Let me start with a story that I don’t think I’ve ever shared here. Several years before I moved to France, an older, well-traveled friend warned me about the French. I had plans to go to Paris later that month and she wanted to prepare me.
At that time, I hadn’t met Tom yet and moving here wasn’t even on my radar. I had very limited first-hand knowledge of France. This friend who had been to France many times for her job told me about Paris and what French people were like. She was convinced that all French men only want to get in your pants and will lie to you. That the French are arrogant, standoffish and focused on appearances. She really let it rip!
What she said made me really anxious about going to France and I nearly cancelled my trip. None of it was positive and I didn’t like anything about what she had to say. My friend was someone I looked up to, and since she traveled to Paris regularly, what she was saying carried weight.
Luckily, I went to Paris as planned and had a blast. My own experiences were nothing like hers. That’s the point I want to make here. We all live our own lives and our experiences won’t all be the same. That’s a beautiful thing.
Flash forward to today, I see a lot of content out there on social media that makes it seem like all French people are superficial and judgy. It’s nothing new and you’ve seen it time and time again. “French girl” this and that sells. Aspire to be like the French! Diet like them, raise your kids like them, decorate like them. I know you know what I mean and it’s not all bad. There are lots of amazing things the French do well and we can learn from them.
When it’s taken to the Nth degree, that’s when it becomes problematic. It’s perpetuating this mentality that the French are superior and that everyone else is “less than.” I’m also talking about the advice that says how you have to come to France and be dressed like this or act like that. Otherwise, the French will look down on you and judge you because that’s how they are. I hate that the French are being generalized like this.
People — and the way we live our lives — are nuanced. There are judgmental people everywhere, FYI. For the record, there are French people who are overweight, loud talkers, rude like it’s their job, not fashionable, dress more casually, don’t know the first thing about wine and maybe don’t even drink, aren’t good cooks, don’t have a lot of money, live in public housing, go to McDonald’s regularly and are perfectly fine and enjoying their life as much as the next person.
I also want to point out that the complete opposite view of the French can be equally problematic, one where we automatically assume that all French people are kind and welcoming, especially if we start with the obligatory bonjour!
People are people and despite doing everything right, someone might still be rude to us. When we have this impression that the French are all kind and wonderful and then someone is super rude, it can make us think we did something wrong if our experience doesn’t match what we’ve heard.
For me, the truth of it all lies somewhere in the middle. If you spend enough time in any one place, you’re sure to encounter someone who isn’t so kind and welcoming. I always chuckle a little bit when people proclaim that the French are so kind and wonderful, without leaving room for nuance. If you’ve never met a rude French person, you haven’t spent enough time here. They definitely exist… again, like anywhere.
I feel like I have to mention this because so many people out there have this uniform impression of the French. People actually think that all French people have inherent food and wine knowledge, are all slim, all shop at the farmer’s market and cook from scratch and have perfect wardrobes, and the list goes on and on.
How do I know this?
I’ve met people who have told me as much time and time again. At a family Passover meal, I met a guest for the first time. We’ll call her Jan and she was well into her 60s and well educated. We got to talking about France and what life is like there, as you do, and then boom. She was jaw-on-the-floor shocked when I revealed that not all French people fall into the classy stereotypical mold. She was almost sad about it, like a kid finding out there’s no Santa. Paris Syndrome is real and it’s why I don’t tell people I meet in passing that I live in France.
Jan couldn’t believe that there are homeless people in France or that the French eat fast food. I didn’t mean to burst her bubble, but I did clear up some common misconceptions she’s believed her whole life.
Anyway, there’s a lot to say on this. My whole point here is that I think it’s troublesome when people act like experts and spread misinformation about France and the French in an all-or-nothing kind of way. Like it’s black or white.
It’s one thing to say, “In my experience, I found the French to be judgmental because of this exchange we had and we saw a lot of well-dressed people in Paris” and another thing entirely to authoritatively state, “The French are judgmental and everyone is well dressed.” There’s no room for nuance there and then we wonder why people believe this stuff like Jan in my story from above!
Look, I want to be clear about something. It’s great to share our experiences. I encourage that and I do it regularly here on the blog and YouTube in the hopes that it’ll help you in some way. But you’ll notice I try to not state sweeping generalizations as facts, nor do I paint the French with one unrealistic brush. I also don’t claim that my experience is the one and only experience to have. Nor am I trying to convince you to “be more like the French.” Come and form your own opinion and do what you want. It’s important to leave room for other points of view. As I say, the living abroad experience is not one size fits all.
I get discouraged when I see popular Instagram accounts tell others about what France is like (in absolutes!) — often after spending time just in Paris. It can be stressful and intimidating for someone who has never been to France (not to mention frustrating to read if you’ve lived here a decade). As if the French are here with their imaginary rulebooks they whip out to judge tourists.
