As I was preparing for the big move to Paris earlier this year, I received countless “words of wisdom” (read: warnings) about French people and their culture. Now that I’ve been here a while, I have a pretty good understanding of which French stereotypes hold true, and which have more holes than that piece of Swiss cheese you just ate, which probably came from Ohio. It’s time to set the record straight.
Stereotype: The French Hate Americans
First of all: this may have been true in other eras (I’ve had more than one conversation about the opinions of America during GW’s glorious reign), but my personal experience has yielded very positive encounters with anyone who learns of my nationality. Second of all: It’s important to remember that a) just a short time ago, Americans called French fries Freedom fries, French toast Freedom toast, and so on, in an attempt to vocalize distaste over France’s choice not to join us in (a stupid/pointless/unnecessary) war with Iraq, and b) much of the previous negativity directed at Americans comes from us living with a set of our own stereotypes that the rest of the world has created. So I can confidently say that the French have been très tolérant of Americans given the treatment we’ve shown them throughout the course of our co-existence following American independence (which, by the way, America would not have had without French support).
Stereotype: Pretty Much No One In France Is Fat
The rumors are true: The French consume more wine, cheese, bread, pasta or pastries than most Americans I know, and yet they are all thin. Most that I know personally exercise very little. What’s the secret? PORTIONS. The French have this very impressive way of consuming food and drinks more slowly, appreciating each sip or bite, allowing themselves to really taste what they’re putting into their bodies. When this happens, they don’t eat as much because they feel satisfied. The difference between “full” and “satisfied” could be a few dress sizes.
Plus food here is much more simple. Less chemicals. Little to no hormones. Fresh. It’s wonderful
Stereotype: The French Are Rude/Arrogant
They don’t smile at you if they don’t know you. They are very direct when they do (i.e. “Yes, you look bad in that dress” type of direct). Despite these differences in communication, I find French people to be warm, friendly, inviting, and some of the most helpful I’ve encountered. All I can say is that I can’t imagine getting as much help as I did when I moved here if I were a foreigner moving to the United States. So does this make the French rude, or are Americans just sensitive?
Stereotype: Everyone in France Smokes Like a Chimney
HALF FACT, HALF FICTION
Not everyone in France smokes. In fact, most people I know do not. However most of the ones that do smoke A LOT.
Stereotype: French Guys Are Feminine
They care about how they look. They dress better than I do. Their shoes are more expensive than mine. They wear scarves in the summer. They think flowers are beautiful. And shopping with one of them is the equivalent to shopping with a hoard of fashionable girlfriends. And they do it all while still exuding a serious amount of manliness.
What makes them not feminine is the fact that they don’t care if you think they are manly or not (among other things). Somehow the lack of excessive assertions of masculinity serves as a pretty good indicator of masculinity. Who knew?
Stereotype: French Tempers Flair More Than Hairstyles in the 70s
It’s happened to me more than once that I’ll be in the middle of a conversation with someone and suddenly voices are raised and faces are red. Most of the time I didn’t even see it coming. And these aren’t just political or religious conversations. I’m talking “what kinds of flowers should you plant in a garden” kinds of conversations. But there are just as many reasons to love the passionate French as there are to fear them, and the storm passes just as quickly as it strikes. Like the old adage about weather in the month of March: their tempers come in like a lion and go out like a lamb.
Stereotype: French Women Don’t Shave
Stereotype: The French Are Very Sexual
Of course I am from “puritan America” where sex is largely censored in the media, sex education in schools is still extremely controversial, and nudity on most beaches is illegal, so my views are inherently biased. But I have never heard people talk so openly about their (very active) sex lives before. Sex is on TV, sex is in the movies, sex happens. Here, it’s just part of life and not some taboo topic you can only discuss with girlfriends or after too many glasses of wine.
Stereotype: The French Hate Anyone Who Doesn’t Speak French
This statement couldn’t be further from the truth. English is taught in schools starting at a young age, and a lot of people I’ve met are happy to practice their English with a native speaker. What they do hate is when they are approached in their own country and spoken to only in English, with the offender thereby making the assumption that a person can and does speak English. I don’t think this is such a hard concept to grasp, actually… can you recall a time when you’ve been somewhere in America and someone starts trying to talk to you only in Spanish, Chinese or some other foreign language? Your reaction was probably “Come on, we’re in America!”
However, if you make even the smallest attempt to speak French, the effort is typically well-received and often the conversation turns to English quite easily and with no ill-will.
So there you have it. Maybe I’ll write a future post on some of the stereotypes the French have of Americans and share them. Some might be true, others might only be good for a laugh, but in the end it’s the exploration of each other’s cultures that’s really insightful.