Anyone who has ever prepared for a trip to Paris has undoubtedly asked themselves the same question … a question based largely on stereotypes and media depictions: “Aren’t the Parisians rude?”
Well, yes and no.
While they are most certainly less gregarious and smiley than their Anglophone counterparts, Parisians are not always as surly and difficult as their reputation precedes them. There are certain rules, often tacit, that Parisians expect people to follow. This is true for locals and tourists and can be applied to any city. New Yorkers, for example, aren’t exactly the image of friendliness and hospitality, having to contest their own somewhat dubious reputation.
Yet perhaps what is problematic is the word tourist as it immediately turns an otherwise intelligent, cultured individual into a fumbling, oblivious imbecile. Let me give you an example. Recently, I was waiting in line at a busy clothing store when an American woman in her forties, visibly wealthy and sporting bright green sweat pants with PINK written on the bum (Victoria’s Secret trademark), waltzed up to one of the cashiers and loudly hurled, “Where are your bathrooms?”
“Bonjour,” replied the cashier. (Take note, this is mistake number one).
“Yeah, hi. Where are your restrooms? “
“We don’t have any.”
“Well, where am I supposed to go? “ she asked impatiently. (Sense of entitlement.)
“Across the street. There’s a public toilet.” (Read: not my problem.)
“Ugh, okay thanks,” she retorted dryly.
She then proceeded to speak as loudly as she could, making herself seen from all angles of the store, while irritated onlookers (and me, the ashamed American) rolled their eyes and sighed heavily, in true Parisian fashion.
This segues nicely into my rules (and suggestions) for tourists in Paris:
1) The cardinal rule: Say “bonjour” – even in your most atrocious French – when you approach people.
When you are at the airport (having not yet realized that all the signs are in French AND English) and searching for someone to ask how to get to the train to the city, say “bonjour” first. When you enter a shop, bakery, or restaurant, do not forget to say “bonjour,” preferably sans the toothy, over-excited grin. Saying “au revoir” will win you points as well.
2) Lost? Move over!
Do not stop dead in your tracks in the middle of the sidewalk or directly in front of the metro turnstile blocking Parisians from slithering through to get to their final destination (surely some kind of fashion exhibit, no?). What is it that physically prevents people from moving off to the side to find their way?
3) Stay on the right side of the sidewalk.
Traveling in groups of more than two does not give you the right to monopolize the walkway. I know, the beauty of Paris is so breathtaking that you can’t help but stroll aimlessly to take it all in. I completely understand. Just stroll in a more orderly fashion. This seems to be a point of contention in any tourist city so I propose following in the footsteps of NYC’s Improv Everywhere group and create pedestrian traffic lanes, separating Parisians from visitors. I would love to see it implemented not only on sidewalks but in the metro stations as well.
4) Show cleavage or leg, never both.
Girls often complain about getting harassed by men in Paris yet, to be fair, their idea of dressing-up is wearing as little clothing as possible. (American and English girls, you know who you are.) Think twice before you wear that mini skirt and breast-bursting top. As a rule of thumb, French women show a little cleavage or a little leg, but not both. Revealing too much verges on being excessively promiscuous and since being perceived as slutty is a French woman’s worst nightmare, it should be avoided at all costs. In a country where sexual harassment policies barely exist, you should also keep in mind that American and English women have a reputation for being easy. Sartorial discretion is therefore recommended.
5) Blend in.
If you’re studying French at the Sorbonne all summer, you’re still a tourist. We know this because you travel in packs, lack volume control, and are swept off your feet at every feeble pick-up line from any scrawny French guy, no matter how desperate or unattractive. Take the excitement down a notch, lower your voice and realize that you’re garnering yourself negative attention. Important: do not assume the French don’t understand what you’re saying about them in English. This is where using indoor voices will come in handy.
Overall, the French do not like when tourists show up and act like they own the place, disregarding local customs and etiquette. No, Parisian waiters are not going to cook your dish in light oil instead of butter, even if you smile widely when you ask them. No, Parisians are not going to stop and ask you if you need help finding your way (but will help if asked) and no, Parisians are not going to make small talk with you on the metro. But Parisians are no worse than other people. They simply want to see that you’re TRYING to adapt to their culture. So read up a little, leave your Victoria Secret sweatpants at home and speak whatever French you can muster. I assure you, you will leave unscathed!
Philadelphia native Lindsey Tramuta came to Paris to go to school and stayed on because she fell in love with her now-husband Cédric. This marketing and communications professional also loves food, music and reading. And she willingly shares her often-amusing views on life as an expat in Paris in her blog, Lost In Cheeseland. Photo courtesy of joshuaphilippesy.