I’m French, and every single time I’m in a restaurant in the United States, I need to order a glass of water three times in a row. Why? Because the first time, the waitress doesn’t understand my accent, the second, I over-articulate, looking like a slow-motion puppet with the same effect and the third, I just point at “water” at the table next to me. Each time, I want to curl under the table, cry and hide in shame or stand up and shout, “I’m asking for a glass of water in a restaurant. How can you not understand me?”
Still, I try. Still, I fail. I’ll keep trying until I master the American pronunciation of “water” and will blame my two years living in Yorkshire forever. After miming “octopus” in restaurant in Greece, I know miming can get you very far when you don’t have the words. So I won’t give up that easily.
I love languages and if you’re reading this post on Fluent in 3 Months in the metro, at work, or on the toilet (come on, we know it!), you probably like them too.
In France, where I live, French people have the worldwide known reputation of being rude, cold, arrogant, you name it… with a language that is famously difficult. You want to visit France? Then be ready to be annoyed, challenged and mistreated.
Or do you?
Why is France still the #1 tourism destination in the world if its inhabitants are such cons?
Why do foreign American students at the Sorbonne, dream of staying one more year in Paris?
Could it be… a misconception? Or is there maybe a secret memo frog haters didn’t get?
A bit of both. 🙂
French culture seems so easy to understand: buy your baguette, put on a béret and use putain every five words and tadaa… You’re more French than Gérard Depardieu.
Well… no. To enter French culture and go beyond the “French people are rude” cliché, just follow a couple of simple rules. See them as secret code to hack French people’s hearts and impress your girlfriend/boyfriend/mum at the Eiffel Tower.
Bonus points: follow these rules and French people will open up and start speaking French to you. Pinky swear.
Bienvenue en France, mon ami !
Rule 1: French Greetings Open French Hearts
Greetings in France are like the baguette in a French meal. Forget about them and you’ll feel the loss until dessert. Yes, you might earn a few seconds (well… 2 seconds max) but by skipping a nice Bonjour you’ll pass for a rude, impatient and uneducated tourist. Worst, some French people will simply ignore you. Yes, I know, it sucks.
Why? Because greetings in French are the key to starting and finishing any conversation. Whether it’s a two hour debate or a 20-second interaction to get a box of Ladurée macarons in the boutique of the Champs-Elysées, greeting people you talk to with a Bonjour or a Bonsoir (after 6 PM) signals that you see and respect the person in front of you. This person is not just there to suit your needs. And yes, this even applies to taxi drivers, shop assistants and waiters. In France, a commercial interaction is also a well-behaved exchange, a good opportunity to show the good manners your mom taught you.
See greetings in France as cleaning your shoes on a rug before entering someone’s house. Your friends will only notice you’re rude when they see your dirty shoeprints on their carpet. And it will be too late.
At the end of a conversation, simply say Merci. Bonne journée. or Bonne soirée after 6 PM. These basics will get you everywhere. Add Merci (= Thank you) and S’il vous plaît (= Please) and you’ll be Louis XIV in Versailles… (like a king in France).
Rule 2: No, You Don’t Have to Switch to English
A very common complaint from visitors in France is “I wanted to speak French but Parisians switched to English when I tried. How rude! I’ll boycott camembert for the rest of my life, in protest.” Ok, calm down. Let’s look at the reason and what to do about it.
French people might switch to English for two reasons:
They want to be helpful by speaking English because they (believe they) speak it better than you speak French
They’re just like you: they want to practice with a native.
It’s so simple that I still don’t understand why so many people take it personally. It’s not against you!
If you’re still reading, here’s where all the fun starts. The next step is… a mind game!
If French people switch to English while you’re huffing and puffing to align 10 words without fainting in the language of Edith Piaf, keep speaking French. Do not switch to English. Keep up and either they’ll understand that you want to practice or they’ll switch back to French because of the cognitive dissonance. Yes, the first 20 seconds will be awkward but remember: it’s not against you. Show them you don’t need English, that’s all.
However, if you want to speak your mind, feel free to ask On peut parler en français ? It’s a bit blunt but it’s straight to the point and they’ll speak French to you. After they agree to it, do not forget to say Merci (beaucoup).
Try it next time you’re in Paris, Lyon or Saint-Jean-de-Luz.
