The French. They are different from you and me.
After a transatlantic flight and semi-conscious train ride into the city, my first teenaged memory of Paris is collapsing into a cab – followed by a sinking feeling as the driver contemplates the address provided by my mother. Non, he has never heard of such a place. Sighing, he immerses himself in a tattered street atlas. The meter ticks away. My mother rolls her eyes. Still. Something about this man makes me think we just might be the first tourists in the history of Paris to request rue des petits hotels.
I’ve given the French the benefit of the doubt ever since, and over the years, have found plenty of experts to back me up. According to my sources, unlocking the charms of the French is simply a matter of understanding the basics of their unique social code and engaging them in a way that respects it. A few tips to test drive:
Never blame a French person. Tomiko Zablith, a UK-based etiquette consultant, once told me the reason the French do not respond well to criticism or blame isn’t because they are arrogant. It is because mistakes are culturally unacceptable and admitting one is considered weakness. So next time you find a fly in your soup in le bistro, the correct way to handle the situation is to frame the problem in a way that absolves the waiter from all responsibility. Try: “A bug must have fallen from the trees into my soup. May I have a fresh bowl?”
Never second-guess a French waiter. On the subject of waiters, it pays to remember they are not struggling actors but trained career professionals serving a country that cares passionately about food and wine. The experts agree if your server ignores your request for a Coke, it isn’t out of disrespect or laziness, but because sipping it with your magret de canard would prevent the meal from being enjoyed as Chef intended.
Treat French shopkeepers like they own the place. When it comes to customer service, brace yourself for some role reversal. Polly Platt, author of French or Foe, once told me workplaces in France are about providing employment, not service. It falls on the customer to earn the clerk’s respect and the right to be served. When entering a French boutique, post office or bakery, greet the proprietor with “Bonjour Madame” or “Bonjour Monsieur. This simple gesture identifies you as a civilized insider worthy of respect and attention.
Speak French – even if you don’t. The French are offended by the presumption that everyone in France speaks English. Tomiko warned me that it is culturally imperious to ask a French person for help in English and assume they’ll understand and hop into action. The well-mannered anglophone should apologize (in French!) for not speaking the language and then inquire if the person speaks English.
Save the smile for something funny. Every time a French person hurries away from a grinning, map-wielding tourist, France’s international reputation for rudeness grows. In the local’s mind, however, it is the tourist who is being rude. This is because the French are reserved with facial expressions and never smile without reason – especially at someone they don’t know. Idle grins are considered disingenuous. As Polly once put it: smile at a French stranger and he will assume you are deranged or mocking him.
Follow this advice and you’ll gain insight into the soul of a population who cares little for profit, slacks on customer service, yet takes great pride in doing the right thing and the thing right. For the French, it is always a matter of principle.
Which brings us back to that first cab ride in Paris.
Slamming the street atlas shut, our driver revs the engine and merges purposefully into traffic. Before we can resign ourselves to a long, circuitous commute, the car pulls to a stop. "7, rue des petit hotels," the driver announces. "Nous sommes arrivés." We’ve driven less than three blocks, and the fare is negligible. Sheepish, my mother tips handsomely. The driver allows a smile. A small smile. Not of thanks. But of vindication.