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Are Parisians rude? 5 tips to minimize bad treatment

Posted in: Paris Planning

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A "bonjour" and "merci" go far when speaking with the locals. Photo: Tom Meyers
A "bonjour" and "merci" go far when speaking with the locals. Photo: Tom Meyers

By Bryan Pirolli in Paris—

It’s a longstanding and debatable stereotype that Parisians are rude. Many visitors to Paris who try to speak French, order a salad without pork, or try to ask for directions often have the impression that the local they address are anything but kind and welcoming.

It may be cultural misunderstanding, but then again, plenty of French people from outside of the capital agree that Parisians can be quite sour. In any case, no one wants to make the faux pas of aggravating a Parisian, intentionally or not.

Happily, there are some simple ways that the informed visitor to the City of Light can minimize their chances of things getting ugly. Playing the game à la française and adhering to some codes of politesse might keep things friendly – or not. Either way, these five tips are worth a try:

1.  Most importantly, mind your manners.

When you enter a store, a café, or a bakery, a “bonjour” is always appreciated, if not expected. Consider the ice broken at this point, and afterwards the rest is up to fate. “Merci,” “pardon,” and “s’il vous plaitgo a long way for shop-owners and waiters, especially if those are the only French words you know.

As you leave the establishment, a “Merci, au revoir” is also appreciated, no matter how good or bad the service was, especially if you plan on returning.

2.  Kill them with kindness.

The blasé Parisian attitude is something of a cultural hallmark. The locals seem to rarely get excited about anything, which must be hard if you are a vendor or a waiter. How often does their work seem appreciated?

I find that lots of smiles, enthusiasm, and excitement, no matter how feigned, seems to abate any rudeness that might have been coming my way. Smiles are infectious even for the most jaded Parisian worker. If nothing else, you’ll have at least delayed any mistreatment for a few minutes as their Parisian brains wrap around your foreign glee. It’s worth the cheek muscle exercise.

3.  When smiles don’t work, money might.

If you plan on returning to a barber, a café, or a restaurant, leave a tip. You’d be surprised at the difference it can make. My barber actually remembers my name – after months of repeatedly asking if I’m on vacation – and I feel that my consistent tips have something to do with that. Tips to a Parisian waiter or waitress are not expected and thus carry more weight than the obligatory 15-20 percent left in America. (For more info, read our guide to tipping in Paris.)

4.  Sympathize, feel their pain, puff your cheeks.

Parisians are constantly anguished, and every task from opening an email to serving a glass of wine can be full of effort, pain and suffering. It’s always very helpful when you see a Parisian worker going through something egregiously difficult, especially with another customer, to play along.

When you finally engage them – for example, if a waiter just got chewed out by another Parisian client – give him a sympathetic look and let him know that you know what he’s going through. I often assure various cashiers and office workers that I encounter that my request will be simple as I shoot a glance at the annoying customer and puff out my cheeks and blow air through my lips. It’s the Parisian gesture for, “What a piece of work…”

5.  When all else fails, be patient.

No matter how rude the waiter is or how grumpy the concierge may be or how disagreeable the shopkeeper gets, you won’t change them. It’s frustrating, but it’s true. I’m not saying to roll over and take it whenever someone treats you badly, but instead of getting angry and starting a shouting match (which are more fun to watch than to participate in) take the higher road. Be patient, make your demands clear, and hold your ground.

Just don’t lose your cool, unless you’re Parisian…

Your tips for avoiding any rudeness?

Do you have any advice to help others steer clear of rudeness? Share with us in the comments section.

About the author

Bryan Pirolli

About the author: With his college diploma fresh off the press, Bryan Pirolli headed for Paris and four years later he’s still there. A journalist and a tour guide, his main M.O. is pursuing a doctorate degree in communications at the Sorbonne Nouvelle. Bryan regularly travels on a budget, experiencing the best of European culture while still trying to make rent.  So far, so good. You can follow his adventures on his blog: www.bryanpirolli.com.

