Studying abroad in Paris, France has provided several insights into cultural differences between France and America, particularly between French and American manners.
In America, most people consider smiling a friendly gesture; however, the French often do not smile, even when thanking someone. A street vendor told me that he could tell I was American because I smiled too much to be French. Sternness is especially expected when declining street vendors or restaurant employees calling across the street for you to come into their restaurant or buy a product they are selling. To the French, body language matters far more than verbal language.
I have found the stereotype of French snobbery to be mostly unfounded. Rather, the French view politeness as a crucial part of society. With the odd exception, most people willingly give directions or help others understand the metro lines. Greeting store employees and asking them questions in French generally brings a look of relief to their eyes because of the strain of having to speak English to most tourists all day. Even though many citizens in Paris can understand some English, most are not fluent and greatly prefer to speak their native language.
On one occasion, the employee working at a chocolate shop register offered a free macaroon to me because I spoke French to her and attempted to have a conversation. Overall, they appreciate anyone attempting to speak French to them, although they will correct the pronunciation of words or phrases.
Asking questions also differs between France and America. In America, many people will immediately ask their question and then be on their way. However, the French will commonly greet someone with “bonjour” before asking a question. They will also thank the person and say goodbye after their question has been answered. Even in manners, though, the French can be forgiving. For instance, my friend and I were going to see the The Elysee Palace, the home of the president of France, since people are allowed to view the inside of the house on the first of the two days in the year. However, when we arrived, the house had already been closed.
We began to ask a police officer when the Elysee Palace would be open tomorrow; as we were mid question, he corrected us by saying, “Bonjour.” We quickly apologized for our rudeness, but feared that he would act coldly toward us because we had violated French social code. On the contrary, he proceeded to ask us where we were from, where we went to college in Paris, and what we are majoring in. He gave us his phone number and told us that we could call him the next day and he would let us into the Elysee Palace without having to wait in line.
Another way in which the French demonstrate manners is in the way they walk. Other times when I have been to cities, people will bump into you on the streets trying to pass. However, in France, most people go out of their way to avoid touching each other on the streets. If they want to pass but have no room they will sometimes touch the arm of the person they are trying to pass and say, “Excuse moi.” They will wait for the person to move out of their way before continuing.