the Montmartre neighborhood it's set in. The real Paris is far more interesting and diverse than these entertainment vehicles let on.
Read related: Best Unusual, off-the-beaten-track things to do in Paris
Colette: I think this myth goes further back than Woody Allen. If we look at films like “An American in Paris” with Gene Kelly or Audrey Hepburn in “Funny Face,” the glorified, romantic Paris was already well in place. Since these simple times, Paris has morphed into a modern metropolis, with lots of immigration, tourism, poverty and crime to add into the mix. Paris is more diverse than it ever has been, and probably more so than other big cities in nearby European countries. The city is truly cosmopolitan, and I think it’s better this way.