La Politesse: How to be Polite in French

Right now, I’m sitting on a plane bound for my favorite city on this planet. Despite the fact I haven’t visited most of the cities on the planet, I can say with confidence that, even if I had, Paris would remain my favorite. Though my heart rests in Pennsylvania with my family, friends, and cat, Paris will always be mine. It’s hard not to fall in love with the stunning architecture, incredible food, and melodic language. During my tenure in the city of lights, I spent very little time exploring other places in Europe, and invested heavily in soaking up every bit of language, history, and culture I could find within the city limits. I love Paris so much that it rocks me to my very core when, on the rare occasion, someone tells me that they did not enjoy their time there. I remember the first time I spoke with someone who did not enjoy Paris in the slightest. I was baffled. “You didn’t like Paris?!” I exclaimed in desperate confusion, “but… WHY?!” They rattled off the same old trope, “French people are rude. They don’t speak English and they hate American tourists.” I remember verbally scoffing and boldly proclaiming “well, YOU were probably the one who was rude.” While I would like to maintain that I was technically correct, I probably should have been a little more tactful and a little less, well… French. I went on to (a bit more politely) explain how French culture differs from American culture, and explain to them little things they may have done to offend Parisians during their stay. As I spoke, I could see the lights click on as I seemingly enlightened them to the root of a week of misconstrued interactions. If only they had known sooner, they wouldn’t have been immediately labeled “American Tourist”, losing the war to win French acceptance before it had even begun. So I vowed, from that day forward, to save as many as I could from the same ill fate with this simple guide to what the French call “la Politesse”.

La Politesse: How to be Polite in French

Bonjour!

In metropolitan USA, we try not to waste anyone’s time. If you were to walk up to someone in New York City and simply say “hello!” they would either ignore you or look at you like you had something growing out of your head. American culture cares not if you start your sentence with anything but hello. In fact, in our country, one of the most polite ways to begin a conversation is with the phrase “excuse me”. In France, Bonjour rules the day. This one simple word will save you so much grief and aggravation, and French people will not hesitate to express their displeasure if you begin a conversation with anything but “Bonjour”. In fact, the few times I forgot to begin with bonjour, I was promptly reminded through a stern, but kind reprimand. Even if you feel like some kind of broken toy repeating “bonjour, bonjour, bonjour” over and over like a crazy person, use it, abuse it, don’t lose it.

Parlez-vous français ?

This one is a biggie. I can’t even begin to tell you how many times I intervened when I saw a frustrated American yelling at a poor non-english speaking French person. I’m not going to beat around the bush here, it’s embarrassing and ignorant. I won’t deny that English is a widely spoken language, but you are visiting their country so you should try to speak their language. Period. French people do not owe you a word of English. If you really don’t have the language bug, at the very least, do not assume that everyone speaks English. 

Chut!

Remember how I said earlier that I saw tons of Americans yelling at French people for not speaking English? You probably thought, “I would never yell at someone for something so silly!” and you probably wouldn’t yell… intentionally. Americans are LOUD. I honestly don’t know how to properly convey how loud we are because it’s just so unbelievably overwhelming. Everything in France is quieter; restaurants, the metro, parks, even children are quieter. After spending only a year in France, I came home and everything I heard upon arrival was deafening and my fingers lived in my ears for about 3 weeks. You can pick out an American anywhere in Europe because you can HEAR THEM! So, just… shhhh. Or as the French would say, chut!

Parisian Chic

Paris is one of the major fashion capitals of the world, and they know it. What you wear in Europe will have a huge impact on how people view you. Europeans do not wear gym shorts and sneakers unless they are going to exercise. That’s the only time. Sometimes they wear upscale joggers and trendy high-tops, but those nike shorts and sneaks you’ve got in your bag? Take ‘em out. Also, neutrals are a Parisian staple. Choose black and navy blue over brown, and stripes over other prints. I’m not saying that you need to change your entire wardrobe for a vacation, but in the eyes of Parisians, what you wear says a lot about you, and gym clothes scream “I just don’t care.”

“Sorry, American!”

While living in Paris, I had many friends visit (because, free place to stay… and also I’m pretty sure they missed me). One of my best friends was the first to arrive, and let me just tell you, it was a hot mess. She got caught in the doors of the metro, her stuffed animal flew across the train floor and everyone had to pry the doors open to free her and return her doll, her travel buddy had to pick the lock to get into our apartment, and she spent the entire trip running around screaming “SORRY, AMERICAN.” You might be thinking “Wow, I bet that French people did not like her…” That is where you’re wrong. Most French people really appreciated her admission of Parisian inadequacy. And while I’m sure she annoyed some people, she always apologized, admitting that she did not know how to be French and showing them that she was, at the very least, trying. That’s all French people want. A genuine effort to understand their life and culture. Make the effort, and despite any French faux-pas, they will respect you and return your diligence with kindness.

One Comment

  1. As I was reading this, I kept thinking of the movie Julie & Julia. Julia Child, played by Meryl Streep, absolutely adored the French people, and walks around saying, “Bonjour!!” with gusto! 😄❤️ And she tried very hard to speak French, apologizing all over the place for how badly she did it:)
    Thanks for the glimpse into being French! ☺️

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