10 March 2012

Smiles and feeling welcome in France

You're not getting smiled at like you used to be in the States and you're wondering if you're really welcome here.

Président Nicolas Sarkozy, a serious president

President Barack Obama, a confident president
Some Americans after spending time in France come away feeling the French aren't friendly.  I'll talk more about this in another post.  This time I just want to talk about what might be the primary reason to think that, namely, Americans and the French use smiles differently.

First off, let me assure you most French around here are lovely people, warm, generous, helpful and kind.  But remember that il y a des cons partout (there are assholes everywhere).

A quick story to make the point:
My hobby is photographing churches here in the Gironde (a French département).  One day, I park my bike outside a church and go inside to photograph the interior.  When I get back to my bike, the back tire is flat.  No problem, I always carry a spare tube.  Off comes the wheel and the tire, and out comes the spare tube.  Oooops!  Wrong type of tube - I can't repair the flat.  I'm crouched down beside the bike, looking at it and the bad tube, when three teenagers about 16 or so walk by.  They go a few meters further, stop and talk among themselves a moment, and come back to ask if I have a problem.  I explain why I can't repair the flat and that I'm too far from home to walk it.  Of course, they have to check the tube themselves.  Then, one says to hang on ten minutes and they walk off.  Within ten minutes they're back with the right kind of tube and a second as a spare, just in case! When I try to thank them, they say "C'est normal" (it's the right thing to do).

Second quick story:
I'm way out in the countryside on my bike trying to find the little chapel I know is there somewhere.  I see a middle-aged fellow standing in front of a barn and I stop to ask him where the chapel is.  He points down the road I'm on and gives me an idea of the distance.  Of course, we get to chatting.  After all, I'm an obvious foreigner (heavy Anglo-Saxon accent), dressed in bike gear, on a bike, out in the boonies looking for a chapel; he keeps a vineyard and produces wine for a living.  He gives me a quick tour of his barn, talks about winemaking, and shows me the entrance to an underground passage that leads to the nearby châtau de BenaugesAs I'm leaving, he offers me a bottle of his wine.  And what a pleasant surprise: the bottle cage on a bicycle is the perfect size for carrying a bottle of Bordeaux wine!  He warns me that when I get home to let the wine rest several days.

The point of both stories: the French are charming, helpful and kindly people (even to Americans).  So, what's our problem with the French?  

A possible explanation is fairly simple.  Americans who cross in the street and catch each other's eyes smile at each other, while French usually don't.  (I'll talk about the exceptions further on)

Think about it: you keep passing people in the street and, like you've done all your life, you smile at them.  And they don't smile back.  How rude is that!  After a while, you're uncomfortable, wondering what's wrong with you or them.  Simple courtesy requires they respond to your smile.  After all, you've made the effort to get here, you'd like to settle in and feel welcome, and they keep looking at you or through you without seeming to notice you're there.  It can be devastating!  Real easy to conclude the French aren't friendly.

So, what's going on?  In a nutshell, the French love to smile and do frequently at people they know, much less often at people they don't.  And catching your eye in the street is not a good enough reason to smile.  In fact, if you smile at them, they may wonder if you're all there or what you're after.  Smiling at strangers, like Americans do, is not a French custom.

It's a hard habit for Americans to break - some of us grew up on "Let a Smile Be Your Umbrella".  That is not a French song!

Conclusion: In France, learn to smile only when smiled at and accept that smiling at strangers is not a French habit.

Exceptions to the rule:  
  • The closer you get to the Champs-Elysées in Paris, the truer the rule is, and the further you get from Paris, the looser the rule is.  I citedParis, but I suspect it's the same in any big city in France.  It's certainly that way here in Bordeaux, people don't smile at each in the street.  However, out in the little villages, smiling at strangers and saying "Bonjour" when you pass in the street is much more common.  Maybe, like some of the differences between New York City and and the boonies of Texas.
  • I was riding home on my bike today, when I noticed the bike lane ahead was nearly blocked by two men with a couple of dogs.  I rang the bell on my bike and they promptly moved aside to free the bike lane.  As I got even with them, the guy with the dogs smiled at me to let me know he was glad to clear the way and I smiled back to let him know I appreciated his thoughtfulness.  Simple courtesy.


  1. I live in Brittany and Bretons tend to be a bit suspicious. I find, however, when I am out with my Bouledogue Français many people smile and quite often stop to ask about Chompsky. this reaction is not unoversal. Often people with dogs do not even look at you. Of course Chompsky is sometimes mal élevé and lunges which is not frendly.

  2. A good post, Harvey. The American "friendly" mode is not the default behavior in much of the rest of the world, France included. I live in a small town in the Limousin where strangers greet each other with "Bonjour" but not necessarily a smile. As you say, smiles in France are mostly for those we already know. Courtesy and kindness abound in France, with or without smiles.

  3. I live in a small village in the Charente. I do smile at the locals and they do respond. But, my village also has several nationalities, so maybe they are conditioned to that response?
    The French also respond, in like, to the "nod of the head" as a gesture of thank you or acknowledgement.
    I was visiting a friend in the Eure et Loire recently when I came across a resident hanging out her window across the street. I said "bonjour" twice and she just glared at me! OK!....not all of us are friendly!

  4. I'm reminded of the line in Notorious, where the mother tells her son he was "a grinning idiot." Just to keep things friendly, here's a smile :-)

    1. Reminds me of my father, who referred to my brother and me as the flowers of the family, both blooming idiots!

  5. I am French, but I lived 14 years in the US and now moving back "home", but it feels so foreign to me, and this post sums it all! The smile is probably the most significant difference, society wise, between the way people act. Thanks for putting a smile on my face while reading this!