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23 Responses to “Are Parisians rude? 5 tips to minimize bad treatment”

Stephanie C says:

We have had nothing but wonderful treatment by the people in Paris! They love their city and seem happy to see that you love it also. We are approached by locals, no matter how little English they speak, asking if we need help finding our way in the Metro. A woman helped us with one of our suitcases up and down stairs at the Metro! I find myself forgetting my manners and like your article mentioned, that is important.

Curt says:

For the most part, I feel the reputation of Parisians being rude is undeserved. It seems there are a few waiters, mostly in tourist establishments, that give everyone else a bad name.

I remember years ago doing laundry in Paris and being down to my last ten-franc piece. The coin turned out to be fake, so the machine wouldn’t accept it. A local woman there showed me how she could tell the coin was fake, and then gave me one of hers to finish my laundry. So I don’t doubt that Paris has some genuinely nice people.

That said, these are all great tips. One more tip you might mention, especially when dealing with someone of the opposite sex, is some harmless flirting. Several years ago, I was trying to register a car at a prefecture in France, and my papers were out of order. The clerk was a woman, and when I smiled and made a little more eye contact than usual, my forms were suddenly stamped and a carte grise was in my hand!

Molly says:

When summoning your waiter DO NOT snap your fingers and call, “Garçon!”. Not just your waiter, but everyone else in the restaurant, will hate you.

Bryan Pirolli Bryan says:

This only works in the films, right?

Stacey S says:

Parisians are not any more rude than anyone else. Yes, many are harried, but you will find this is so in many big cities; New York, London, Athens, Berlin, Brussels, etc. One might be there as a tourist but others actually live and work there.

That said, the best technique I have found is to learn a few basic phrases. I learned the above and also, “Je ne parle pas français. Parlez vous anglais?”

I speak English, Greek, Spanish, Italian, and German but have never learned French except what I have taught myself. I was treated with courtesy wherever we went and I found Parisians generally delightful and kind.

nighty says:

Take it from the Parisian: never go to them expecting them to speak english. If you come to them speaking english, they will hate you for forgetting you’re in a country with its own language. A small “bonjour, parlez-vous anglais, s’il-vous-plait?” will show them you are aware that French exists, and they will be all too happy to prove they’re actually bilingual.

Anel Olsson says:

I agree with all of the above, also, either Paris loves YOU or it doesn’t. Apparently I am lucky enough to possess that certain ‘je ne sais quoi’, so my time in Paris was truly special. And friendly :)

Christina | AmiExpat says:

I’ve never had any problem with Parisians being rude. I’ve always found them to be quite polite and helpful. I am very polite in return and use my very dusty high school French as much as possible. It might also help that in the meantime, I’ve become fluent in German, and when trying to speak French, sometimes German words slip out, so they see that I am at least bilingual and trying to speak French. (I once started an order in a restaurant in French and finished it in German without realizing it. My dinner mate made a comment that they didn’t think that last part was French, but the waiter laughed and said, “No problem, I understood.”)

Karen Bryan Karen Bryan says:

Parisians are not rude and I wish you wouldn’t perpetuate this myth with articles like this.

Hi Karen,

I don’t think that Bryan’s piece is meant to be taken completely at face value. He puts in tips, sure, but it’s also a wry critique written by somebody who’s lived in Paris for years and can poke fun at certain cultural differences.

Obviously, the first tip says it all: Learn at least a few words of politesse, as you are a visitor to another country with its own language and culture.

Perhaps another tip would be to lower your expectations for the speed with which you will be served in a restaurant, bar or cafe. Waiters don’t live off their tips, and establishments are not staffed full of waiters like they are back in the US.

Thus, service may not always by speedy or come with a smile. But hey, at least the waiter can smile inside knowing they have a retirement account and health insurance… Ah, cultural differences!

The late Polly Platt had the best tips in her book “French or Foe.” Among them, always begin with “Bonjour, Madame” or Bonjour, Monsieur” (vs just “bonjour.”) And the other great tip: ask for help or advice, and apologize for taking time away from their duties “Excusez-moi, de vous deranger, (monsieur or madame), mais j’ai un probleme/une question…”

Often the extra bit about “I don’t speak French” is unnecessary at this point. They understand that from your accent.

