French Culture Rude or just misunderstood?

The phrase French culture raises an eyebrow or two for many tourists, expats living in France, and people in far away lands.

Non-French folk have been whispering in my ear for years about how rude the French are … and a lot of these people had never set foot in France, but they’d ‘heard’ the French were rude. Ah armchair travellers are so special :-)

Let me share some of my stories with you; after all, I moved to Paris and survived to tell the tale :-)

When I first arrived in Paris [17 years after studying French for 3 months when I was 13 years old], my command of the French language was astonishing – astonishingly pitiful, actually. :-)

All I could say is, ‘Bonjour! Je m’appelle Teena. Le ciel est blue! Il n’y a pas des nouages au ciel.’

I repeated this phrase like a wind-up toy and was embarrassed at my lack of the language. What I was actually saying was, “Hi! My name’s Teena. The sky is blue! There are no clouds in the sky.’

Well as you can imagine, this was terrific (a) if it was a sunny day, and (b) if no-one actually asked me any questions.

To say the majority of French people looked down their noses is an understatement. I felt like a speck of dust. I wanted to fit in but I sounded like an idiot.

So, what did I do to immerse myself in the French culture I so desperately wanted to understand?

I went to French school – 4 hours a day, 5 days a week, for one month, I bought a French dictionary. The overriding incentive for all of us students was to be able to communicate with each OTHER so we could learn about the 17 students from other countries who attended the class. As the lone Australian, and the first one to make fun in a foreign language, it pushed me to want to learn more every day, so I picked up as many French phrases as I could.  I learnt that to understand the French cultures and customs were also very important for me to be aware of.

And then I emerged – able to order a coffee, buy bread and wine, and talk about such fascinating topics as …. catching the metro, asking where the toilets were, following directions if I had to ask for help. The class I attended was taught by a delightful Vietnamese woman, who spoke a bit of English.

So when the day dawned when I didn’t need to attend class any more, I ventured into a café – confident – feeling French – and ordered a café crème … in what I considered my best French.

The waiter treated me like doggy doo-doo on the bottom of a shoe, and pretended he couldn’t understand me. I was crushed. He overcharged me greatly, and I wondered if I’d ever get any better at speaking French.

That spurred me on and I practiced every day, I apologised in French for speaking French badly, I mumbled, stumbled and stuttered my way through the phrases I was trying to learn …

and then one day I discovered a miracle! I was with friends and I was mimicking a French woman I’d heard, who sounded very snobby, and her French accent rose and fell in alarming troughs and highs, and they all laughed. Everyone understood me! I was amazed!

I learnt a valuable lesson that day – I needed to mimick not just what others were SAYING, but the manner in which it was being SAID.

I also learnt that waiters assume everyone knows they tend to be on the brusque side [often mistaken for rude], so I was advised to see how others spoke back to them, and I discovered they reacted best when spoken to forcefully. Not like a wimpy tourist nervous about her French grammar.

Great news! It worked! I went back to that other café, ordered my café crème, and when the waiter tried to over-charge me, I gave him a piece of my mind … in French. I could tell by the look on his face that he was VERY IMPRESSED :-) … and I felt very ‘French’!

And so I came to learn that the French are a fiercely proud race [who still can’t quite believe that English is the worldwide language, but that’s a story for another day].  I also realised that the French language culture is also worth learning about.

French culture? If you’re in France, you’re marinating in it. :-) Enjoy your stay!

French Culture through books

On my Books To Read page, you can read about “Almost French : A new Life in Paris”, by Australian Sarah Turnbull. Sarah was an outgoing fun Aussie girl who fell in love with a Frenchman, and shares her own stories of coming to grips with French culture – she started to feel like the Queen of faux pas.

For a truly charming look at French culture, you can read about A Year in Provence by English Peter Mayle on my Books To Read page.

Tips to Understand French Culture

I’ve written a couple of tips which you might find useful – you can read the tips here.