One last tip of good-manners-from-your-mum: even though French people are kinder than you may think, don’t try to use your high school broken French to chat with a worker around La Défense at 8 AM. Remember, it requires some effort to understand you and without a healthy breakfast, they might not have enough energy to teach you about the subjunctive in the metro. When asking a busy Parisian for help, be quick and to the point. There are millions of tourists each year in Paris, be considerate when you’re asking your way to the Eiffel Tower. It’s probably right behind you anyway.
Rule 3: Corrections Are Love, Not Hate
French people love food, themselves and their language. That’s why you’ll impress them if your vocabulary goes beyond toilettes, photo, and Arc de Triomphe. They’ll be thankful you tried and appreciate your efforts. By reading this post alone, you’re ahead of 99% of the tourists. Félicitations !
But that’s where the real struggle starts. Yes, you got points from knowing your greetings. Yes, you earned a high-five from Marion Cotillard when they answered back in French. Now for the big test: French people will interrupt you to correct your French.
Argh! Thought you deserved a praise? A bise on both cheeks for trying?
They saw you were brave enough to speak French, and they try to help you… by correcting your mistakes. I know it can be intimidating, I know it sounds super rude, I know your brain is already so saturated by trying to make grammatically correct sentences that you can’t handle any kind of extra input. But they’re just trying to be nice.
This is where I usually tell students: unless it’s your mother-in-law, fake it if you don’t get it. As long as you know they’re trying to be nice (and not rude, but let’s say you got the point by now), accept the correction and thank them for their help.
What to say? Four steps:
- Oh ! (look like you made a mistake and understand why)
- Try to repeat what they said. (over-articulate)
- C’est ça ? (smile)
- Merci beaucoup. (look thankful)
It’s ok to fake it. Between us, “jewelry” and “dessert/desert” are still a mystery to me in English. I just gave up but always thank kind English-speaking well-wishers trying to correct me.
Note: And if it’s your mother-in-law, ask your French significant other to explain later, with a glass of Pinot Noir and a lot of empathy over your ignorance of the plus-que-parfait tense.
Rule 4: Fast Talk is a Compliment
If you thought “correcting you” was the final challenge in the game of SFIF (Speaking French in France), be ready for a surprise. “French people speaking fast” is the last obstacle you’ll face before the finish line. Good luck!
It’s a subtle but hilarious issue. Because it’s often the students’ secret wish but they end up fainting with their breakfast croissant in hand when it happens.
Why? Because when French people see that you want to speak French, that you can and that you didn’t run away when they corrected you, they’ll assume that you actually speak French. Like their friends do. So they’ll start speaking French like they do with their friends! Fast. Super fast. Lightspeed fast.
Should you fake it again? (no)
Should you run away, this time? (Oh no)
Should you switch back to English and speak as fast in revenge? (Please no)
First, you deserve a gold medal. Being spoken French to, fast, is a compliment. They accept you as one of theirs. Félicitations !
Then, what to do?
Ask them to slow down!
Here’s the way, mix and match according to your level.
Remember to breathe first or you might drool on their espadrilles, if you don’t re-oxygenate your brain before trying to form a sentence.
[Excusez-moi] Plus lentement, s’il vous plaît. [Je ne comprends pas quand vous parlez si vite.]
If you’re daring and/or advanced, just laugh and say J’ai rien pigé à ce que vous venez de dire, ça va beaucoup trop vite pour moi. They’ll laugh too.
Rule #5: Merde Happens.
One last thing before your next romantic week-end in the City of Loooove. No matter how motivated, prepared and fluent you are, sometimes, sh*t happens.
Maybe at some point during your stay, between a boat trip on the River Seine and a guided tour in the Musée d’Orsay, a French speaker is rude to you.
On behalf of 59,999,999 French people, I’m sorry.
If you followed all the rules, got your vocabulary in check and your best smile on board, that’s just bad luck. Maybe they didn’t mean it, maybe they did, maybe they’re upset because their goldfish has the flu… Yes it sucks. But, no, all French people don’t hate you. Don’t take it personally and move on.
Please don’t let this merde get in the way of a lovely time in my country.
S’il te plait. 🙂
In Conclusion: You Can Speak French in France
The cliché of French people being rude, cold and arrogant will never die, no matter how many “likes” this post gets on Facebook. But I hope that now, you’re confident that you can go beyond it and enjoy your time in France. No matter how closed they seem, all cultures carry their own rules to unlock them. All it takes is knowing those rules. And now that you do, I’ll raise my glass of bordeaux to your success in France. Santé !
And finally... One of the best ways to learn a new language is with podcasts. Read more about how to use podcasts to learn a language.