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!”
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.
“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