Don’t Parisians (or even French people) really smile to strangers?

(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.
Frenchman Written by:

9 Comments

  1. Nathalie
    April 20, 2010
    Reply

    I don't find it rude if a waiter or someone serving me in a shop doesn't smile, to be honest. I think in Paris especially, you can have perfectly courteous, attentive service which is just not smiley by its nature. I know some foreigners find that rude, especially people who are accustomed to the chirpy 'Hi, I'm Courtney and I'll be your server tonight' US-style service, but I think that's just a culture clash issue rather than a real lack of politeness…?

    Not to say that there aren't also horrendously rude waiters etc in Paris, but I've seen my American friends get worked up about interactions I simply didn't see as rude, just not ingratiating or smiley.

  2. David "a Frenchman"
    April 21, 2010
    Reply

    Can you remind me where you're originally from Nathalie? 😉

    While I agree with you that one can be very courteous and not smiley and the "Courtney" you mentioned drives as nuts as she does with you, I also that not returning a smile is rude.

    Remember, I'm not talking about just smiling, but returning a smile that was given to you by a person that you just interacted with.

  3. Gini TM
    June 22, 2010
    Reply

    That sucks for Americans like me– who smile out of nervousness! I smile incandescently like a bright light bulb that's always on.

  4. Frenchman
    June 22, 2010
    Reply

    Well, what can I say Gini?
    Apart from the fact that not everyone is cut-out for France.

  5. MidAtlantic
    September 22, 2010
    Reply

    David,
    Having previously commented (even receiving a lovely response from you) I recently left France after 10 years in Paris. I am dual citizenship as well. that said, I initially went through many cuture-shock issues at first and even had to read up on various issues; obviously more my own. The reason, as to smiling;since late medieval times people that smiled were viewed as the "Fool" literally. lacking in mental capacities and would go about with a silly smile. Therefor the rational and wariness to one that smiles for no reason.

    PS What happened to the non-Blog spot, http://www.ask a frenchman.com ?? I seem to have lost the daily thread and dates seem to jumps back and forth. Miss you!
    Francolady

  6. Frenchman
    October 2, 2010
    Reply

    I'm not sure what you mean about askafrenchman.com. If such a site exist (and last time I checked it didn't) I'm not in charge of it and have no relation to it whatsoever.

  7. J. Bartos
    October 23, 2010
    Reply

    But really. Who can keep from smiling while you're in Paris? I've tried and it's not natural. You're in one of the most beautiful cities in the world. There's a fabulous sun setting over the Seine. You are playing the part of the flaneur in an indoor/outdoor cafe in which you are (seemingly) the only non-French patron. There's a beautiful old lady sitting in front of you with her head wrapped in a stunning silk scarf, a la Simone de Beauvoir. Her companion is a handsome young man (her son you find out later) and they are chatting naturally,as if they are the best of friends. The waiter is nice and helpful,despite the fact that your French is far from perfect. The service is impeccable. The wine and food are fabulous. Now I ask you,could any human supress a smile?

    When visiting Paris, I try to smile with my eyes while keeping my facial muscles relaxed. I inevitably fail.

    I have had only one strange experience. A young man followed me home like a puppy. I did have to go to the restaurant next to my apartment and ask one of the owners (a male) to step outside with me. He did. The young man immediately disappeared and I went home.

    I feel very safe in Paris but I'm as careful as I am in other large cities. I travel alone so I have to be. Still,even smiling like a certifiable idiot, I have always felt safe there.

  8. ben
    November 21, 2011
    Reply

    Paris is Shite Hole city , I dont understand people keep talking about paris like its heaven
    plus for my opinion I strongly beleive new york , Madrid , New england is the best place , much better than paris
    with all my respect to all , paris is shite hole city

    • Fred
      January 17, 2012
      Reply

      Being a Parisian, I mean a true one, born and bred there, I have to confess that if you want to have good service (I mean normal service) one must go elsewhere, like in another country. I don’t enter cafés anymore because I’m fed up with having my expresso landing on my table like a frisbee, or having the garçon that “delivered” it so courteously hanging around me insistently waiting for me to pay as fast as possible. Of course as I never leave a tip when I get such treatment I sometimes get a remark as a bonus.
      If you want to have service, go to Italy, Portugal, England, Croatia, Germany… not in Paris.

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