Are the French Really Rude? A Myth Shattered — and Reassembled

They’re Polite Enough... To Each Other

May 13, 2015By David JaggardC'est Ironique!
Oh sure, they all look so sweet and nice in pictures. But just try asking any of these Parisians for directions in English to the nearest McDonald’s and see what kind of answer you get.

Despite what many foreigners seem to think, French people are not rude. Not all of them — France has the same proportion of aggressive, selfish jerks as any other country in the world. The only difference is that here they all ride motor scooters.

I can’t imagine any logical explanation for how this hackneyed stereotype got started. So I’m going to make up an illogical one: it’s because France has no widely read syndicated etiquette column like “Miss Manners” in the United States.

But if there were such a thing, it would probably look something like this:

Chère Mademoiselle Manières:
I’m a teenage boy doing my military service in one of those army anti-terror units that patrols the airports, Métro and train stations carrying machine guns. As though a full-auto weapon wouldn’t mow down more bystanders than terrorists in a closed, crowded space.

Like all soldiers and policemen in France, I hold my gun horizontally, pointing it right smack at the public I’m supposed to be protecting. For their own reasons, I guess, some people look startled and cringe a bit when I swing the muzzle in their direction. Isn’t that rude of them? I’m just doing my job.

Gentil Lecteur:
Indeed, in most advanced countries, soldiers hold their firearms pointing up, according to the quaint tradition of “don’t point it at anything you don’t want to kill,” but here in France it’s apparently proper to wave that sucker around like a drunken octopus on a Tilt-A-Whirl.

Your role model here is the riot squad officer that the humorist who invented me saw in real life at Place des Abbesses one summer night a few years ago.

He was standing in the middle of a dense throng of pedestrians pointing his Uzi, or whatever, straight out in front of him, with his finger on the trigger and his thumb clicking the safety rapidly off and on over and over. It’s okay — he was probably just nervous!

If anyone gives you any trouble about recklessly endangering the citizenry, just remind them that you’re protecting France against the biggest threat facing the country today: young men who are recruited by military-style organizations, issued arms and sent out to spread fear.

Chère Mademoiselle Manières:
I drive a bus in Paris. You know that sci-fi “Neuralyzer” flashgun that the agents in the Men in Black movies use to wipe out people’s memories? Not only does it actually exist, but it was first successfully tested on us Parisian bus drivers, right after we learned about the principle of gridlock.

Like all French drivers, I routinely rush ahead through yellow lights even if the intersection is already filled with other vehicles. And since my bus is one of those extra-long double models, this effectively eliminates any hope of cross traffic until I can inch through, which sometimes takes 20 minutes.

I’m certain that this is not in any way inconsiderate, but I do have a related etiquette question: should I provide pastimes for the people I’m holding up?

I figure that the ads on the outside of my bus give the drivers stuck in my path something to look at besides their green light going through multiple cycles while they sit there wasting their gas and lives. So they’re taken care of, but what about my passengers?

Should I offer reading materials? Organize games or sing-alongs? (Everybody loves “The Wheels on the Bus”!)

Gentil Lecteur:
Although your heart, if not your right foot, is in the proper place, I should think that the traffic jam itself would be entertainment enough for your passengers. They can pass the time trying to figure out which earsplitting incessant honking comes from which car (it’s harder than it sounds!), guessing which taxi passengers have a plane to catch, betting on whether the patients stuck in immobilized ambulances will make it, etc., etc.

In other words, on behalf of all Parisians: thank you, but you’ve done enough!

Chère Mademoiselle Manières:
I’m a guy. I’m sure you see what the question is here without my having to spell it out.

Gentil Lecteur:
Yes, of course. The correct way to urinate in the street is facing a wall while looking back over one shoulder with a facial expression that’s half “Oops!” and half “Wanna make sumpin’ of it?!”

And, for obvious reasons, with your legs spread. Some gentlemen prefer a narrow side street or alleyway, but this is more of a nicety than a requirement.

On a practical note, it’s best to pick a place that is thoroughly littered with cigarette butts. For absorption, if you see what I mean. In Paris this is never a problem.

Chère Mademoiselle Manières:
I’m a woman. I’m confident that you understand what my question is without my having to explain in detail.

Gentille Lectrice:
Yes, of course. A sharp-toed kick to the partially exposed buttocks, though tempting, is not recommended due to the splash risk.

So it’s best to limit yourself to verbal abuse. Don’t be afraid to let loose (which is only fair, since that’s what he’s doing). There is little chance that the offending oaf will run after you. Not right away, in any case.

Chère Mademoiselle Manières:
On a recent trip to Paris, my husband and I decided to treat ourselves to dinner at a fancy restaurant. Even though we had a reservation and showed up on time, our table wasn’t ready when we arrived. And that was only the beginning!

While we were waiting, the bartender offered us a “special house cocktail.” After drinking it, I suddenly felt woozy. Then the room went black, the ceiling opened and a dazzling ray of light shot down from the sky, shining right on me. Slowly I began rising up through the air along the path of the light, which I later realized was a tractor beam.

I was lifted into an enormous hovering spacecraft, where I found myself in a room full of mustached men wearing white aprons and carrying notepads. Communicating mostly by telepathy, they offered me a meal and then performed a series of strange experiments on me with various probes and sensors, while sneering at my choice of wine, pretending not to understand English, rolling their eyes at my request for a glass of water and generally treating me with haughty disdain.

The next thing I knew I was lying in bed in my hotel room with my clothes on backwards, my makeup smeared and my wallet empty. Is this what people mean when they talk about “rude French waiters”?

Gentille Lectrice:
Yes. Most tales of mistreatment at the hands of French waitstaff parallel your account down to almost every detail. But there’s one thing you didn’t mention: did you have the onion soup? It’s fantastic!

© 2015 Paris Update


An album of David Jaggard’s comic compositions is now available for streaming on Spotify and Apple Music, for purchase (whole or track by track) on iTunes and Amazon, and on every other music downloading service in the known universe, under the title “Totally Unrelated.”

Note to readers: David Jaggard’s e-book Quorum of One: Satire 1998-2011 is available from Amazon as well as iTunes, iBookstore, Nook, Reader Store, Kobo, Copia and many other distributors.

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