The French in Paris: Rude or just misunderstood?

Waiter Image image My French Life - Ma Vie Française

It’s a familiar cliché: Parisians are always rude. Customer service in the City of Light is non-existent, with brusque waiters lining the boulevards, standing guard over the entrances to cafés and bistros, twirling their moustaches in an approach-me-if-you-dare fashion.

But is this an accurate portrait of Paris? Or are Parisians simply victims of an outdated stereotype?

In France’s tourist heart, smiles cost extra

Paris Cafe Image image My French Life - Ma Vie Française

I distinctly recall being caught out one Sunday evening, starving, in the heart of touristic Montmartre. An Australian friend was visiting us for the week, and though we would never normally consider any of the cafes around the Place du Tertre, our grumbling tummies won out.

Despite the fact that my born-and-bred French boyfriend accompanied us, and that I also spoke the language fluently, we were ignored for ten full minutes out the front of the restaurant.

Eventually, we were led to a too-small table in a dingy corner by way of a disinterested flick of the hand. Ten minutes after that, three grubby menus in English were tossed our way, along with a sneer. My boyfriend was embarrassed, my friend was horrified, and I was fascinated.

Parisians play their role in France

Alison Eastaway - 2.7.13What intrigued me the most, was that I had been living in the city for months and not once had I encountered this sort of attitude. Then again, I didn’t usually frequent eateries so close to tourist hot spots. It made me wonder if the cliché wasn’t something of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

If tourists come to Paris already expecting rude service, and the wait staff have had this insulting cultural stereotype spouted at them ad nauseam – then why not simply go with it?

And, if our surly waiter was anything to go by, tourists could be forgiven for returning home and reinforcing the notion that Parisians are indeed, rude.

Foreigners bring high expectations to France

Alison Eastaway - 2.7.13 1For the most part though, after more than a year in Paris, I came across far more pleasant wait staff than I did prickly. Pleasant, that is: not effusive, not friendly, and not enthusiastic. Pleasant. Respectful. And at times, reserved.

In Australia, I think we are used to service that is very friendly, and at times, a little too informal. Perhaps herein lies the problem: if Australians and our American and British counterparts travel to Paris with this kind of service in mind, it’s  not surprising that Paris doesn’t deliver.

It’s not that Parisian waiters, metro ticket sellers, bakers, and supermarket clerks don’t want to serve you. They do. They just don’t want to be your friend.

The end of an era in France’s capital

Soon this cliché may be a thing of the past. That is, if the Paris Chamber of Commerce has anything to do with it. A new six-page manual entitled ‘Do You Speak Touriste?’ has been distributed to service staff across the French capital, aiming to help the city better cater to its international visitors.¹

Alison Eastaway - 2.7.13 2

Do you think a flimsy brochure will be enough to do the trick?

Share your own experience of the Parisian service industry in the comments below.

1. Parisians Given Etiquette Manual to Combat Rude Reputation, Huffington Post, 19/06/13
Image credits:
1. Julie70, via Flickr
2. Pat Guiney, via Flickr
3. MyTangerineDreams, via Flickr
4. taniwha, via Flickr
5. Jonathan Adami, via Flickr

About the Contributor

Alison Eastaway

“I am Australian-born but Parisienne at heart. I've spent 8 years in Paris, and can usually be found sipping coffee on café terraces or snuggling up with my cat and a book. Follow me on Twitter, or find me on LinkedIn."

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  1. Briony Kemp Griffin Jul 15, 2013 at 7:40 PM - Reply

    Hi Alison!

    This is an amazing article – thank you!
    I have obviously experienced some stereotypical ‘French service’, however, that was only at cafes near Notre Dame – one of the most touristic places in Paris. The waiter just came up to me and said abruptly “What do you want?”, I hadn’t decided yet, so he let out a ‘pfff’ and walked away… I didn’t feel great after that!
    However, I have encountered wonderful waiters outside of the touristic areas! The service is ‘perfection’! They are polite, sincere, interested, BUT not informal – just like you said!
    I think it is a very respectful relationship that the restaurateurs build with their clients and I hope that doesn’t change! I like the fact that you have to get out of the touristic areas to get good service – you feel more parisian that way 🙂

    I don’t think a brochure will make huge changes, at least not right away.

