Friday, April 27, 2012

France: the mood is rude

Ok, it’s official—France is the rudest country on the planet.  Seems that a company called, which claims to be Europe’s leading travel search site, surveyed its users seeking informed opinions (i.e., from people who have actually travelled to the countries they are disparaging) about how various nations treat foreign travellers. A whopping 1200 people responded from all over the world (although a preponderance of them were European) and to nobody’s surprise, 19% named France as the place most likely to insult or offend foreign visitors, with Russia following closely behind with 16.5% of the vote. With 33 countries named by the respondents, just three countries—France, Russia and the UK—managed to amass a full 46% of the total vote!

So, if France is the rudest country in the world, it must stand to reason, then, that the French are the rudest people in the world, right? Never having been to France and having met precious few French people in my life—although the one I knew best certainly would win no prizes for her courtesy towards others—I am not in a position to definitively declare the French a race of boors, but simple logic would lead you to the conclusion that, in order for France to be declared the rudest country in the world, it must be because its citizens are significantly lacking something in the courtesy department, hein?

So this got me to thinking…

When people want to give something a touch of elegance, when they want to evoke sophistication and grace and classiness, the go-to vibe is inevitably French. Whether deciding to call your coffee shop a bistro or sidewalk café, whether evoking illusions of Versailles or the Champs Élysées, whether channelling Coco Chanel or Christian Dior…if we want to bring to mind class, elegance, and style, we turn to the French.

We even do it with language. If we want to sound erudite and urbane, we toss in a vis à vis here and a faux pas or billet doux there, knowing the cognoscenti will recognize us as one of them, and everyone else will just pretend to know what we are talking about. Despite our recent falling out with the French, renaming their delightful fried potato fingers “Freedom Fries” in a petulant attempt to teach them a lesson about reciprocal support in times of trouble, we still look to the French for those things we subconsciously consider better than prosaic American sensibilities. If it’s French, it must be classy!

So how do we reconcile this sense of Frenchness being sophisticated and worldly with their apparently deserved reputation for being the rudest people in the world? French was once the language of diplomacy and international business, having been supplanted by English in recent years, and a mental image of couture-draped women dripping gems, French tripping lightly off their tongues, is what pops up when one thinks of embassy functions and soirées. Exceedingly polite diplomats and foreign functionaries concealing their deceitful intentions behind correct smiles and polite French phrases, rigidly correct, excruciatingly refined…this perception does not square with the exasperated “Merde!” muttered as another foreign tourist butchers a patriotic Frenchman’s mother tongue with his crude accent and ridiculous phrase book.

I suspect that France—and the French—are no more rude than anyone else, that the denizens of big cities like Paris fall prey to the stress of their environment like New Yorkers and Johannesburgers, and that in more laid back environments we might find gracious hospitality rather than rude rejection.

Then, again, maybe the French are just more willing to be honest than the rest of us, less politically correct, more true to themselves and their expectations of what it takes to make a satisfying life—which, in their culture, may not include being excessively patient with visitors who seem to think everybody in the world should speak English and drop what they are doing to serve the unintelligible stranger.

There is something inherently flawed in judging other cultures based on our own values. An American or Brit might find himself repulsed by the Japanese visitor’s loud slurping and lip smacking at dinner—while the Japanese host would find himself insulted at the carefully silent dining habits of their American or British guests. Perhaps what we non-French consider rude the French consider merely expedient. It is absurd, after all, to go to a foreign country and expect its denizens to ape your own sense of manners and courtesy. When in Rome, do as the Romans do—don’t expect the Romans to suddenly exhibit the manners and mores of your culture.

Maybe we should apply that to our judgments of the French as well, n’est pas?


  1. I believe the French are more rude towards people who don't (or don't try to) speak their language. ;)

    1. Never having been there, I can't say for certain. But the article indicates that at least in Paris, the French are as rude to each other as they are to foreign tourists. And the French woman (a native Parisienne) I knew in California had lived in the US for more than 50 years, spoke English with a French accent so thick she was virtually unintelligible, and was one of the rudest, most condescending people I ever met. I am not sure how much one's ability to speak their language factors into it.


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