Underneath the Attitude

April 7, 2009By Nick WoodsTales of la Ville
Nick Woods (right) gets a friendly handshake from
the counterman.

“France would be great without the French,” was the hackneyed expression I used to hear often back in Britain. Now that I live in Paris, I hear: “How are you liking Paris, Nick? Don’t …

Nick Woods (right) gets a friendly handshake from
the counterman.

“France would be great without the French,” was the hackneyed expression I used to hear often back in Britain. Now that I live in Paris, I hear: “How are you liking Paris, Nick? Don’t you find the Parisians arrogant and unfriendly?” Rather fed up with hearing the same old, same old, I want to take the opportunity today to make it crystal clear, on the record, that I find the French, including the “stuck-up” Parisians, generally the warmest, friendliest and least arrogant people I have met. Wow, now there’s a statement, but I think it’s time to state the unexpected and put the joke on those unfortunate souls who fall for the stereotype and fail to see something far more essential the French have to offer: a sense of humanity.

It is a difficult case to prove, even to the French, who seem to have a similarly negative view of their compatriots. But I can only go on my own experience. I might go into a pharmacy, for example, to buy some medicine and end up having a genuine conversation about life with the man behind the counter, an interaction that would continue were it not for the queue of people behind me.

When I go into a bar, it is not uncommon to be welcomed by the barman with a handshake or even to end up chatting with a group of people I have never met before as if we are all old friends. I even managed to find my flat in Paris because one man I had met here the year before said I could stay in his pad while he was away to give me time to look for my own. There is a feeling of being among family, and I can’t understand how the country’s detractors don’t appreciate it. Maybe it is just my way, but smiling, being chatty, open and friendly – just human – works wonders socially and produces a similar response.

If there is an air of arrogance in Paris, and I think there is in every capital city, then it is at most superficial, something that Parisians seem to do for form’s sake, and hardly worth getting hot under the collar about. You only have to come out with a clever line that cuts through it, give a knowing smile that makes it clear you get the joke or just ignore it and focus on what you actually want from someone, and you are soon back on equal ground. There is nearly always a human being underneath the attitude.

I once went into a hairdresser’s in the Marais where the stylists were lounging around looking arrogant and too good to talk to, so I requested “a haircut by someone who knew what they were doing and had some decent ideas,” after which they couldn’t have been nicer or more fun. Deep down, I don’t believe that the Parisians think that they are better than anyone else, as this works against something far more important in their psyche: a desire to have fun.

I think we can forgive the French for being culturally proud, given that they are often told that their language, country, food, literature and capital city are the best and most beautiful in the world. It would be hard not to feel collectively bloated about that. And maybe there is a link between this and some blinkered attitudes I sometimes come across: French is the only language spoken in the world, Paris is the center of the world and France the best-run country in the world. The facts speak otherwise, of course, and you only have to point it out. But is it really worth picking a fight over? By allowing the country you have chosen to live in or visit, probably for exactly the reasons given above, to enjoy its popularity, and by showing respect for the cherished language by at least trying to speak it, you will probably see the side of Paris I am currently enjoying.

A French friend told me recently that it was different for me, since I was an outsider and hadn’t had the same level of contact with natives of l’Hexagone. But maybe it takes a fresh pair of eyes and a fresh approach to cut through all the cynicism and see what else is there.

I am not the only one who is pushing this argument. I met an American artist the other week who feels exactly the same way, even after having lived here for more than a decade. So the crusade to rethink the stereotype starts here.

Nick Woods

© 2009 Paris Update

Reader Panama Red writes (re the expression France would be great without the French”): “Odd. I say a similar thing about Tennessee.”

Reader David Platzer writes: “Bravo, Nick Woods, for crashing the unjustified stereotype. France is also far more open to other cultures, including those of the English-speaking world, than either the US or the UK, to judge from the number of translations that are published here and which receive close attention in the French press. The reverse is rarely the case, as I know from having tried in vain to interest English editors in a letter from Paris or in articles about contemporary French writers, including Le Clézio after he won the Nobel Prize. This goes as well for other cultural areas, although current French films, when they make it across the Channel or the Atlantic, often get better reviews, though not necessarily larger audiences, in the US or in London than they do here.

Reader Reaction
Click here to respond to this article (your
response may be published on this page and is
subject to editing).


What do you think? Send a comment:

Your comment is subject to editing. Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Subscribe for free!

The Paris Update newsletter will arrive in your inbox every Wednesday, full of the latest Paris news, reviews and insider tips.