Last thing, I had a reader email me and what she said made me feel incredibly sad. She said she has always wanted to visit Paris but has held off for years because she is overweight and was told the French will mock her. NO! GO TO PARIS! Live your life.
If you take anything away from this post, let it be this: The French are not all perfectly cultured upper-middle class unicorns that look down on others. Maybe in some circles, but that’s people anywhere. Nor are they all kind and welcoming. The beauty of it all is that the French come from all different backgrounds, in all shapes and sizes and skin tones and they aren’t all any one way.
Above all, come to France and enjoy it! All that BS needs to stop because it’s not helping anyone.
What do you think? Chime in below because there’s a lot to say on this! I’ve just scratched the surface… and thank you to FB follower Jennifer for sharing this video about the danger of sharing just a single story about a place or its people.
If you like content like this, let me know! I have a lot more up my sleeve.
P.S. I shared an abridged version of this on my FB page and people commented that some fashion tips would be helpful. I have to figure out how to format it and write the post in a way that would make sense, but it’s on my radar and I will be working on that in the coming weeks. Real quick, one brand for high-quality, ethically made shoes I swear by is Nisolo. I’ve worn them for years and am an affiliate for them. Can’t. Get. Enough.
P.P.S. If you want no-nonsense tips that are actually helpful and will make you more prepared for your France trip, check out my eBook here titled “75 Beginner France tips for a standout trip!”
Tina J says
As I commented on your FB page, this is a great post. And I have to confess, I had NO idea there was such a thing as Paris Syndrome. I never heard of it before. I clicked on your link and read about it. I honestly don’t know whether to laugh or cry.
You’ve brought up some good points, Diane. I follow a lot of Francophile Insta accounts for inspiration and some of them live or have lived in France but many don’t and just visit regularly. This is hard to articulate but I notice that much of the advice is from a certain place of privilege and a similar experience, living in trendy areas and all that comes with it. Foreigners who don’t speak French hang out in circles with English-speaking French people who have a certain level of education. Their advice isn’t based on their experience living in a working class neighborhood befriending French people who earn minimum wage and don’t speak English. That’s why it’s especially problematic when they present one view as THE view. I’ve had to unfollow a lot of people lately. Anyway, good food for thought. I particularly enjoyed this one.
Susan H says
Thank you so much for this post. You make excellent points about all cultures. It is fun for me to read blogs about French life and French culture but the blogs I appreciate the most are the blogs that are factual and don’t perpetuate a French fantasy. This post reminds me of photos on Instagram where the first shot is perfection. In the second shot the camera has captured all the chaos beyond the staged area. As always, thanks, I enjoy your blog very much.
It is true for Americans, even amongst Americans too. The French other nationals certainly have a stereotypical view of the life of an American. However, I hear Americans describe life in the U.S. and am surprised, because they have only experienced life in the southeast, or back east, or Midwest. The U.S. is huge and there are so many influences on the culture of an area: demographics, economics, geographics, and even the weather. There does tend to be a collective bond, because people share the same experiences and that influences how the world will see a certain group. Vive la difference !
Steve Johnson says
Diane, great article. We have been on our 3 months French stay for a month, spent in Paris and in Aix en provence with some day trips. This is not our first time in France but first since Covid. We love France and the French. We speak some, read better, love learning each day another phrase, another word, another sentence. Recently have enjoyed saying ca tout, as we need nothing else. We have met many French people; they are like most others in that some are outgoing, and some are not. Our market people have come to know us a little, our coffee vender loves when I come in and she corrects my sentence structure and laughs when I ask for cinq cent grams of coffee.
We are off to Annecy in a few days for a festival (fete) that you may someday want to cover. Second weekend of October the festival of the pastures welcoming the animals back from the mountain pastures and honoring them for their contributions. French, Italiens Swiss and Germans come together for a wonder couple of days. Truly a special event. Thanks for your work.
Steve & Joni
Your post made me laugh and also commiserate…I had the same “all French men are love-them-and-leave-them” or “he’s French, he’s only interested in getting in your bed” when I was dating my now-husband, that I was almost too terrified to actually continue dating him! (I also made the mistake of reading Polly Platt’s book “Love à la Française”, which is really a very particular book about a very particular socio-economic group of French men and their American wives).
And you are so right – people are people, no matter what. I remember a few years ago, I was standing in line at a restaurant in Paris with my husband and his family. An American woman came up to us to ask us a question, and before any of us had a chance to answer (his family was looking to me to respond, which was totally fine and understandable as they don’t speak English), she stomped away muttering “the French are so RUDE!” oohh I was so pissed! So I stomped back over to her and said “Listen, lady, I’m American and believe me, I can be JUST AS RUDE!”
