Understanding French Etiquette: Debunking the ‘French Are Rude’ Myth for Travelers

A friend sent a text this morning that reminded me of something I’d forgotten: the seemingly age-old American stereo-type that the French are rude. She’s been traveling around Provence for a week and said the food was amazing, but she hated the South of France because the French were so rude. This impression made me sad because in all of our time in France, we can count the number of uncomfortable encounters on one hand. I wish the same for all who explore France.

The French, like most everyone living in any country, are absolutely rude — if you’re rude to them first. The issue here is cultural misunderstandings: what’s considered polite to an American is much different than the French etiquette expectations. Therefore tourists are likely not even aware they are, in fact, the one who’s being rude. However, armed with some cultural knowledge and a few polite words in French, you’ll experience the genuine kindness and helpfulness of the French people on your next vacation. 

The Country France on a Map

This post is intended for first-time visitors to France who want to understand the basic etiquette and phrases necessary to avoid coming to the conclusion that the French are rude. We discuss the importance of greetings, polite words you must know, the correct way to speak English, and store etiquette. Warning, it’s quite long, so settle in with your favorite adult beverage!

A couple of points before we really delve in: first consider where you’re going. Paris, Provence, and the Côte d’Azur (the Riviera) are saturated with tourists almost all year long. People working in the service industry in these areas are especially prone to the ‘French are rude’ complaint. It’s likely because they are exceptionally busy dealing with foreigners all day, every day who don’t follow the French customs. It has to get annoying at some point, right? 

Hoards of Tourists in The Hall of Mirrors at the Palace of Versaillies
The Hall of Mirrors at the Palace of Versailles

Secondly, remember the Golden Rule and treat others how you would want to be treated. If you are calm and polite, others around you usually are too. Smile, wait until you have the full attention of the other person, keep your volume in line with your environment, and always use greetings and simple polite words. Just like you would do at home. Beyond that, there are cultural differences that — once you know — will ensure a smooth and rudeness-free vacation!

Always Greet the Other Person to Begin Any Interaction

This is the vital first step in any successful conversation in France. As Americans, we’re generally pretty excited about — well, everything! — so we tend to jump immediately into our query. Even if you do this in French, it will be perceived as rude and you’ll get a glare in return. I still sometimes forget in my eagerness! If it happens to you, just start over by saying “Désolé. Bonjour.” (De-zol-ay) The French always use a greeting first and then wait for the other person’s reply. Just doing this will mitigate many rude encounters!

“Bonjour” = Good day and is used all day. (There’s really no ‘good morning’.)

“Bon après-midi” (bon uh-pray mee-dee) = Good afternoon. It is used, but Bonjour is more common. 

“Bonsoir” (bon-swah) = Good evening and is used after around 6pm. 

However, the timing isn’t a hard rule, so don’t worry too much about this! You may notice a French person saying “bonjour” after 7pm, someone else will say “bonsoir” and then the first person repeats “bonsoir,” being successfully corrected. If you start listening, you’ll notice these little corrections to each other a lot. No big deal!

Do NOT Assume They Speak English

Many tourists will interrupt someone and just start speaking English. You will definitely be treated rudely if you do this. Instead, after the greeting, if you’re asking for help with something, say “excusez-moi” (excuse-eh mwah) first so they know for sure you want to talk. Then ask whether they speak English. 

“Parlez-vous anglais ?” (par-lay vooz ahn-glay) = Do you speak English?

On a busy Parisian street, you will likely hear “Yes, I speak English” as the reply. Everywhere else, you will probably be told “un peu” accompanied by the universal hand signal for a small amount. Either way, you now have permission to speak English, but please remember to speak slowly! Even if they’re fluent, it can still be difficult to switch languages, understand accents, etc. 

If you ask someone and they say no, they will most likely find someone who speaks a little English for you. Unless you’re still on that busy Parisian street corner. In that case, just ask someone else. Any location that caters to international travelers will have fluent English speakers somewhere on-site. When you’re off-the-beaten-path in France, look for any tourist site or hotel if you need assistance in English.

Alternatively, you may want to practice your French. In large, busy locations the person will likely switch to English after hearing your accent. Keep speaking in French. They may stick with English, but you’re still practicing! Most people are happy to see that you’re trying and will listen and even correct you, which is extremely helpful to your learning.

Are the French Really Rude?

