You have experienced some French rudeness since you live in France and you may not always know what triggered this reaction and how to react… I’m giving you my tips as a French person. This is the way I personally act to avoid rudeness and also defend myself. These are not infallible rules, but they can help you to understand the French mentality, how to navigate the Frenchness and not get off on the wrong foot.
Always say Bonjour
First, you want to avoid annoying the French and use the first French etiquette rule that French kids are taught by their parents. Always say Bonjour before interacting with someone. This is something that comes naturally to French people as it is part of our education. I know this is not considered rude not to say Bonjour in some cultures so not saying it in France doesn’t come from bad intentions. This will, however, be interpreted as a lack of respect in France. So using every time this simple word will already be a good start if this is not already your habit.
Bonjour is used for every type of interaction, professional and personal. But the one that sometimes triggers more confusion for some foreigners is to always say bonjour in the context of customer service. If you require something from someone (even if it is their job), they deserve respect. And, in France, the first mark of respect is acknowledgement with a simple Bonjour and eye contact.
A quote from Clifton Fadiman, an American intellectual and author, that can seem a bit harsh out of context applies well here: “When you travel, remember that a foreign country is not designed to make you comfortable. It is designed to make its own people comfortable”
With this quote in mind, do not assume that the person will speak English or should make the effort to speak English. After saying Bonjour, it is strongly recommended to ask in French if the person speaks English (“Parlez-vous anglais?”) to then be able to continue in English. This is something that really annoys French people, especially in Paris because of the large number of tourists, that people will speak English directly without trying to pronounce a few words in the language of the country they are visiting. In the large majority of cases, saying Bonjour, Parlez-vous anglais ?, if the person responds yes or a little, you should be fine to continue in English by making sure you speak slowly.
By using this first rule and asking if the person speaks English, you will avoid the first French faux pas and start on a good note. Don’t get me wrong, sometimes this is not enough as there are other cultural differences to take into account to understand why French people react the way they do and why it will not be the same than “back home”.
The client is king belief doesn’t exist in France
Is saying NO a sign of French rudeness?
Most French people want to find balance in their life. Balance between their family/love-life and their inner self, balance between spending time with their friends and their partner, balance between their professional life and their personal life and so on…
French people will defend their personal balance by saying “no”, and not considering a justification is required. For example, by rejecting giving service if the shop is about to close, or not making an exception to your request as a potential client during their lunch break, and so on…
In the French people mind, business doesn’t necessarily come first. Their personal life balance and priorities do. This doesn’t mean business is not important, this would be a very black and white conclusion to make. It is just not more important than keeping a professional/personal life balance. This is what the French Art de Vivre is about. It is not only during holidays in the South of France, but this is also an everyday conception of life. Many French people are not even conscious of it until they leave France and realise that it is not the normality everywhere.
The French work to live, they don’t live to work, or at least they try to. So, by taking it into account, it will help you manage your expectations and therefore avoid a faux pas that may lead to a direct and sometimes rude response.
Customer service is not part of French culture
Yes, I promise you I’m French! Customer service is not blended into French culture the way it is in other cultures. It is definitely not how French people will see themselves or consider an important value as it can be in other cultures like in Northern America or Taiwan for example. France has a “No, man” culture in order to defend everything I’ve explained before.
Again, let’s not jump into extreme conclusions and say that no business in France can provide good customer service. There is! Just not with a “Yes, man” mindset considering the client is always right, especially when the client is really wrong. I’m sure you have experienced it, but we usually don’t remember it, human nature tends to focus on what goes wrong and forgets how nice the baker was this morning and gave a free sample, or that the hairdresser didn’t charge the extra hair treatment he did…
Everyone in France, foreigners and French people, have experienced very bad customer service. I remember going crazy with the internet provider never showing up to set up my line. I had to take half days off work to be able to attend them within the crazy long time-frame they were giving me, and still, they were not coming! Also, I remember trying to keep my calm with my previous French bank when they were never answering my e-mails and charging me fees that did make sense. Well in both cases, they lost me as a client… sometimes this is the only power people have as a customer. Just don’t give your money to a service that you think doesn’t deserve it.
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Be understanding and you’ll win them over
So, now that you say Bonjour every time, and that you don’t (unconsciously) expect the French to give up on their lunch break or other legal right and get out of their way to give a top-notch service as you may be used to, you are quite Frenchified in your approach to customer service. At least you assimilated the minimum skills required to avoid some French rudeness.
Though sometimes this is not enough and this is when you need to be strategic. I know this can be tiring when you just want the service you are paying for or that you expect to receive specific support from a French administration.
If you see that the person starts becoming irritated or annoyed, this may have nothing to do with you. My first approach will be to be nice and understanding of the possible reason the person is irritated. It could be any type of difficult situation or working condition the other is experiencing. We would say in French “Brosser dans le sens du poil” that would mean to say or do things to get on their good side.
So for example, if the waiter arrives at your table late because it’s rush hour. He is alone serving and you are making a point when he arrives that you’ve been waiting because you are used to a faster service. There is a big chance you will wait for your drinks for even longer. I personally don’t like slow service, and this is something that annoyed me when I came back to France after living in London. I tended to have a bad strategy by not being so nice. Now, I would be saying something like “Rush hour is always stressful, especially if you are on your own”. Basically, say anything nice that would show that you understand the other person’s situation or at least imagine it (even if you think you still should have received whatever service a different way) will help you get a better service.
This is like a seduction game to make sure you’ll get the better service possible.
If all of this doesn’t work and depending on the context and what you are expecting from the other person, this is the moment to become assertive. You need to show that you know what you are talking about and that you are in your right to get what you are asking for. This is important to keep a calm tone and remain nice but firm.
The nicer you speak and the more assertive you are, the less the other person will have reason to become aggressive. Because French people can definitely become aggressive!
If you realise that the other person didn’t know what they were doing, like a Prefecture clerk telling you a piece of wrong information and you know it should be another way because you know the law as it is your third permit renewal. You need to be super strategic. Be nice to never prove them how wrong they are but explain your understanding of the situation and the previous renewal experiences. The French tend to be proud and will prefer to turn you down than admitting his or her error.
I’m sure that if you have lived a few months in France you have experienced some French aggressive reactions without really understanding why. I hope that the above advice will limit these really unpleasant experiences.
If nothing worked, then ask to speak with a manager or get help
Sometimes the stars are not aligned and you can’t get the right service you know you should get, you are even turned down, robbed or disrespected. You haven’t managed to avoid the French rudeness and everything went wrong. This is the time to attack and ask to speak to a manager to complain. There is still a possibility the manager will defend the employee depending on the situation. But you can also win your case if this is worth it.
My last advice, going a bit further than the French rudeness but considering more the defending your right part. If you consider that you have been treated unrightfully and even have been robbed as a client, you should seek advice from a specialized consumer association. They can be very helpful, help you write letters with legal grounds and even more. You only need to be a member by paying the annual membership, usually under 50 euros. A very famous one is called UFC – Que Choisir.
In short, knowing and using the French “rules of etiquette” will avoid you some French rudeness or direct reaction. It is mainly a matter of cultural differences and customs. When a French person feels disrespected by someone getting off on the wrong foot, the French will not hesitate to make a point. I hope these 5 tips will help you avoid and react to some common situations and you will soon become frenchified without even noticing it!