The French, Parisians in particular, tend to get a bad rap when it comes to friendliness. After living here for over four years and studying the French language and culture for more than a decade before that, here's my insight on why tourists might get their feathers a little ruffled when in Paris.
Flip on the TV one evening while you’re in Paris and you’ll suddenly understand so much more about the art of French conversation and some of the cultural differences that can sometimes shock tourists.
You won’t see late night talk show hosts having short, lighthearted one-on-one conversations with celebrities. Mais non ! You’ll see panel shows which last hours where 3-8 writers, philosophers, politicians, musicians, actors, and other famous French personalities debate more or less important issues.
They exchange fiery words, interrupt authority figures, and pick apart the books their guests just published. This is all completely normal. No one cries, nobody seems to get offended, instead, they just state their case and ask more tough questions.
In Anglo-Saxon countries, we tend to avoid conflict, nodding and smiling when we disagree, striving to follow the adage of ‘if you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all.’ This might be why we Americans, in particular, have a reputation abroad for being fake or superficial. Of course, we have our own opinions and may often disagree with those around us, but we rarely voice this and most often do our best to avoid these sorts of topics altogether. This is not how the French roll.
It seems French society encourages you to have an opinion about everything and to make it known. They also don’t sugar coat anything, telling you flatly and outright if you’re wrong. Even teachers do this, having no problem sharply telling a student, ‘No, that’s wrong’ (quite a shock for me the first time that happened!).
Here in France, debates are normal among friends, and subjects that can often be divisive are everyday subjects of conversation, even with relative strangers. I’ve found that the French tend to ask much more direct questions than my compatriots, perhaps because they’re completely comfortable getting an answer they disagree with and then debating the subject.
If you’re having a conversation with a French person while you’re in Paris, don’t be afraid to be as blunt as they are! When they ask you point blank what you think about your country’s current President or even what you think of Paris so far, you can be frank. It can actually be quite liberating to say what you really think instead of walking on eggshells to be polite. Just be prepared to have a bit of a debate, but remember that it’s nothing all that serious. The Parisian won’t be worrying about how you disagreed with him or her afterward, so you shouldn’t either.
To outsiders, the French (and Parisians) might seem a bit rude, but really, I think it all boils down to a few basic cultural differences.