Mar 112009

(asked by anonymous from New York)

Hi Mr. Frenchman,
So in poking around your blog I have noticed that, simply put, the French don’t seem to like American study abroad students much. Living in New York, I can certainly understand the hatred for obnoxious and slow moving tourists, but I think in general Americans find foreign students interesting and exciting. Or, at least those who really have an interest in learning about America and trying to practice and improve their English. I do admit that I would hate your description of the American Student in Paris hell bent on debauchery too. But obviously this is a stereotype, and not all of us are like that. Now I know that I will never pass for French and I have no shame in being American, but besides the obvious (i.e. not wearing sweatpants out of the house, not screaming in English all over the place) do you have any suggestions on how to be an un-annoying American student in Paris?

Let’s start with American students in France, especially in Paris…
First of all, let me insist on one point. Like in any other aspects, what you do gives a reputation to everyone in your country of origin, and sadly, the bad things you do always have a stronger impact than the good things you do.
For example, if there’s a guy who’s a complete jerk in the metro, if he’s French, people will think “this guy is really a jerk” but if he’s American, people will think “this American is really a jerk” and that will be one more nail in the coffin of America reputation’s abroad.
This obviously works in any country, America included, not just France.

If I took the example of the metro it’s not random. For some reason, most of American student jerkiness I witness in Paris happens in the metro, which is also the place where most French people will encounter American students in their daily life.

That being said, and like many other things in life and on this planet, it’s always the loud minority that’s going to give a reputation to the silent majority, because of course most Americans students in Paris (and more generally, abroad) are decent people, but it’s the few jerks that give a bad reputation to all the rest. Locals won’t even notice the other decent ones or will consider them as decent people, not decent Americans. Life is not fair, I know.

So if you’re a student abroad, be aware of that, of your own behavior, but also of your friends’ behavior. If they start doing something stupid in public, don’t just laugh, but try to prevent them from doing it.
Why is it Americans students (even a minority) that always behave stupidly in public places though is still a mystery to me. Other foreign students usually behave normally most of the time. But yeah, for some Americans, abroad, especially Paris, is some sort of Neverland where nothing is real and everything is designed for their own entertainment, as if the US was an island floating on a planet-wide Disneyland.
I don’t think we’ll ever be able to change that, at least not until most Americans realize that they’re no different from anybody else and that their country is just one among more than 200.

So, how do you do not to be stigmatized as a “stupid American student”?
It’s not that hard really.
Of course, not wearing sweat pants is a good start, but unless you have a good sense of (international) fashion, chances that your clothes give you away as American are pretty high.

The answer has to lie elsewhere.
It simply is in your behavior.
I dropped a few hints in the previous lines, but basically always remember that:

-You’re in the real world, not some sort of fantasy world.
-You represent your country, whether you like it or not.
-Don’t do anything you wouldn’t do at home.
-Don’t do many of the things you would do at home.
-Basically do as Romans do, but also as Parisians do.
-But don’t try to appear or act French, you’ll fail (one of the funniest thing I can see in Paris is American students sitting at a café terrace, with a glass of wine and a cigarette just waiting as if something magical was gonna happen… hints: if you don’t smoke at home don’t pretend to do so in Paris, don’t drink wine in a café, wine is mostly consumed during meals, not in cafés).
-Be respectful of people you know, but also people you don’t know, you’ve never seen and you’ll never see again.
-Be respectful of yourself, don’t make a fool of yourself… ever…
-Don’t speak that loud. Americans don’t always realize that the “normal” volume of their voice is considered “loud” according to French standards. I know it’s hard to change such a thing that is so unconscious, but try nonetheless.
-Be friendly but not too friendly.
-And finally and most important, don’t see the place as “abroad” but as “your current home”.

I may have forgotten a few.
As usual, if anybody wants to add extra information, feel free.

