Never Say These 12 Things to a French Person

Never Say These 12 Things to a French Person

When speaking with a French person, you may be tempted to sprinkle some clichés or well-worn jokes into the conversation. But if you want them to like you, there are a few cultural sensitivities to be mindful of, some of which aren’t obvious to us foreigners.

Rosie from Not Even French and I put our heads together to come up with a list of the biggest faux pas, clichés and cultural misunderstandings we anglophones make with French people.

We’ve both put our pieds in our mouths at a few dinner parties, so take it from us and avoid these topics:

“You’re French? I love Paris!”

A friendly reminder spotted in the Paris metro.

Only two million of France’s 67 million residents live in Paris, and many from outside the city don’t have a great opinion of Parisians. So while you may love Paris, French people don’t appreciate all being lumped together, or the assumption they all live in the capital city. Regional pride is huge in France. Each département has its own cuisine, culture and history and to immediately ask about Paris can feel like you are ignoring their heritage. Better to ask, “what region of France are you from?” first.

“Your accent is sooooo cute!”

Some French people are sensitive about their English skills, and pointing out their accent can feel like a dig, even if your comment is well intentioned. French education focuses a lot on reading and writing — so for example, while my husband studied English for nearly a decade in school, he hardly spoke it until he did an exchange program in Canada. And often their English teachers in French public schools aren’t native speakers, so they are learning from someone with a French accent.

“Ew, you eat that?”

Snails, glands, organs — French people enjoy foods you may find different from your cuisine back home. But calling it gross just makes you look uncultured and rude. I once accidentally ate veal kidneys at my work cafeteria, and when I made a comment about how weird it tasted to my coworkers, they told me even kids eat rognons de veau at school. It made me look childish!

“So, what do you do for a living?”

Talking about money is a huge faux pas in French culture. And by asking about someone’s job, it can be taken as being nosy about how much money they make. There is a strong Catholic influence on the country’s overall attitude toward wealth, and flashiness or obvious displays of money aren’t appreciated. French people also rarely consider work the most interesting thing about them, and it’s not uncommon to spend a whole evening with someone and not discuss their job.

“I love your home/car/bag, it’s so nice. How much did you pay for it?”

This goes in the same bucket of money sensitivity. Asking how much something cost can be seen as gauche or trying to figure out if someone is wealthy. And being overly complimentary is something French people make fun of Americans for (a French person impersonating an American will say: “That’s so amaaaaazing!”). The exception to the rule of money talk? Taxes. Complaining about taxes is a national sport.

La Défense, the business district to the west of Paris

“Everyone knows French people don’t like to work.”

French people hate the cliché that they are lazy and always on strike. Yes, they enjoy more protections for workers and vacation time than in many other countries, but France has the 6th largest economy in the world, so they must be doing something right. Protests and strikes are a part of the culture (and they are very good at it), but in fact Canadians go on strike more. Plenty of French people work overtime and are ambitious, and even joking that they are lazy can upset people.

“You know you’d be speaking German if it wasn’t for us Americans.”

Not only is this historically iffy — it’s très rude. Ditto with the “French love to surrender” and wave the white flag references. In general, jokes about the World Wars are better left alone, as Europeans are still sensitive about this period of their history. Best to be respectful.

“Are you religious?”

Faith and prayer are very private here. France is a majority Catholic country, but there is a peculiar dichotomy between religious beliefs and society. The public sphere and religion are supposed to be entirely separate, a concept called laïcité (or secularism). Because Catholic holidays and traditions are so wrapped up in French culture the reality is less so, but religion in general is not a topic to bring up with people you don’t know well. There is no prayer in school, or public worship the way you see in America, though it seems every street, town and dessert in France is named after a saint.

“Who did you vote for?”

The French love to discuss politics and policy, but the specific candidate someone votes for is held close to the vest. It isn’t uncommon for even family members not to know. Because there are more political parties than in the U.S. it isn’t always easy to tell who someone supports, and there isn’t a culture of displaying your political preferences with t-shirts or bumper stickers.

“Hello!” without even trying “Bonjour!”

Walking up to a French person and starting with English is a sure-fire way to piss off or confuse them. Even if you switch to English after, a “bonjour” when you enter a shop or approach someone is considered the most basic of courtesies in France.

“You know those French men, they all cheat.”

In reality, French men don’t cheat any more than in other countries, though French culture is a bit less puritanical about sex in general. When I first moved to Paris, I showed some of my husband’s friends a video of Pepé Le Pew, the cliché Frenchman in a cartoon form. Unsurprisingly, none of them found the portrayal as a smelly, groping skunk funny.

“Voulez-vous coucher avec moi?”

Just don’t. You aren’t the first (or millionth) person to make this joke and they don’t think it’s funny.

Have something you’d add to this list? A story about a faux pas you made? Leave a comment and share!

And if you want to learn more on the truth about French clichés, check out this popular post: Do French People Really Wear Berets? French Clichés Investigated

14 thoughts on “Never Say These 12 Things to a French Person”

  • The “you know you’d be speaking German if it wasn’t for us Americans” is the rudest. I was shocked while reading it, because in France, in general, we don’t consider the Americans as our “saviours” at all. This is offensive, and if I may, it comes from a self-centered point of view of WWII, which might be taught in American schools but not in France. Really, NEVER say that to a French, and globally an European person.

