How to Act French and Use Good Manners When Visiting France
France and especially Paris are notorious for their not-so-welcoming welcome. Whether it's true or not, I'll let everyone decide for themselves after visiting France, but nevertheless here are some quick tips a tourist should keep in mind to avoid the "impossible..." looks, and cussing (yes they actually do it in your face).
I'm not French myself, so some of my tips are my very own faux pas I made three years ago, some are general handy tips, and some are things that now almost make me cuss at foreigners myself.
The odds are that your trip also consists of a visit to a local supermarket, or a supermarché as they are known here. Supermarkets are always interesting displays of local life. Especially the smaller ones in the center of town which carry only the most necessary items. It's interesting to see what people need the most when they are on their way home after work or on Sunday mornings before all the stores close around noon.
- Try to get out of the tourist mode when your items are being rung up. There are no packers here and you are supposed to get your packing done before paying. Because Paris is one of the densest cities in the world, each square foot costs a fortune. If you don't pay attention and try to first pay and then start packing you will be in trouble as there is no room for two customers' items and the cashier will most certainly have a comment prepared for you.
Yes le shopping is a real word, just like le shampooing, le fooding, le parking and just about any other English word with a fancy -ing ending. Le happy ending for instance.
For many just a means to get to points of interest, the subway of Paris or le métro is for me one of the best attractions itself. The stations have interesting thematic designs, and each line has its own spirit because the people on each line are different. All Parisians seem to have their own favorite line and a line they don't like (although most often everybody seems to like the third line, and hate the fifth or the thirteenth line, and of course the first line because of all the tourists).
The metro of Paris was originally meant to serve the 2 million people who live inside Paris. Within 30 years, 13 of the current 16 lines were finished to their maximum extent inside the "city walls"; there was a policy of not extending them to suburbs, in order to keep Parisians separated from the people living around Paris. Everything changed soon, as by the 50s most lines were extended to the suburbs—this process continues to this day. Since that time only one line has been added with the result that the Paris Métro is horribly crowded. The infrastructure planned for 2.7 million potential travelers now carries 4.5 million people daily, for an annual total greater than the population of China, 1.5 billion people a year.
It's not so difficult to understand why Parisians loathe taking the subway and why everybody seems to be so annoyed.
- Understand that Parisians need their personal space and when they can't have it, they at least want to keep the illusion of it. The best tactic on the metro is to create yourself a cocoon and ignore everything around you.
- Don't feed the troll - 1 in 2 trips on the metro there will be either people panhandling or playing loud crappy music. It's all forbidden as its forbidden to give them money. Even if they play well, it's not the place to do it. If you want to act French, you can secretly enjoy the music, but not give them money - because they weren't supposed to be there to begin with.
- Don't stay in front of the doors. Yes, even the locals do it and it's hell of a task to get on the train (or off it), but because you're not a local, everybody would think to themselves (and some loudly!) that "damned tourists must have never taken the metro before!"
- Parisians are busy people and even if they have nothing to do with all their free time (35 hour workweek, almost nonexistent transit times) they're still just so busy and in a hurry. On the escalators you really should keep to your right (there are even signs for it) so that all those busy people could run by you.
Or even better, be the busy Parisian running up the escalator. At least you'll get a chance to every once in a while cuss at foreigners chatting to each other while blocking the way.
"Coffee" or "café" here is not really an umbrella term meaning hot beverages made of ground coffee but rather a local slang for espresso. If you're like me and you like your coffee big and strong, you're in trouble. First of all, give up the hopes of getting coffee as you're used to. Also, "café américain," which works for example in Spain, will give you different results each time. Sometimes they bring you double espresso, sometimes an espresso with more hot water in it.
Here's a quick overview of the top five coffees people order in France.
- Un café or un espresso for the classic small strong coffee
- Double espresso for medium sized strong coffee
- Grand café is technically the same as double espresso but usually a little bigger and slightly longer so it's not too strong but not too watery either.
- Café allongé - a long coffee. An espresso with extra hot water, in nice restaurants they bring you your espresso in a big cup and a small pot of hot water so you can find the perfect balance yourself.