More Questions Answered:

  12 Responses to “Do you have any suggestions on how to be an un-annoying American student in Paris?”

  1. I agree with all of this, especially this bit:

    But yeah, for some Americans, abroad, especially Paris, is some sort of Neverland where nothing is real and everything is designed for their own entertainment, as if the US was an island floating on a planet-wide Disneyland.
    I don’t think we’ll ever be able to change that, at least not until most Americans realize that they’re no different from anybody else and that their country is just one among more than 200.

    This is certainly what annoys me in Paris or London (where American students stand out almost as much) - that they just see the city (and the continent, it sometimes seems) as there for the purposes of tourism/study abroad only. I do appreicate that not many Americans travel, so it isn’t surprising that so many of them view ‘Yurp’ as a theme park to be run around in ten days, but someone who is choosing to study here should know better.

    I see on various travel blogs Americans asking all kinds of over-excited questions about whether they will face anti-Americanism in Europe, and really, one wants to say ‘Stop asking questions about whether everyone will be nice to you or not. It is not all about you. It is your duty as a visitor to do the adapting and make the effort.’ So I like the question this person has asked better. When you are a visitor, it is your duty to behave with good manners, and you’ll find what they are by observing. Which also means not shouting so much - that is so true, you talk much louder than us - and not thinking we are the staff in Disney Land who are there to entertain you.

    Oh, and the metro thing is crucial - as it is in London, where I now live. Watch how other people behave, watch when people stand up from the strapontins, and copy. Don’t stand about blocking entrances looking at a map. You may just be going to the Louvre to do a da Vinci Code tour, but most people aren’t on holiday but trying to get to work. We aren’t automatically excited by foreigners here, and you don’t get a free pass for bad behaviour just because you aren’t French.

  2. Be cool. Don’t talk or laugh louder than everyone else, and don’t smile at people (somehow we automatically do this). I’m a Texan who speaks fluent French and lived in Paris for several years. NO one thinks I am American. It’s always met with disbelief, especially when I say what state I’m from. Ninety-nine percent of the time they think I’m Polish or Russian, Believe it or not, some of us don’t dress like like slobs and can learn to speak a language. “You don’t look like a Texan”, they say, a comment which betrays their ignorance, but that’s another story. My other American friends learned how to be discreet as well. If you’re in Paris, chances are you’re surrounded by Americans without knowing it. Bottom line: if you are proud of your country, represent it well.

  3. “don’t drink wine in a café, wine is mostly consumed during meals, not in cafés”

    I dunnow where this rule comes from. I’m a Parisian and I order wine in cafés all the time since I prefer it to beer. And even if it were unusual, it’s not as if it were rude or annoying to others. So… pass me the Bourgogne, please.

  4. … oh yeah, I forgot that you have a mythical image of Parisians as complete idiots and rude pricks, so perhaps I shouldn’t have mentioned that. Someone should tell you that Parisians are no different from the rest of their fellows countrymen; they’re just people who happen to live in Paris. Most of them were not even born in Paris and won’t end their life in Paris either, but anyway. If you get your kicks “essentializing” Parisians, go ahead.
    *grabs popcorn and sits*

  5. The image of the Parisians is partly bashing.

    But those stereotypes have a reason, and it is not difficult to notice that the average courtesy of the Parisians is different when it is about getting in a métro: in Paris many people will rush into the train without letting passengers alight. This is not the case in other cities with a métro.

  6. I am planning to take year off after I graduate next year and France is an option I have been considering for living/studying in. Thanks for the advice (and who ever asked the question).

  7. American teenagers, particularly middle class teenagers, are raised in a bubble, where their every opinion is regarded as the expression of purest genius. Growing up in such an environment does not at all prepare you for a more formal society, where your youth does not automatically confer any kind of authority. The kinds of American students who can afford to study in France usually come from these upper middle classes, so the effect is compounded.