    • Alison Eastaway Jul 19, 2013 at 5:46 PM - Reply

      Thanks for your comment Briony! And sorry to hear about your experiences near the Notre Dame. I was in Paris just last week and stopped for a quick cheese plate and glass of wine right next to the Galleries Lafayette and was systematically ignored by three separate waiters when trying to pay the bill. You’re right though, even though you know it isn’t anything to do with you, it doesn’t feel good.

      I think you are right about the culture of building respect, and it feels great when you find that perfect little bistro out of the way of the tourist heart!

  2. Cécile Mazurier Jul 16, 2013 at 12:15 PM - Reply

    Thank you for this article. It’s true that in France, the service is supposed to be discreet and not intrusive. A brochure seems like a bit of a funny thing but it’s true that a bit of English would honestly help.

    • Alison Eastaway Jul 19, 2013 at 5:47 PM - Reply

      Thanks Cécile! I like what you said about service being discreet in France, which we may sometimes interpret as inattentive, even if it isn’t.

  3. Ralph Merwin Jul 19, 2013 at 10:53 AM - Reply

    I just returned from a two-week visit to France – about a week in Paris and another in Antibes. My experience with the vendors and wait staff in both locations was that they were generally friendly and patient, which I attribute to my attempts to speak French with them. If they didn’t seem to be in a hurry, I would explain that I’m learning French and then ask them something about the language (what’s the word for …, etc.) and they usually warmed up even more.

    Once in the Paris metro I was looking at the map trying to figure out which end of the line I wanted, and a guy stopped and asked me where I needed to go, and then told me which platform I needed.

    The only time I got rude/impatient treatment was when I did something stupid such as trying to buy vegetables as the vendor was trying to get setup for the morning (my definition of ‘early’ appears to be much earlier than French ‘early’).

    • Alison Eastaway Jul 19, 2013 at 5:52 PM - Reply

      Thanks Ralph, I hope you had a lovely trip!

      I’ve had similar experiences to you, if I even stopped and looked around for street sign in Paris, locals would often stop to ask if they could help. And I think they absolutely appreciate any efforts to learn the language. Your comment about the market made me laugh, I too am an early riser and so often a in the bakery before even the baguettes are ready!

  4. Alex Mealey Jul 23, 2013 at 9:40 AM - Reply

    I don’t think that a brochure will change anything – but it will be interesting to see if it does make any difference in the future. But I am a huge fan of respectful and discreet waiters as you, Briony and Cécile have said. In Australia I can sometimes feel that my night out is being intruded on by an overly friendly waiter who seemingly wants to be my friend.

  5. Alex Mealey Jul 23, 2013 at 9:46 AM - Reply

    Part of the reason the French can seem very rude, is that they sometimes seem like they refuse to speak any English. I heard (or read, I cant remember) a theory that French people can be perfectionists when it comes to speaking a second language so they don’t want to speak any of it unless it is perfect. They would rather say nothing at all. What are your thoughts on this? Do you think this is part of the reason they might withhold their basic English?

    • Alison Eastaway Jul 24, 2013 at 10:51 PM - Reply

      Hi Alex, thanks for your comments!

      I love that you brought up the perfectionist issue, I have come across this before and had it echoed by my French mother-in-law and some of my French friends. I think it definitely contributes to the issue, but what’s funny is that it doesn’t seem to work the other way around, as in, they don’t mind at all that tourists aren’t perfect at French. I was often rewarded (as Ralph mentioned too) for any attempt to speak French, horrendous or otherwise!

      And I agree, that once you are used to the French, more discreet service, the ‘old way’ feels a bit too full on!

    • Sandra E Brown Nov 7, 2013 at 6:25 PM - Reply

      I know this comment was a while ago but I have to say I agree with you. I think the French simply don’t want to feel they sound stupid or feel embarrassed. They are in their own country and when confronted by an English speaking native rattling off their order in rapid English while their head is in their menu … Native English speakers can have unrealistic expectations about the ESL proficiency of non native speakers.

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