Other tip (from me): always, when possible, offer exact change.

I disagree about money and extra goofy smiles solving any of the issues. In fact they can sometimes make it worse. Being civilized and respectful,on the other hand, can build bridges.

Bryan Pirolli Bryan says:

I totally agree about the “Excusez-moi de vous deranger” one. That’s a miracle phrase to use. And the exact change is a good form of politesse that’s great for cashiers, but oftentimes painful for the dozens of people waiting in line while Madame or Monsieur counts out their centimes…but such is life.

But you disagree about smiling? I’ve worked in several Parisian restaurants and I’ve certainly never been unappreciative of either a tip or of a smiling customer…just saying :)

Mary says:

This all sounds a bit too spoiled for my taste!
I will treat them as I treat everyone else in the world.
With respect when I encounter anyone new
and with no respect to rude people.

Period.

Stephanie says:

I have been living in Paris for 3+ years and the one time a sales person was unforgivably rude with me (to the point where I started crying), another Parisian in line behind me chewed her out.

There is one thing you did not mention in the post and it is to look your best when you are in Paris. You do not have to be beautiful or fashionable, but if you are dressed neatly and present yourself well, it will change everything. You do not have to wear stilettos, but neither should you wear running shoes to go shopping or to a restaurant.

Bryan Pirolli Bryan says:

For every rude Parisian that *might* exist, of course there are dozens that are normal, compassionate human beings…I’m sorry you had to meet this kindly Parisian under such circumstances, but points for the save!

Interesting…I never thought of dressing neatly as a form of politesse, but it is true that looking like a mess will not necessarily make anything easier for you…

Stephanie says:

In the states, people only get dressDressing well in France is paying a compliment to those around you…it is like saying I took the time to make myself presentable in order to appear attractive to you.

Libbie says:

A question: do you find women and men to be equally rude in Paris? As a 5′ tall older person, I am often pushed around in the Metro and on the street by young men in a hurry. That’s the Parisian rudeness I remember and it seems I only encountered it from young men. Anyone else find that to be true?

Bryan Pirolli Bryan says:

That’s a tough debate…in any culture, really…but I don’t find any one gender or age bracket to more susceptible to rudeness.

Alisa Morov says:

fabulously written article! will pass this to all my visitors… Only thing to add – try to curb the natural inclination of Americans to speak loudly…projecting your voice – not so well regarded in France.

Kay says:

Generally, I have learned to approach older women to ask for directions and to avoid those younger women who appear to be immigrants as they usually don’t know the answer nor do they speak French very well. In busy commercial areas, the under 35, nicely dressed working people will all speak English but I do approach them first with my limited French. And yes, do be extra polite.

MIchelle says:

Everyone talks about the Parisians being rude, but maybe they just find “us” to be rude and annoying, and react (or act first, just in case). My first experience in Paris was also my first in Europe, on my way to a year’s study in Spain. A lady berated me for stepping on the grass in a park – probably Luxemburg – which being a green Yankee, I was unaware that’s normal in most formal “gardens”. I’ve visited several times over the years and also worked for two months on the Eiffel Tower, and have pleasant experiences every time. If I were to see Paris only once, I would definately recommend seeing it WITH the Parisians there.

Ken NH says:

I never got the rudeness thing, though I’ve certainly heard the folk tale. My French is passable — and the listener has to be very patient with me — but I’ve been fortunate to have some very pleasant conversations with table mates over dinner. You know how close tables can be, you can’t help but overhear the conversation next to you. Especially if you are eating alone.

I would certainly agree that “Bonjour Madame” and those few other phrases go a long way. Should add that they are fun to practice too. Done well, there is a sing-song rhythm that just rolls off your tongue. You can easily practice the phrase 30 times a day, so can get quite good. It gets to be as automatic as an American “Hello” or head nod.

Can’t wait for the next trip!

Shill says:

I have been to Paris quite a few times and have not found the people there to be any more rude than anone else in a big city. Sure, there are always a few folks with little “attitudes” but this is not just confined to Paris alone! Overall, I have found Parisians to be quite friendly as long as you are.

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