    • However…we could also reply that Americans could still be drinking tea and bowing to a queen if it wasn’t for La Fayette… 😉

    • I lived in NYC for 37 years, I have never heard anyone ever say such a thing! One person from the US says this stupid & low-class comment and now everyone thinks we Americans think and talk this way? Very sad indeed. Please know we do not think this and whomever you are referring to is an idiot. I am so sorry.

    • Yep, we would probably be under Russian influence without the US but absolutely not under German, the war was lost for them anyway.

  • All very good reminders! And many of them apply to other countries/cultures as well, not just in France. I think it is just generally good manners to not probe someone on their religion, politics and salary. If people have strong opinions about those topics, they will eagerly volunteer to tell you! ?

  • Hey ! Nice post. Just to say, money isn’t taboo because of religion. It has more to do with the French Revolution and France being generally more left wing than anglo-saxon countries. Flaunting money is seen as gross and contemptuous, it shows that you want to be seen as supperior to poorer people which is a big no no in France.

    • Thanks for this! That makes sense too — I had heard the Catholic influence from a friend, potentially a little of both?

      • Money is indeed quite taboo in our country, as you noticed. But I don’t believe it comes from Catholicism. After all the Catholics Church has never hiddent its wealth and was once nearly as rich as the kings themselves.
        I think Esther might be right about it coming from the French revolution. There’s this idea that people who have money are necessarily bad and exploiting others to get it. More than depising people with money, some might despise employers (the bigger the worse) and investors who are seen has making money from other people’s work.

  • You right when you said that all jokes about the WW2 is a sensitive subject because at school, teachers don’t say to pupils it’s thanks to US that France isn’t Germany now. So, if an American laugh about that, on the one hand the French couldn’t understand why he said that, and on the other hand, the conversation could be very awkward. Oh, and not every french people like eat snails or « rognons » cause I’m French, and I can’t stand that, I’m in middle school and I have never eaten that. My parents never forced me cause they know that I don’t like. Furthermore, and it’s so true, french people don’t like when american or english don’t say just Bonjour cause for us, it’s a polite form. It doesn’t matter if you speak english after, but just Bonjour out of politeness.
    Thanks for this article, it so interesting to know how American people see French people, sorry for grammar fault, I tried to do my better to
    express myself, I hope you have all unterstood.
    XOXO From France 🙂

    • No need to apologize for your grammar! I make grammar mistakes when I read/write/speak French. It’s part of the learning process. Your English is quite good! I appreciate when someone makes an attempt to speak my language just as I hope others appreciate when I make an attempt to speak their language.

  • Just being very french, you could note that statically we don’t work less than other countries (because most don’t follow 35 hours) and more important that we are more productive than any western country while we work. We need less work time to do the same job. yes, even more than the germans 🙂

  • You are right with every point! But I want to make some things clear with some of them:

    It’s true that we hate beeing seen as ‘Parisiens’. And It’s often that you meet people who lived in Paris for there whole life, and still, they would tell you that they aren’t from Paris but from the birth town of there parents for exemple.
    It’s because (I think) we don’t exactly see Paris like a town, really, but more like the place you go to make your studies or to meet the right people to begin your career. There’s no particular culture from this town, I mean, if there’s one, it’s a mix of the ones in the rest of the country. I mean I grew up next to Paris, and my parents grew up next to Paris, and I still don’t see myself as a ‘Parisienne’.
    And just to reply to those who think that the parisians are rude… It’s true. But you have to remember that first, in the subway, you meet people who are going to work, or from work to home. So there’s a great chance that they are either late, or tired, or both of the abrove. So if you are in the way when they have to run to be in time, they won’t be happy, and I can understand them…
    Second, you have to understand that Paris is the most visited town in the word. So when you, for exemple, stop a french to ask your way, youere NOT the first to do so. So even if you’re somone you love to help, there’s a limit to everything.
    And third, you have to understand that until recently, (and it’s still not the best) our english learning system was… bad, to say the last. So if you speak to someone, you have to consider that if he didn’t try to learn by himself, and had regular grades for all his scolarity, he’s gonna know the basics sentences (if you speak slowly) and… that’s all.
    So, it’s true that in Paris are more or less rude people. But it’s mostly because nearly all the frensh that live here are doing it only for there jobs or studies.

    The eating thing is true, but what I find annoing is that we are seen as ‘weird eating people’, when it’s not really true. I mean, I have already eat snails, and I love that (you should try it at least once!) but, first, I eat it only at big occasions like chrismas, it not an ‘I-see-it-every-day’ kind of food. And 60% of the frensh think that it’s gross.
    But for the record, I’ve never eat frog, and I think it’s the same for 95% of the country, and those who have eat it, mostly think it’s not very good.
    For the organs, I don’t think it’s so weird, I mean, we are killing the thing, why not eating everything there are?

    For the Religion/political/money thing: we, most of the time, think that we are all equal, and those subjects can lead to discrimination, so, when someone show up and ask you something about it, you think that he’s gonna hate you if you don’t say what he like (because no one ask it, so if you’re asking it, you have a reason to do so). You see?
    Plus, I’ve been rased with the thought that if I tell someone about my political opinions, I could be attacked because of them. The same with religion.

    For the ‘Bonjour’ thing… I think it’s also because we use it as a familliar geating, between friends and familly, so it can be weird coming from a stranger.

    How would you react to someone telling you “Do you want to sleep with me?” (translation of “Voulez-vous coucher avec moi?”)? Well, that’s the same for us…
    And it’s the same for the cheating thing… you don’t really like it when someone is telling that about you…

    Hope you still like our country!

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