(asked by Jen, from… somewhere, possibly somewhere in Asia)
I went to Paris 12 years ago and came back a year ago, both for a 2 weeks of vacation. I had a great time, only that I couldn’t help but to wonder if Parisian (or should I say the French people?) don’t really smile to strangers? I don’t mean just to any strangers you met on the street…. but the people who serve your table… or in a hotel… or when you buy tickets… they didn’t smile back when I did or even when they said “you’re welcome” in response to my “thank you”.
It was a culture shock for me for the first couple of days… then I got used to it. I just wonder if it was me who did something wrong/impolite or it is just the culture (I’m Asian and I’m accustomed to think it’s impolite to not smile back when someone is smiling at you. I’d say it’s how it works in my country, generally), which I wouldn’t go further by judging it as good or bad. I just want to know.
I have talked about smiling in France before, but I don’t think I have done a full entry about it. So here it is. And if I had already done one… Oh well…
So when dealing with smiling to strangers in France there are a few things to keep in mind.
The first and main one: when you smile at somebody in France it means “I want to interact with you.” If you don’t want to interact with somebody, don’t smile at them. It’s that simple. When you’re in a bar, in a club, or wherever and if a guy smiles at you, if you smile back, then don’t come complain when he comes to talk to you. You asked for it at the moment you started smiling. It’s your fault, not his, if he’s now trying to have a conversation with you. Worse situations can result from you smiling at a stranger, for example if a weirdo wants to interact with you in the street and then won’t leave you alone because not only you made eye-contact, but you also smiled. I’m not even going to go into the situation when one smiles at somebody in a drak street alone at night.
But that’s not exactly the situation you’re talking about. Here it is:
In France, when you’re dealing with a waiter, a hotel employee, a ticket booth employee, etc, it’s normal and polite to smile when you start talking to them and also when you leave them (always say “thank you” and “goodbye” though) and normal politeness and courtesy rules demand that they smile back at you.
The problem is that they sure should, but they don’t always do, because they’re not always polite, especially in Paris, because Parisians simply don’t know the very concept of politeness (and I won’t even get into “being nice when you don’t expect something in return”)
So I don’t think you did anything wrong, you just dealt with your typical Parisian.