- Café gourmand. French don't eat desserts because they're all on a diet, but they do cheat every once in a while with café gourmand, which is an espresso with two to four sweets such as macarons, mini tiramisu, chocolates or some other bitesize mini desserts.
Every once in a while we all lose our way, especially on the small crooked streets of Paris. It is OK to ask people the way, but it might not always go smoothly. You might be ignored and people might give you wrong directions - so if you're doing it already, ask a few times to be sure. when approaching someone, do it with a big smile (and not the "I'm in trouble" face) and your odds of being helped are better. Even better, avoid asking for directions.
Even if you don't have your city map on you, there are maps all over Paris. You find them on:
- Advertisements. Often there is a map of the district on one side of an advertisement post, including an alphabetic street index and a list of most places you might be interested in, be it a post office, police station or museums and landmarks.
- Vélib' stations. Vélib' is an automated bicycle rental system. Even if you don't use it, they're still useful as all the Vélib stations have a map of the city block on them.
- Public toilets. They're easy to see even from a distance and always have decent maps on them.
- Metro stations. It takes a minute to run downstairs and find again a map of the block near every exit.
"Thank you but no thank you, I have no idea how maps work and I just want somebody to point me the direction." Well fine, but I warned you. To approach a (fellow) Parisian, do it with a smile and say "excuse me" already from a distance (better in English than in French, you seem less dangerous that way). Let me remind you of an important point - everybody's just soo busy in the City of Light.
Therefore let me be clear on this, there really is no point asking people in crooked French whether they speak English or not. It is advised in most travel guides, but in reality it's not particularly polite, nor useful. If the answer is NO, there really is no point continuing with the question, if the answer is yes, you could have saved 20 seconds of the busy Parisian's valuable time. Don't worry about coming off as an ignorant foreigner, the point of this city is everybody being ignorant, be part of the flow. Especially when asking people who are working - kiosk salesmen and shop workers. Although they will always help you, they will be answering the same question every 30 minutes if not more often. It will be appreciated if you get straight to the point.
Important update: Parisians take politeness very seriously so be sure to include a greeting somewhere between "excuse me" and the question, especially when talking to people who are working while you talk to them. Otherwise they might make you greet them, refusing to answer before you say the golden words!
Finally, have a good time. Don't worry too much about coming off as a foreigner, you'll do it anyway. French is a language almost impossible to speak without an accent. The French always pay attention to it to determine whether somebody comes from overseas, or from a different part of France. Especially in Paris, where people all come from somewhere. You'll notice that nobody is Parisian. Even if their parents are born here, they still "come from Normandy and my mother is half Moroccan" or "I was born in Marseille but my father comes from near Strasbourg". Where you come from is an important part of your identity in Paris, whether visiting for a few days or living here during your studies. Everybody comes from somewhere, nobody is really Parisian; even real Parisians have their coming-from stories.
Although a Parisian doesn't really like to be disturbed, there are some times when talking to another is natural or even expected. When they announce disturbances on the transport, people might look at each other and remark "not again...." Or at cafes quite often people who are sitting alone might talk to each other. There's a strong culture of small talk here and it's a great idea to try to take part in it. Especially nowadays when the French seem to have accepted the fact that English is the most spoken language on Earth; many even welcome the opportunity to practice it a bit.
I'll never forget how my first friend in Paris once (unknowingly) introduced me to their small-talk culture. When we had taken our seats on a terrace there was this lady next to us, browsing a magazine. It probably started with a remark about people passing or the weather. A few minutes later, my friend and the lady were talking about how Biarritz is the best place in France for vacations, how she used to have a house there but now her cheating husband had tricked her out of her the house, and she showed us a page of a magazine with a photo of her husband, where she had blackened his face with a ball point pen. Trying to talk to strangers is worth the effort, especially in Paris where everybody has a story to tell.
And finally, take a look at this hilarious video by Erica Guaca. It's so funny because it's so true. All the tricks and sounds: it's really what the French do themselves to avoid speaking. Great idea to use their own weapons to give the impression you understand all they say.