Meet the French
They’ve got a reputation for being aloof. But it’s easy to meet the French, as long as you understand certain cultural differences.
One of the pleasures of international travel is meeting the locals, and France should be no exception. Yet the French have somehow earned themselves an international reputation for being abrupt, arrogant and sometimes rude. In reality, the French can be quite friendly, make exceedingly loyal friends, and place an enormous amount of importance on good manners. So why are they so misunderstood?
It must be remembered that in France, like in any foreign country, the rules of conduct can be markedly different from our own, and it is always best to follow the established rules when known. It helps tremendously to learn the basic niceties in French and to use them constantly. When you enter a bakery, for example, it is critical to say “bonjour madame (or monsieur)”, sprinkling every subsequent transaction liberally with “s’il vous plait” and “merci”. The same goes for ordering a drink in a café or booking a hotel room over the phone.
One thing about the French that puts off foreigners, perhaps more than anything else, is the difference in the smile code. Unlike Americans, the French don’t automatically smile at everyone when talking to them, especially not to strangers. If you smile at someone across a crowded bar, he or she is just as likely to scamper away — or to glare at you — as to return your smile. Typically the French reserve their smiles for close friends and special occasions, like birthdays.
This is not to say that the French don’t like flirting. They live for it! The French, men and women alike, are constantly cruising in the street, on the metro, at the grocery store, and in practically every other forum of public life. If you participate in this national practice, remember not to smile and only to look; in France, flirting is done with the eyes, not the mouth. Cruising (draguer, which literally means “dredging”) in France is conducted with reckless abandon. A discreet look of admiration is always appreciated, and sometimes reciprocated. If someone returns your look with keen interest, on the street or at the florist’s, it is perfectly acceptable to invite that person to have a cup of coffee with you. Many French romances begin this way.
For gays and straights alike, the street is sometimes a better place to meet people than bars or cafes. Gay bars in France are a relatively new concept, and the idea of meeting people in bars is an American import that has yet to catch on fully. Not so long ago, gay bars in Paris seemed dominated (at least on a decibel level) by
Americans, with the Frenchmen often lurking silently around the edges. Fortunately this is changing, especially in the Marais, where new bars open all the time.
In general, the French do not easily strike up conversations with strangers. Making eye contact is a good start, but more pitfalls lie ahead. French conversation is based on wit rather than substance, often resembling a kind of verbal tennis match. Speaking in English can actually be an advantage here (assuming your new friend speaks it), since the code may be less rigid. Nevertheless, undue enthusiasm, volume or personal anecdotes can easily drive your new friend away.
The French aversion to meeting and conversing with new people helps explain the popularity of sleazier venues — cruising areas, saunas, dark rooms and sex clubs — where the intercourse is sexual rather than social. In these types of places post-coital conversation is the norm, if words are exchanged at all. Always remember to be extremely careful in your sexual encounters, as France has one of Europe’s highest incidences of HIV infection.
Be careful, too, of the French (Mediterranean?) tendency to dramatize lovemaking. They like to think of themselves as passionate lovers, and it is quite common — sometimes expected — to make insincere declarations of love while in the throes of ecstasy. If you don’t reciprocate, you may be accused of heartlessness, but don’t worry: it’s often just pure theatrics, part of the French rules of conduct. And if a romance really does blossom, don’t forget the new civil union laws (PACS), which permit foreigners to stay in France in the name of love — though only after dealing with the complexities and frustrations of the massive French bureaucracy.
Lastly, in your quest to meet the French, try to forget the common misconception that the French despise Americans. Nothing could be further from the truth. The French love Americans, envy us our easy-going, open natures, our friendliness. If you feel you’re being treated rudely, take a step back and watch how they treat each other, and keep in mind that many French gays dream about having a boyfriend called Kevin or Mike.