French politeness

Ahh, the French: stereotyped as driving too close to the car in front (true), speaking with a funny accent (true) and liking a good strike (also true – as seen earlier just this week). However, they’re also stereotyped as being rude and a bit arrogant about their language. I guess it’s a case of a few bad eggs spoiling all the rest, because I’ve honestly found the French, at least where I live, to be far more polite than the people in other places I’ve lived, and proud of their language, yes, but always willing to help me learn new words or graciously try to understand my terrible, accent-ridden French.

And it’s not just me. An English visitor last week asked for some bread in a restaurant, except she asked for it in Franglais: “Je voudrais le pain”. The problem is that in French, “some bread” is actually “du pain”, and by asking for “le pain” the waiter probably thought she was asking for rabbit (“lapin)”. He looked confused, then spoke in perfect English to my now embarrassed friend. It’s not his native language, but he was happy to speak English to figure out what my friend wanted. Two French friends of mine are learning English from me because they want to be able to serve clients in the customer-facing roles better. It’s not a requirement of their job, but they are eager to learn and speak a foreign language in their own country. Top points to them.

The politeness of the French extends in other ways. On a chairlift the other day (once I was through the scramble of the queue, as I’ve discussed here and here), the guy sitting next to me asked me if I minded if he and his girlfriend smoked. There’s another stereotype: all French smoke. Well, yes, lots do, but lots don’t. The indoor public ban on smoking was accepted without the expected protests in 2008, and these two smokers checking if it was okay with me for them to smoke is just one example of how the French can really be surprising. Of course, I felt obliged to say it was fine, then had to find discrete ways of avoiding the smoke that seemed to waft in my direction despite their best efforts to stop it.

And then there’s politeness out of necessity. I was working from home yesterday when I heard a knock on my door. It was the neighbour from upstairs who had never said hello to me. She explained she had an IT need and can I please help. My wifi is open for others to use (the wifi connection in French translates to “pay me in cake” in English and it has worked: I’ve received numerous cakes and sweet things from grateful holiday-makers), so I presumed she was checking if it was okay. I was wrong. She had received a message on her phone about a photo sent to her phone and she needed to type in a web address on a computer to see it. So, we used my computer to access the photo — a baby with a bottle. She cooed and ahhed at the photo as if the baby was in the room with us, then thanked me a number of times. Her husband soon arrived and we all spent some time staring at this baby. They were cooing and I was trying to figure out if it was a boy or a girl. I’m still not sure. Their politeness extended to kisses goodbye and more thanks before they left my place. Their display of gratitude made me realise I’m finally getting the hang of the French language: I understood the nuances of politeness that previously I’ve only understood in English. Yay!


I'm a technical author, journalist and writer from Australia who has been living in Europe since 2000 and exploring the world from there. My passions are writing, snow sports and travel.

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6 comments on “French politeness
  1. I’ve never been to France. But it’s nice to hear positives for a change, rather than the same negative stereotypes.

  2. Very true and I must say I’m overjoyed to read someone being positive about the French (read some blogs of people living here that made my nails grow).
    The baby story: rigolo rigolo rigolo!
    Something similar happened to me while I was working on my tiny laptop near the Source de Jons (dep. 40): their daughter’s holiday pics. Oy vay. They probably thought it would be nice for a ‘poor old lady in a wheelchair’ to see the rest of the world. Ha ha ha and ha.
    Bonne journée,

  3. Hi, I live in France as well, in the French Alps, next to Chambery. I have a blog too but it’s pretty much all videos of my experiences. Anyway, I enjoy your writing and description of your experiences. I have found both very polite and kind French people and a few that were quite rude, but I think that is true of all countries. It is certainly true of LA where I used to live. Overall though, I think living in France is a gentler way of life. A bientot. Cynthia in France

  4. Kelsey says:

    I have personally found that the French can be quite friendly and courteous, so long as you treat them the same. The problem is that, frankly, most Americans can be pretty obnoxious abroad, and the French have no qualms about being obnoxious right back.

  5. April says:

    Oh I don’t know. I think any nationality shows their bad side when abroad, either because they’re on holiday so they’re less thoughtful of others, or just because they are in an environment they’re not used to.

    Thanks to all for the lovely comments: it’s nice to know some people are out there who enjoy reading what I’m writing and spurs me on to get an agent and some novels published. :O)

  6. Kathleen says:

    Thank you, April – this piece is a breath of fresh air, because not only am I incredibly curious about the French people, (hence my choice for my second language – I know what you mean about botching up la langue), but I’ve been doing a study on the different stereotypes for the French and Americans; let me suffice it to say that it hasn’t been pretty at times. so the positive look on this, and the realistic style of writing are both greatly appreciated.

    You should definitely consider getting published. 😀

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About me

Wendy Hollands writer in Annecy, France

I'm an experienced technical writer based in the French Alps. I enjoy learning French language nuances, winter sports and travel. Drop by, my other site.

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