4 French Stereotypes that are True (and 4 that Aren’t)
Saying any stereotype “is true” will put you on thin ice. But, “cultural norms” doesn’t exactly float to the top of search engine rankings like “French stereotypes”. And I do believe there’s value in looking at the most common things we hear about any culture and matching them to reality. Take these as my general observations of French norms – in Paris specifically.
Paris is dirty
False. Widespread claims of “urine-soaked streets” would have you thinking France is one flea bite away from a full-blown plague. In fact, it’s cleanliness is on par with major American cities, if not better, and is noticeably cleaner than other European capitols like Berlin.
For better or for worse, the French are aware of this reputation. And the city has created a number of public sanitation policies in recent years. Speaking with long-time residents, it sounds like filth used to be a real problem. Now it’s time to sweep that stereotype into the ash heap of history.
Smoking is more common
True. France has some of the highest rates of smoking in the world – with more than a quarter of the adult population admitting to smoking regularly. However, this a problem shared by many European countries like Germany, Spain and Greece where rates of smoking are even higher than France.
Despite the statistics, I think there’s a reason France gets a reputation for being a smoker’s haven: Paris is more condensed and outdoor dining is extremely popular. In a city as packed as Paris, you’ll always be walking behind a smoker. And the local love of cafes and leisurely lunches, means you’re more likely to be sitting next to a group of smokers as you enjoy an espresso.
Smoking also contributes to the “Dirty Paris” stereotype with 350 tonnes of cigarette butts littered on the streets every year. Again, this problem is being tackled with the installation of 30,000 new ashtray-equipped garbage bins. Old habits die hard.
Almost everyone wears scarves
True. A friend told me that French people are afraid of drafts of cold air. Now, I can’t verify that stereotype – but I can tell you that scarves are the one aspect of French dress that people seem to get right. If you don’t have a scarf, I’d seriously consider buying or packing one for a couple of days in Paris. Leaving home with my neck bare to the elements made me feel terribly underdressed.
Berets are popular
False. Beyond the occasional old man or trendy young woman, berets are a thing of the past. If you walk around wearing a bright red beret clearly bought from a sidewalk vendor, then you’ll probably feel a little silly. But if you really want to fit in, buy a New York Yankees baseball hat. I swear to god. They are far and away the headware of choice for French people.
If you’re in a subway car of 100 people, ten will be wearing baseball hats – nine will be NY Yankees caps and the other will have something to do with Brooklyn.
French people eat baguettes
True. And I was thankful for it every day. There’s bread for breakfast (usually a croissant) then baguettes for lunch and dinner. Why? Well, baguettes are a functional food item. They’re easy to fit in a bag, cheap to make, and only require four simple ingredients (by law!): water, salt, yeast, wheat.
Ten million baguettes are sold in France every year, a country which has the highest density of bakeries anywhere in the world. In fact, the price and scarcity of bread in the late 1700s is a significant contributor to the French revolution. And honestly, you could count me in on that war.
French food service is rude
False. This is one of the most pernicious of all French stereotypes. And your view really depends on the food culture you grew up in. Americans expect fast service, with dishes cleared quickly and food delivered instantaneously. That just isn’t the culture of French dining.
In Paris, you can expect to wait five – or even fifteen – minutes before a server brings you a menu or greets you at the table. Food delivery is relatively quick, but dishes aren’t cleared until you’re finished and you probably won’t receive a check until you ask for one (or make the scribbly sign in the air with your hand). Trust me, I know how frustrating this relatively slow service is when you’re in a rush.
But to equate the above with rudeness isn’t fair. I had plenty of friendly servers in France – maybe they didn’t crack a smile as soon as I walked in the door, but these are professionals who don’t survive on tips (thankfully). This slowness is a sign of respect. They’re not trying to rush you. More on this in my recent Instagram post.
Pickpocketing is rampant in Paris
True. As one of the most visited cities in the world, petty criminals have plenty of targets. The most surprising aspect of pickpockets is their level of sophistication. But once you know what to look for, it’s easy to avoid.
This video shows the most common pickpocketing strategy in Paris. A young woman will approach you and ask, “Do you speak English?” She’ll ask you to sign some kind of petition. While your back is turned, one of her compatriots will swipe the valuables out of your back pocket or bag. You will see these people at the most popular tourist sites in Paris – all using the same tactics. Keep your goods in front of you and ignore them.
Paris is full of romantics
False. Sorry. I just didn’t see it. Public displays of people sucking face was not a vast, city-wide thing. There are streets that have a distinct feeling of candle-lit dinners a la Lady and the Tramp. And unlike other countries, people aren’t averse to making out in public. but those moments aren’t as common as you’d think.
Final Thoughts on French Stereotypes
In my trip through Paris, I couldn’t help but remember the American-French connection that stretches back to our revolutions. And in recent years, our two countries have held some negative viewpoints of each other (e.g. Americans are stupid, the French are cowards).
I think we’d be remiss to forget the intrinsic connections between America and France. Britain gets all the attention, but France’s impact on American culture is equally pronounced in our system of values – or maybe just our love of bread.