“Are they nice over there?”
Unfortunately, this is often the first question I am asked when I explain to non-French friends where I live and work.
While not necessarily surprised by the question (even I learned the wine-sipping, fine-chocolate-munching, beret-wearing, nose-sniffing stereotype of Parisians when I first took up the French language), it takes a great effort to not role my eyes or sigh in exasperation when I hear it.
Instead, I come up with as many stories as I can to prove that French people are as kindhearted and warm as your average American. Are the stories true? Yes. So all French people are heavenly? Not really. I and my traveling buddy were once screamed at by a woman in the Paris metro for refusing to buy her tickets (if it weren’t for the fact that I found the way she said “Loser” extremely funny with the exaggerated French “r” at the end, I would have been angry), and I’ve driven with enough French people to know that road rage is a universal phenomenon.
On the other hand, the day-to-day experience is more than warm and welcoming. Upon entering an elevator, the occupants always greet each other, whether in an apartment building, a school, or a government office. And upon leaving, they never fail to wish each other a good day. I’ve often been bid farewell by customers leaving a restaurant if they are seated near me or if my table is close to the door, even if we hadn’t even made eye contact earlier. “Ladies first” is an important rule here. Students offer to carry teachers’ bags and books, and parents on their way to drop their kids at school will often offer rides to the students and teachers who otherwise walk 20 minutes from the train station to the campus. My co-workers are cheerful and love to joke, and the French families that have taken me in for the holidays have shown me as much hospitality as I’ve received in any other corner of the globe. Even as an obvious tourist, I’ve been treated nicely and I’ve never been refused when asking for directions.
“Is that because you speak French? The French don’t like English,” is a normal response to my examples of kind French people. False. If I carry a camera in the downtown area, I am spoken to in English immediately by vendors, cashiers, and other tourists before I even say a word. Using English words in advertisements is apparently all the rage here, even in the most inappropriate ways (a store at the mall has filled its window display with signs that say “F—- Soldes (sales)” in order to appear young and hip). I recently taught a lesson on a long list of words that young French people have borrowed from English in recent years.
“Oh, but that’s because you’re not in Paris” some will argue in a last desperate attempt to convince themselves that their lifelong view of snobby, English-hating French people can not possibly be false.
Ticket Lady being an exception, Parisians don’t strike me as any different than your average New Yorker or Chicagoan rushing to work with little time to stop and chat with tourists.
Then why don’t the French seem as cheerful and friendly as we Americans? Some of my French friends swear that questions such as “How are you?” and small talk with the cashier or secretary are actually considered too personal. I remember accompanying a French friend to a bank in the U.S.; her draw dropped at the banker’s greeting of “Hi, how’s it going?” and I could not understand why until she explained on our way out that “he was acting like we were friends or something.”