14 March 2012

Are the French friendly?

You want to feel welcome in France and make new friends.  Will you?  Or is their reputation for unfriendliness true?

Why do Americans think the French aren't friendly?  

Well, that depends on what you mean by friendly.  If by friendly you mean it's normal to

  • chat with someone in the check-out line or the elevator, the answer is no
  • exchange smiles with strangers in the street, the answer is no
  • form close friendships with people, friendships that can last a lifetime through thick and thin, the answer is a firm YES.
  • feel welcome in a store, post office, or office, to receive competent assistance, and to be smiled at when you're observing the codes of good behavior, the answer around Bordeaux is generally YES.  (See my post Words needed to enjoy life in France for more on good manners.)

To sum it up in a few words: Americans tend to be open and outgoing, the French tend to be prudent (cautious) and méfiant (mistrustful, suspicious).  This shows up in a variety of ways in France, but especially when dealing with strangers, regardless of whether the stranger is French or American.  The first thing to note is that it's not necessarily you or your nationality they're being cold to, it's anybody they don't know.  

So, you can relax already.  The French ARE friendly people; however, being a friend means something a bit different in France than in the US.

A side note: the word friendly doesn't have a good translation in French.  You can get by with aimable, gentil, or sympa depending on the context, but they're not quite the same.

Why do the French react differently to strangers than Americans?

Saint Bartholomew's Day Massacre
I can think of two reasons on the French side:
  • A long history of invasions, wars (internal and external), rebellions, revolutions, oppressive nobility that would probably make you mistrustful of strangers, too.  Into the19th century the country of France was an odd collection, more or less well integrated, of pays (regions) whose inhabitants didn't travel much; when times got hard, an armed incursion from across the river could and did happen.  See Graham Robb's Discovery of France or any history of France
  • An upbringing that tends to create a strong loyalty to the family and a strong méfiance of outsiders.  See Polly Platt 's French or Foe? and Pascal Baudry's French and Americans.  
On the American side, the history of the US is much shorter and more peaceful than the French.  And the differences in upbringing require more background than I have to talk about knowledgeably.  See again Polly Platt and Pascal Baudry to start to explore the subject.

In my part of France and based on my experience, the French love Americans for their openness, are big fans of American popular culture, technology, literature, jeans, Harley-Davidson and fast food.  And they find our accent charmant (charming).  If you want to make friends in France, you've got a lot going for you.  Some other time, I'll offer some thoughts on what to do and not do in getting close to a French person.

A final word on French friendliness, YMMV (Your Mileage May Vary).  I know Americans here in Bordeaux who have had very different experiences with the French than what I'm describing.  I'll try to get them to add their stories to mine in order to give you a more complete picture.


    1. The only time I've ever felt I'd "stepped in it" with the French is when I mis-understood a ticket handler behind a metro office window and handed over a large bill, rather than change. She was pissed. I can't blame her. My mistake.

      OTOH, my wife and I have had nothing be wonderful experiences with shop owners/workers, concert goers, and other folk who regularly live in Paris.

      So, yes, I agree; YMWV

      1. What I've read about Paris suggests to me that it's a lot like New York, friendliness-wise (if that's a word), and you can have both lovely and miserable times in Paris just like in NYC.

    2. I have regularly had French people come up to me to thank the Americans for having stepped in during the two world wars. They remain grateful years later.

    3. When I first started coming to France decades ago, I, too, met older people who were pro-American because of our role in the world wars. Now, I find that especially younger people who have travelled to the States, even if they are not particularly pro-American, are friendly because they appreciate the kindness they experienced as strangers in our country.

      1. The French seem better able to distinguish Americans and American politics than Americans. They can love the one, while detesting the other.

    4. I have found the French to be very friendly as a rule. There are always those that are not and one must just discount that experience! Yes, the French can be rude. I've witnessed it between themselves; especially in Paris. I usually get a response to my "bonjour," and sometimes a smile.
      I also have experienced a "thank you" for our involvement in WWII. That is powerful!

    5. My favorite story of French hospitality occurred when I was visiting Paris with a friend and her 2 young boys several years ago. A little old woman in a beret and Hermes scarf stopped us on the street in front of Notre Dame, complemented the younger of the boys on his appearance and asked if he was obeying his mother, and then proceeded to sing the entire Marseilles to us. Then she said bonjour and wandered off down the street. Incroyable!

    6. There is that funny miconception "wanting you to speak French". The point to that is that many English and Americans expect everybody in France to understand what they say in English. If they see you trying to speak their language even if you're making some mistakes, is a huge gesture. They appreciate the effort and are unlikely to make fun of you.

      1. > They appreciate the effort and are unlikely to make fun of you.

        Mostly my experience, except for those who love to imitate my horrible accent. Especially words like "structure".