Are you traveling to France this summer? If so, you can use one or two tips of "savoir-vivre" (the French art of politeness), which will make the French love you.
Because who wants to be one of those annoying American tourists the world scorns at? Certainly not you!
You’re in luck, below are seven things you must do to become the perfect visitor of France. The French will love you and maybe, just maybe, the waiter and taxi driver will be a little bit less rude with you.
1) Speak French, if you can.
If you know some French, don’t be shy. The French will greatly appreciate any attempt at speaking their language. If they immediately switch to English, don’t feel bad about your French skills. They appreciate you trying to speak their language and want to return the favour by speaking yours.
If your French isn’t good enough to have the whole conversation in French, you can switch to English, or even better, ask the person if it’s ok to switch to English. But always, always, start by speaking French. Nothing is worse than an entitled tourist who speaks to you in their native language, at full speed, expecting you to understand and answer like they’re at home. Even though my English is perfect, it rubs me off every time.
2) Start every interaction with “Bonjour”.
Bonjour. The most important word of the French language. If you speak to someone by saying anything but “Bonjour”, you stand a reasonable chance of being told off by the person, or at least being answered a sarcastic “Bonjour” to whatever you were previously saying. And having the person wait until you say “Bonjour” in return before you get an answer at all.
This is very important in the French culture. So important in fact, that some cafés in France have decided to charge more for a coffee if the customer didn’t say “Bonjour” first.
“Bonjour” can get you a long way. If you don’t speak any French, at least learn how to say “Bonjour”. Here is a short video of me saying it. You can listen to it and repeat until you get it right.
Note: if it’s the evening and you’re an advanced French politeness student, you can refine it by saying “Bonsoir” instead. If you’re not sure, “Bonjour” will do.
3) Minimal survival sentence “Bonjour, do you speak English?”
Combining the first two tips: if you don’t speak any French, but still don’t want to be rude, try addressing people by saying slowly “Bonjour, do you speak English?”.
Speaking slowly and smiling can help you a lot. The French will be much more inclined to help you if you 1) greet them and 2) don’t assume that they must speak your language.
4) Be friendly.
If you have mastered “Bonjour” and you want to learn a second word, I suggest “Merci”.
Staff members in France, like everywhere in the world, like polite guests more than rude guests. So, say Bonjour, Merci, and be overall nice to them.
5) Express your feelings in a more nuanced manner.
Here is one of my favourite question asked by beginner students :
How to say “it’s amazing!” in French?
I half-jokingly answer that the translation is “C’est pas mal” ( literally: “that’s not bad”).
The French just aren’t as excited about everything as the Americans are. In fact, if you call everything awesome and amazing, you might pass as uneducated, because in France, only children and teenagers do that.
When she was a teenager, for a while, my sister would always say that things were either “cool” (using the English word) or “nul” (which can translate as “it sucks”). My parents made huge educational efforts for her to stop breaking everything into just those two categories. Because that’s how it is in France: if you are an educated adult, you have a whole range of feelings to express, due to the variety of things you have already experienced. And if you feel that something is “amazing” when in fact it’s merely “pas mal”, you come off as inexperienced.
Exception to this rule: if you have a chance to try French food, particularly if it’s homemade, feel free to call it delicious or another superlative. The cook will appreciate it.
6) Expect things to be different
In France, cars, parking lots and buildings are small. In general everything is smaller than in the US. Besides that, many other things might be surprisingly different for you. You should expect it and try to not have very strong reactions - yes, even if you are offered snails for lunch. If you’re not up for the experience, just politely decline.
Keep in mind that a surprising thing for you as a traveler is probably a normal thing for a local. Feel free to ask about it politely. Strong reactions might offend people more than you think.
7) Tip like you would in the US.
Because, I’ll tell you a secret. In France, you don’t have to tip. We only tip if we had a great experience with the restaurant and the service, and typically the tip isn’t very big. So, if you feel obliged to give a 15% tip everywhere you go, you will pass as an unknowing American tourist but people will love you nonetheless.
Those are my seven tips to be loved by locals when you travel in France. Do you know any other tip to make foreigners love you when you travel? Please share them in the comments.