Be Polite in French

Despite what you may hear, the French do not expect visitors to speak French. They understand and empathize, because they’ve experienced challenges learning foreign languages themselves. They do however expect you to know the basic niceties. Memorize and use these phrases and you will probably not meet a rude French person. (There’s a handy printable guide at the end of the post!)

“Merci” (mare-cee) = Thank you.

“Merci beaucoup” (mare-cee boo-coo) = Thank you very much.

“Je vous en prie” (juh vooz ahn pree) = Most polite version of ‘you’re welcome’.

“De rien” (duh ree-ahn) =  Informal “you’re welcome” and most used in everyday interactions.

“Je suis désolé” (juh swee de-zol-ay) = I’m sorry.

“Excusez-moi” (excuse-ay mwah) = Excuse me for interrupting. 

“Pardon” (par-dun) = Excuse me for bumping into you or one of us is in the way.

“Au revoir” (ah-rev-wah) = Good bye. 

A Note on Smiling

I’m in just about every Facebook group that exists about France. Maybe you are too? If so, you’ve probably read somewhere that the French don’t smile at strangers; that smiling itself is a bit rude. Some people even go so far as to say the French think smiley Americans are superficial and/or mentally disabled.

I have a very bubbly, happy personality and I’m usually smiling and laughing about something or another. I often get smiles returned and even greetings while walking around or shopping. At least once or twice a week a stranger responds to my smile by stopping for a chat. Occasionally, someone will look at me funny and immediately look away, but it’s uncommon and I keep smiling because I’m happy!

I’m sure you’ve heard the French tend to dress much nicer than average Americans? That one is absolutely true. Sometimes I don’t feel like changing out of my “home” clothes to run to the store quickly. If I’m dressed like a normal Californian at Trader Joe’s (think yoga pants and a sweatshirt), most people won’t even look at my face, let alone smile in return! It’s so interesting because it happens with almost anyone I meet when dressed very casually.

So, if you’re happy in France, smile away! If you’re not, then don’t. While you should absolutely consider cultural differences, do not let it change who you are! (And if you want people in France to treat you better, dress nicely. The more I think about it, the more this likely applies everywhere.) 

Shop Etiquette in France

Always use a greeting when entering and exiting a shop.

In case you can’t tell, greetings are important in French culture! The greeting basically acknowledges three things: the other person, that you have interrupted what they were doing, and that you would like their help with something. This applies to entering any shop as well, to announce you are there and be sure the proprietor sees you. Sometimes, the shop-keeper will be in the back or attending to another customer. If I don’t see the person at first, I say “Bonjour” immediately. If they’re helping someone else, I wait until they look up and say hello first. (More and more larger stores aren’t doing this anymore.)

Some very small shops also prefer to help you, rather than you touching things yourself. You’ll know this is the case because they will hover closely. If that happens, ask before you touch anything. If you try on clothing. . . ha! Sorry, I mean when you try on clothing, be prepared for the shop assistant to open the dressing curtain at any point to ask how you’re doing. They will also comment on whether you might need a larger size or if the colors aren’t flattering. This is totally normal here and should not be perceived as rude — just honest and direct feedback. They are giving you the French version of the best customer service. (Good to know: there is usually the option to get things tailored as well, although it takes about a week.)

When you’ve finished shopping, whether you purchased anything or not, look for the shop-keeper to end the interaction. 

“Bonne journée” (bon jour-nay) = ‘Have a good day’ and should be said in the daytime. 

“Bonne soirée” (bon swar-ay) = ‘Have a good evening’ and should be said after about 6pm.

Do You Still Think the French Are Rude?

As you prepare to immerse yourself in the delightful tapestry of French culture, remember that the notion of rudeness often melts away in the warmth of understanding. The French, like anyone, appreciate a genuine effort to respect their customs and language. Let your newfound knowledge guide your interactions, with a few essential phrases and a genuine appreciation for the French way of life, and you’ll discover the warmth and kindness of the French people.

In France, courtesy is the key to unlocking unforgettable experiences and forging meaningful connections. Bon voyage, and may your journey be filled with kind encounters and treasured memories!

If you’re interested in delving deeper into the French culture, I highly recommend ‘The Bonjour Effect‘ by Julie Barlow and Jean-Benoît Nadeau.

Download the printable phrase guide below to be sure you memorize the polite words necessary for a successful vacation!

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