Destroying the French Myth

I know there’s an overlying belief that the French are arrogant–especially if they “refuse” to speak English to an American abroad–but I don’t see it as arrogance. They’re just REALLY proud to be French.

Arc de Triomphe BW

Photo by Alyx Morgan

In fact, the only people I’ve ever heard say they encountered “rude” Frenchmen/women while abroad are the ones who didn’t even TRY to speak the native language during their trip.  My best friend, Nikki, has been all over France (she’s a HUGE cycling junkie & has been to around 10 Tour de France races since I’ve known her), and has never told me that she encountered any rude people over there.  Her accent is horrible (she’ll even admit that), but she says what she can in their native language anyway, and doesn’t have any problems.

Even my mom was treated very nicely the one time she went to Paris with me.  We were sitting in a laundromat and a woman came by and Mom said “pardonez moi” and then “merci beaucoup” to her for reasons that I can’t remember, but that fit the situation perfectly.  Again, my mom doesn’t sound fluent, but she at least made the attempt, and the French lady was very accommodating and friendly in return.

There’s this pervasive opinion here in America that EVERYONE should speak English to travelers, just because other countries are taught it in schools.  But I personally think it’s the height of rudeness to vacation in another country with that attitude.  How much do we hate it when someone comes over here and doesn’t speak English?

I know I’ve often complained when I go through a Drive-Thru and have to repeat my order multiple times, because the person at the other end of the squawk box has a limited amount of English in their repertoire.  Yes, I’ll admit that I’m high maintenance and sometimes order off the menu, but English speaking people would understand that when I say “no dairy,” it means the same as “no cheese,” or “no sour cream.”  And yes, I understand that it’s ridiculous to expect someone working at a Taco Bell to be able to think outside the box (with all ironic references to their ad campaign fully intended), but it’s definitely worse when they have a very small grasp of our language.

I’ve even been on the receiving end of this, where someone was offended that I didn’t know enough of his native language while he was visiting here in America.  I was working at Walt Disney World and this Hispanic-looking man came up to my register and I spoke the few chit-chatty phrases I know in Spanish:  Buenos dias, Como estas?  He answered them in kind and then proceeded to give me his order, still in Spanish.  When I apologized and said (with a smile) that I didn’t know any more than I’d already said, he actually responded with, “Why not?  I’m visiting your country, so you should know my language.”

Now, I don’t know if he said that to purposely show me how it feels when Americans go overseas with that same attitude, but the message certainly came across.  That was the moment I decided that I would always learn at least the bare necessities of any language where I want to travel.  It’s a sign of respect, in my opinion.  Plus, since I love languages anyway, it’s a chance to put a few more phrases under my belt.

But back to the French.  I find it interesting that Americans–who constantly say how proud they are to be an American–would label another country full of likewise proud people “arrogant.”  It might be enlightening for them to know that Americans are considered, collectively, to be the rudest and most arrogant people around the world.  This is true in most countries I’ve been to, and I think the reason for that is largely due to the fact that we expect everyone else to speak English to us, simply because it’s a requirement in the primary schools in most countries.  (Well, that and the fact that we think our way of governing people is the only right way, but that’s for another blog with a political bent.)

La Tour Eiffel

Photo by Alyx Morgan

So, on behalf of this Francophile and world traveler, PLEASE try to learn the basics in whatever country you’re traveling to.  Even their equivalent of “Please,” “Thank you,” and “Do you speak English?” will go a long way to help soothe any feathers that some Arrogant American has ruffled.  So will trying to remember that we’re not the only country whose people are proud to be their nationality.  Pride is not a solely American thing.

Nor is rudeness a solely French thing.


6 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Craig
    Mar 15, 2013 @ 07:21:38

    Absolutely. Oui, oui. When we went to Greece for our honeymoon, our knowledge of a couple of key phrases gained us some looks of admiration. They didn’t seem to expect that of Americans.
    Also, to the people so supremely proud of being Americans that they won’t learn a few phrases: What’s the matter? Don’t you think you’re smart enough? Are you admitting that other countries that learn two or more languages are smarter than us? A challenge, if you will.


    • Alyx Morgan
      Mar 15, 2013 @ 07:57:33

      Oooh. Interesting thought, Craig. I never considered that it might be a fear of not being able to speak the language well enough.

      Thanks for stopping by today.


  2. gaylefeyrer
    Mar 15, 2013 @ 09:06:54

    A couple of things. One just a memory of an older English tourist having a snit fit in a nice restaurant because what he ordered wasn’t his familiar version of his dish. Really, like a four year old, no attempt to be reasonable about it. Sulking, pouting, and acting cheated.
    And numerous people saying Mercy, as if Merci was hard to learn.
    The other comment covers several decades with occasional trips to France. When I first went, if I mispronouced something it was carefully and usually politely corrected. Later, it changed slightly. The correct pronunciation would sort of me tossed in, just in case you cared and wanted to learn. Last time I went, I didn’t get a single correction, though I’m sure my French was not good enough to get everything right. When I enter a shop and say Bonjour, Madame, I almost always get answered in English. I keep wondering what’s the giveaway in my Bonjour…
    With rare exceptions the French have been very polite. The Austrians were extremely helpful, in a funny very brusque way but they made an extra effort, coming over to people looking at maps and actually playing tour guide, briefly, to lead you where you were going. I found the Italians much ruder in general, though of course met many friendly ones. Most rude people – Venetians! Understandable, since tourists have driven them out of their city, but still not pleasant to be routinely snubbed.


    • Alyx Morgan
      Mar 15, 2013 @ 10:19:50

      Yes, I’ve heard the English can be very rude as well. When I lived in Prague, it was usually a combination of English & Americans who were loud & rowdy in the pubs, while the Czechs sat quietly sipping their beer.

      It might not be your pronunciation of Bonjour that signals you as a non-native, though, Gayle. It might be that you use it at all. When I’ve stood in line at a patisserie, I rarely hear anyone say Bonjour. They simply ask for what they want & it’s passed over to them. So it might be an American’s propensity for small talk that does it.

      I haven’t noticed rude Italians, but I’ve only been there once, & I’ve never been to Venice, but yes,it’s understandable why they would be upset with tourists.

      Thanks so much for stopping by today. 🙂


  3. Katka
    Mar 16, 2013 @ 07:59:28

    I absolutely agree – Venetians are so stuck up.:-P I love Italy, but Venice is not the place where I’m eager to return. And I need to admit that it drives me up the wall when I hear Slovak people working in the Czech republic (lately there are a lot of Slovaks working in Prague, making better money than in their own country) and they can’t even greet customers in Czech. Why not? I don’t expect them to speak fluent Czech, after all we used to be one country and the languages are very similar. But isn’t it the least they can do to show politeness ? It beats me!


    • Alyx Morgan
      Mar 16, 2013 @ 16:44:17

      So nice to see you here, Katka! You’re my first comment from Europe. 😀

      Yes, I can see how it would be even more annoying when Slovak & Czech are so similar. It’s my understanding that the EU has caused more problems than it’s solved, immigration-wise, anyway.

      Thanks for stopping by!


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