In the US as well as in the UK, I hear complaints that the French are rude—particularly Parisians in the service industries, such as restaurant waiters.

On the other side, Parisians sometimes make the same complaint of the tourists who come to town—and there are a lot of them.

In any society some people are nicer than others, and even the sunniest among us have bad days.  But as a general rule, I have found the French people to be very pleasant, and generally exceptionally courteous.  So where is this coming from?

I’ve been watching the interactions of French and English-speaking people to try to understand where this misunderstanding starts, and I’ve concluded that it really begins with, “Hello.”  Or rather, “Bonjour.”  But it takes a bit of explanation to understand why.

Modern French culture has its origins in the revolutionary war of 1789.  Prior to that time, France had an aristocracy similar to Great Britain and other European monarchies; France was ruled by a group of people who derived their position by divine right of birth.

But a fledgling nation across the ocean had shown France that one need not be ruled by people who claimed it was their birthright.  Rather, you could have a society that was based on equal opportunity, reflecting and respecting a fundamental equality of personhood.  And so, just a few years after the American revolution had established an independent country in which all men were declared to be equal, the French likewise threw off their monarchy and declared their society to be based on liberty, fraternity, and equality.

Although this was a huge step forward for both groups, with the hindsight of history we know that neither the French nor the Americans got it completely right.  The Americans in particular continued to permit slavery, which can only be viewed as one of the most egregious peacetime sins humans have carried out against one another.  It was an abomination, and US society continues to be marred by it today, even if the political system eventually rid itself of such a barbaric practice.  And there were issues around how equality was initially defined in the US—such as excluding women, and only including landowners.

Perhaps seeing this American misstep, or perhaps for other reasons, the French put a much greater emphasis on the notion of equality.  And it has become a fundamental part of French society.

Great Britain has maintained a system of formalized privilege, including titles and monarchy, for so long that I believe many of them don’t even realize the extent to which it permeates their culture.  When two people approach each other, it is in the context of some understood hierarchical relationship, in which one person is often the superior to the other, in some form.  This allows people within that society to interact quickly and efficiently, with all parties understanding what is expected of them.

To illustrate this at a simple level, think about what happens when you hail a taxi in London.  The taxi pulls over and the driver waits for you to tell him where you are going.

“Fenchurch Street, London,” you say.

“All right,” he replies.  You get into the taxi, and away you go.  You may have a very nice conversation with the driver, or none at all.  But your roles are clear.  He is the driver; and you are the paying passenger.

The same is true everywhere.  When two people approach each other, there is a built-in understanding of their relative roles, and they begin the conversation in that context.

“I’m checking in,” you say to the hotel receptionist, as you set down your luggage.

“I’m here to see Ms. Johnson,” you tell security when you enter the office building.

It’s really all very simple and automatic, and the British never give it a moment’s thought.

And that same approach works in the US.  For the most part, when two Americans approach each other, there is a built-in understanding of their relative roles, and they begin with that understanding.  It is a practice we inherited from the British.

But it is a practice, not a universal truth.  And the French have a different practice.

Once you declare equality of all people, it really doesn’t seem appropriate to assume two people have different stations by virtue of their current job.  They are equals, and when one approaches another, they should do so as equals.

And so, when two French people first approach each other, they do not assume an immediate hierarchy.  Instead, they approach each other as peers—as equals.

“Bonjour!” they say to each other.  Hello, or good day.

Having said that, they have established that they are equals, and can now begin to discuss the transaction at hand.

“I am going to boulevard Saint Germain,” you tell the taxi driver.  And from this point, things progress pretty much as they would in London, or New York.  After all, the driver does need to know where you are going, and will take you there.

But failing that little courtesy, failing to say Bonjour or hello, communicates to the other person that you do not view him or her as your equal.  And that is very rude.

And this mentality of approaching each other as equals extends to many different facets of French culture, including the practice of tipping.

Tipping is remarkably patriarchal.  A system in which one person pays another directly for service, and has the right to determine whether to pay at all and, if so, the amount of payment is fundamentally a system of inequality.  One would never expect a professional to accept such a system.  Try telling your physician, accountant, or attorney that you will let them heal you, prepare your taxes, or review your contracts, and only when they are finished will you decide whether or not to pay them and, if so, how much you will pay.  You are unlikely to find any takers for that deal!  Accordingly, tipping is simply not an accepted part of French culture, and may even be regarded as a bit rude.

This concept of inequality is built into British culture, and Americans have adopted it in full.  But not so in France.  To the French, failing to establish and practice signs of equality is terribly discourteous.

And so the conversation has started with one side being (unintentionally) rude from the very first word.  And while many French people will shrug it off, or recognize it as cultural ignorance, others may take offense, even if they do not mean to do so.  And it may show in their face, or in their actions. They may not be being rude so much as reacting to your own lack of good manners.

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