Grandma Knows Best on Whether the French are Rude

Grandma Knows Best on Whether the French are Rude

French are rude
© Tatiana Gladskikh/123RF

Are the French Rude?

Why do the French have a reputation for being rude? After six years in France, I think I’ve figured out why. They’re not rude. They’re gatekeepers of an elegant and comfortable society.

Let me use my grandmother as an example of gatekeeping.

My grandmother was a lady, a real Southern lady. Her house had different rules than ours. In her house, there was no running or shouting indoors, no putting your elbows on the table, no burping (even accidentally). She went by “Grandmother”, not Nana or Mimi or Gammy. Manners mattered. My parents would remind me of her rules on the drive there, and if I broke one of them, Grandmother would stiffen, sending me a wordless, undeniable correction.

The payoff was completely worth it, though. She let me do things that were forbidden at home—watch soap operas with her while we ate shrimp cocktail, use the stove, burn trash, drink coffee, and sleep with the cat on the fold-out couch watching movies until the TV station went off the air. When I was as tall as Grandmother (approximately age ten) she started letting me drive her car on the back roads. Weekends at Grandmother’s felt dangerous, reckless, but somehow also civilized.

She wasn’t rude. She was gatekeeping. There were no childish shenanigans, just an oasis of calm, a genteel society where people enjoyed grown-up pleasures.

That’s how the French are. They have a civilized society, nay, I’m just going to say it—a superior society.

Paris cafe scene
© Alexis Duclos for INSPIRELLE. All rights reserved.

Superior how? Let me count the ways: art, bread, culture, food, architecture, wine, film. Not to mention, maintaining strong family and friend relations, while letting your neighbors live their own lives. Intelligent sparring over politics and religion followed by a luxurious dinner where you toast your differences. High-quality, almost-free healthcare. Earlier retirement than anybody and very long paid vacations. Everything looks beautiful, from the trim, stylish people to the stunning, uniform architecture to the tasteful decor.

Just like at Grandmother’s, you can indulge in pleasures that are forbidden back home. Have butter with every meal. Have an afternoon apéro at a sidewalk cafe. Go see a show that’s so bawdy you won’t tell your book club about it. Skip church. If you break your arm, get it patched up for free. Have some brillat-savarin, a cheese so good your eyes will roll back in your head. Stand on a bridge looking at the Seine and breathe deeply, letting that existential dread flow away with the river. Let a painting move you to tears. Take a lover.

© Yvonne Hazelton

While some of these things are, of course, the result of government policies, the whole fabulous lifestyle is maintained by the desire to be good citizens. Decent, coordinated civil behavior as a group, not as rugged individuals asserting their individuality, is the key.

Their gatekeeping includes looking for the goofballs. If you ruin the genteel, charming vibe with your painful lack of savoir-faire, they’ll give you the stink eye, a reprimand, or the cold shoulder.

Little things mean a lot in France, and if you don’t do your research before you go and read the room when you get here, things can go downhill fast. Let me point out a few required courtesies.

*Say bonjour to everybody.

*Talk and laugh softly.

*Keep your kids under control (or preferably invisible).

*Walk the sidewalk with purpose. If you must gawk, pull over to do it.

*Keep your appendages close to your body. Everything in France is small, so make yourself small to fit.

*Order straight off the menu, no substitutions. France is behind the rest of us regarding dietary restrictions and (as of this writing) cares little about your food sensitivities.

*Be confident in your dress and posture. Nothing says “please bully me” in France like a human eyesore schlumphing around in poorly fitted clothes and sheepish demeanor. Tits up!

These aren’t all the rules, but they’ll help.

paris granny style
Two fashionable elderly women in Paris.© Alexis Duclos for INSPIRELLE

By the way, there’s a difference between Grandmother and the French when it comes to a breach of the rules: mess up at Grandmother’s house and she’ll give you a tight-lipped smile, murmur bless your heart, and not invite you back for a while. The French don’t let you off that easy. If you forget the basic niceties, wait staff will ignore you, old ladies will give you a tongue lashing, and people on the street will brush past you with an exasperated ohhhhh la la (btw that means “good grief”, not “hey there, hot stuff”). You’ve been warned.

Sound like a lot? Maybe you’re like my cousin, Roy. He didn’t fare so well at Grandmother’s house, usually getting kicked out after breakfast and only allowed back in when he was hungry and tired enough to behave himself. If that sounds like you, may I humbly suggest that you consider Greece instead of France for your next European vacay? Greece is a family-friendly party haven, full of chatty people, sunny beaches, cheap drinks, and warm breezes. You can dance on a table singing The Yellow Rose of Texas and they don’t care. (I know—I’ve been there and it’s amazing.)

France does require a bit more prep work than other countries, but the payoff is excellent. Indulge your curiosity about the finer things in life, with no Puritan values or Protestant work ethic to hold you back. Give hedonism a try. Grandmother would be proud.

A bientôt!


  1. Fortunately or unfortunately, I think France is changing and becoming more like the US in the last 20 years..letting their hair down so to speak. I do agree that it is critical to say Bonjour and not to be loud. It is not good to assume that everyone knows English and to just keep talking away at them or worse yet to raise your voice. Learn a few key French phrases.. do you understand English will go a long way. If you keep these things in mind, it is very possible, even very likely to have a wonderful vacation in Paris with any incidences. Go and enjoy yourself.


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