Mike lenington says
Have you experienced any prejudice against. Jewish people while in France?
This is a good post, Diane. I have lived in Besançon and Obernai, and visited Paris many times. I would no more make generalizations about the French than I would about any nationality. Each of us makes our own experiences. The way you act and react is every bit as important as the actions and reactions of the people you meet. Too many of us forget that every day!
Aahhhh, so true! We live in SW France, although I have spent a lot of time in Paris… and I can tell you (like London is not representative of England), Paris is not representative of France. Every part of France has their quirks and styles and food influence… just like everywhere else.
Yes, there are some cultural differences that if ignored, you get the blunt end of the french stick (not saying Bonjour when you walk into shops / restaurants etc). But these are not absolutes and are not negatives! I know it’s hard for people to see a new place without the cultural filter they grew up with, but I wish people would stop and try to find perspective before they make broad statements
Hey I just moved to France, I will be living here for the next 8 months or so and I’m so glad I found your blog, it’s great to have some advice and first hand experiences to read and learn from 🙂
As someone from Canada, I can relate to this post a lot, but in a different way: usually people generalize Canadians and say we are all so nice and friendly. Which can be true, but just like anywhere, that’s not everyone, and it reduces the nuance and complexity of an entire country into one specific way of acting or being. Not very helpful, but I guess there are certainly worse stereotypes out there!
Also I see that you mentioned a Passover dinner, are you Jewish? I am, and was wondering what your experience has been like living in France, or if you have any posts about that?
Hi Addie, glad you’re enjoying my site 🙂 I’m actually not religious at all, Jewish or otherwise, so I can’t speak more to that. Some family members are Jewish though so that’s why I was at a Passover dinner. All I can say is that there are way fewer Jewish people it seems at least in my area of France than in the US and the French as a whole don’t really know much about Jewish holidays. you definitely don’t see menorahs in windows in December.
I think this post is excellent. I have one thought to add: in my experience, in France, just like everywhere, you get a different response based on your own behavior. My husband and I visited France many times before moving here in January, and our experience has always been positive. But we’ve observed what we call “ugly Americans” who expect everything to be just like it is at home (think trains, bathrooms, food, culture, manners, etc.), who don’t get the positive reactions we’ve always had from French people. In my opinion, expecting things to be “like at home” when traveling will limit one’s appreciation and overall experience.
Teresa Cabebe says
An excellent post. Unfortunately several friends have blasted their negative views about the people in Paris. Frankly, I ignored them. We’ll run into badly behaved people wherever we go. I admire the French lifestyle and have adopted many of their ways. Being an American I’ve met many ‘ugly’ ones who try to ruin life. I walk away and live a happy, contented day. Thank you for your verbiage– very much appreciated!
Robert Knibb says
Bonjour, Diane. Your post was long overdue. I had begun to think all French were paragons. Glad to know they are human just like me. I do continue to believe, however, that there are many aspects of French life that are desirable. Against what I see of American life, I can’t help but think their way is better.
My condolences on the anniversary of your mother’s death.
There are good things and bad things about both places. I’ve traveled to France on many occasions over the years and have maintained a relationship with a former exchange student and his family for over a decade. In all those years I’ve had what I would call a negative interaction with exactly one couple. And the woman in the couple is an American! In all the years, with all the people and all the interactions, I have met people who are warm, funny, caring, and kind. I am not fancy, and no one has ever made me feel out of place in my neat but not fancy clothes. I’ve seen the best of humanity and I’ve seen the dregs…just like here in the USA. Overall, there are many, many positives and pluses to French life and culture and many that I wish were the norm here in America. But there are also American things that I would miss if I lived in France.
Isabella Presley says
OMG Diane, I absolutely love you! I have always wanted to go to Paris, and I am a Canadian, anglophone (learning French) and I met a man from France, he lives in Paris. He is the sweetest person alive and taught me these things too! You get connards everywhere 😉 Oui? Hahahah. But I think how we view things from our own experiences will shape our opinions. I definitely plan on coming to Paris, and I do want to go to Lyon as well.
What are your favourite spots in France?
Merci beaucoup, madame! <3
SueEllen Leroy says
I just returned to the US after spending the month of September in France. I was in the Dordogne Valley and Bordeaux. Everyone I interacted with was friendly, kind, and willing to help with my horrible pronunciation as I murdered what little French I knew! They appreciated that I was trying to speak their language. (The WORST tourist mistake one can make is to visit a foreign country and expect its inhabitants to speak OUR language!). If any “myth” was proven time and again, it was the “ugly” American behavior. In fact, there were times I pretended to not understand what they were saying because I didn’t want to be identified with them at all. A smile, an attempt to speak French, and kind respect goes a long way to a GREAT experience! I look forward to returning soon.