    Americans also have the very bad habit of chattering on about nothing, or, worse, about the most intimate details of your life to strangers, assuming that others will find your life as fascinating as you do yourself. There is an easy familiarity to American life that doesn’t exist in France.

    So the best advice I can give to any American going to France for the first time is: Shut up. No, really, I mean it. Just shut up. Watch. Observe. Listen for a change. Let people decide they want to talk to you. Don’t impose yourself on others, because you’re nothing to them.

    I’ve travelled the world following this advice myself, and I have made more friends abroad by listening than I ever have by talking.

  8. Exactly same shit happens with American expats in Korea.

  9. I'm afraid it happens with American expats all over the world.

  10. And the same can be said for the French in both NY and LA who stand out by their inability to wait in line (they always cut) their self-centered holiday mode, where they don't seem to realise that everyone else lives there and has things to do other than be amazed by their scarf tying. Charming French accents don't erase bad manners in metro areas.

    Really, everything you have said is true of every nationality to some extent. Especially in regard to students who are by nature self absorbed yet not self aware. Last time I was in Dublin at the writers museum, the museum staff actually offered me my money back because of the atrocious behaviour of a group of French students.

    Speaking of dressing like an American - why do so many French do just that? Jeans and converse are classic American garb, no?

    This all is nothing new, and is certainly not only an American abroad problem. Students are annoying unless you are one of them, worldwide. Who hasn't seen a fellow countryman act the fool and been mortified by them at least once?

    Americans are just the favourite punching bag. Nt saying I don't want to slap some of them….but it is what it is.

  11. Hollarback, you're talking about tourists here. This is not what we're talking about, we're talking about expats or at least students that stay here one semester or two (real expats tend to behave). And yes, the problem is that they behave the way you would expect from an obnoxious tourist, not somebody that lives in the country. Actually, they behave worse than tourists, because tourists are more or less lost and confused, not them, as after a few weeks in the country, they think they have figured it out and they behave as if they owned the place.

    And believe me whether it is in France (and Korea, and most certainly many other countries) it's the Americans that stand out (and the Spanish speakers because they're as loud as Americans, but at least they behave), not the students from other countries.

    And "dressing like an American" as nothing to do with jeans and converse. Jeans and converse ceased to be "American" about 50 years ago. Have you seen French jeans compared to American ones? And there are more converses in France than in the US nowadays.
    No, dressing American is a question of color (many colors, too many colors, and colors that don't match), of baseball hats (or wearing a winter hat indoors in the Winter), of college paraphernalia (or NFL, NBA, MLB of course), etc.

  12. Fair points, all, but what you may not be considering here is this: most expats I’ve met abroad tend to behave as they would expect people to behave in their country. This means acting like the locals. Americans don’t expect this in their own country, and don’t do it elsewhere.

    Example: many of my family and good family friends have lived in the US for decades and still speak the language they grew up with (Portuguese or Spanish) and a few bits of broken English. They have livestock and small farming in their (urban) backyards, which is generally illegal. They drink on the streets, also generally illegal. They do all manner of little things to violate those big amorphous American societal norms, and most every American around them shrugs and moves on with it.

    Notice there is no international stereotype of the rude French visiting the US? Or the rude Spanish, rude Portuguese, rude Brazilian, rude Mexican, or rude Korean? It’s not because everyone adapts to American norms and behaves perfectly, it’s because Americans take it in stride. When the Koreans I went to school with ate other peoples’ food from the group kitchen, no one cursed them out - people who knew something about Korea said, “Hey, that’s pretty normal, it’s a bit more group-oriented, maybe we just ask them not to eat the Ben & Jerrys?”

    I realize there’s a significant number of boorish, idiot Americans who go to Europe expecting a museum - but there are plenty of boorish, ignorant Koreans I’ve seen in Boston acting like they’re in Daegu, or French staring people down when they give them a nod.

 Leave a Reply



You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

Notify me of followup comments via e-mail. You can also subscribe without commenting.