Scott Westerfield says
Your comments about the reality vs the stereotypes of French people and life is absolutely true. People are people first and are shaped by many different life experiences only some of which reflect on their nationality. I lived in the Loire area (Nantes) for six months as an exchange student 45 years ago and have returned to France many times since. I have friends there who are liberal and some who want to see the return of the monarchy. Different religions, different social views, different levels of sophistication and, yes, one who hates cheese! One friend would never dream of visiting the U.S. and others would give their right arm to live here. Some stereotypes have a grain of truth, but they are over generalizations – junk food for the lazy mind. The best way to overcome them is to travel and decide for yourself!
We visited France for 8 weeks Fall, 2021. We visited many regions, ending in Paris for a week. We stayed at small b&b and ate at restaurants every day. Everyone we met was lovely. Love your Instagram and blogs
Jean Barrucand says
i am very glad to hear your comments.
i am French born and i have lived in Australia and Canada.
i am always amused to hear the cliche about the French.
i need to tell you of an anecdote which happened to me.
in Australia, i was looking for a job and a friend said “i have found one for you,” “really” was my response, “yes, chef”, “but I do not know how to cook” (i was only 24 at the time) his response, i will never forget “but you are French”.
i have said to all the people i meet and my students of the French language and culture “do not judge the French people through me and do not judge me through the few French people you have met.
thank you my friend for your good words about the French people.
Having lived here in France Profonde for 11 years I have found the French to be wildly diverse – warm, kind, proud, funny, patient, impatient, happy, dour, hard-working, lazy, silly, terribly serious, etc – just like my fellow Americans in some ways but with more formality. I admire many things about French culture and other things drive me a little bit crazy. I felt exactly the same way about the Irish when I lived there for 11 years before coming here – their culture is wildly different from US and French culture but all of the same human traits exist. People are people – human behavior is similar everywhere, and kindness and warmth transcend cultural differences, even across different languages.. For me the greatest differences are in how we express ourselves – one’s mother tongue is so integral to who you are that even with fluency in a second language it can sometimes be tough to comprehend true meanings.
Like you, I would encourage people who want to come to France to forget most of what they think they know and have another look with fresh eyes and an open mind.
Isabel Monday says
Sorry to hear about your mum. I just lost my dog .And a friend passed just after.
Thanks for this .I have found the same when been in France. My car broke down once and I had to stay at a hotel and felt we were not 100% welcome and one man said you english dont like us you call us frogs and I told him No that is not the case at all. Then elsewhere I have played petanque with the locals (I won lol) and even invited into their house for a night by one family .They had an english lambretta and an old car like chitty bang bang. In their garage and loved sharing that with us. Also had a surprise lunch party thrown for us in the centre ville under a huge summer house type thing by a french lady who ran a cafe in Bourg .Which was fancy and yes the French some eat McDonald’s ha ha that made me laugh you saying that. Chateau diaries Dan just had a Madonalds dinner party at his new chateau hes doing up. We were always hunting down McDonald’s in France ( my ex hubby was obsessed with Mcdonalds) and in fact the coffee is better in France .But Id rather be at a pretty bistro overlooking a river with my expresso. Lol but thats the romanticized side of me .xxxx Thanks for this God Bless you love Isabel
Another GREAT article, Diane. Well done!
The narrow minded, and, yes, racist generalization about French people is no different than saying that all New Yorkers are rude and cold. Yes, there are some who may fit that generalization but there are also some wonderful, kind folks there who go out of their way to help a perfect stranger with directions, answer questions, and are genuinely nice human beings. Years ago I met someone who was to become my best friend in NYC when I needed help finding an address that just didn’t seem to exist and was helped by a very kind (and patient) local.
Goodness is out there if you just decide to look.
Thank you for providing such insightful knowledge.
Oh yes, I’ve heard so many of the same things! I lived in St Etienne, a lovely city and totally enjoyed every minute! So I appreciate your post so much!
Thank you for sharing your life in France and sending you many hugs to celebrate your Mom!
Yeah it’s a bunch of “othering”. I have told people I am from Canada before simply to get them off my back about why I “talk so proper”. In America, the average person cannot handle a person of color that did not grow up speaking AAEV, went to an all white school and ate mac & cheese out of the box…..as a mean. Like, on purpose. I never had a black teacher and I make no apologies. But what I’m NOT gonna do is teach everyone sociology. The same goes for if they think I’m Spanish. And I play along because lawyers get paid to argue, I don’t. Then they wanna be like speak Spanish to me. If I say I don’t speak it they wanna spout some phrase they learned off of YouTube expecting me to nod and smile. Saying I’m NOT Spanish gets the same reaction. So all hope is lost. People are a mess.