When you study a language and the cultures that go along with it, you’re bound to come across stereotypes.
Here are some common ones I often hear about the French – and why they’re not true. Or most of them, anyway….
French people wear berets
Quick: Imagine a typical, anonymous French person. Chances are, the person in your mind’s eye was wearing a beret. But as anyone who’s spent some time in France knows, berets are fairly rare.
They were somewhat popular in previous centuries, but over the past decades, they’ve become relegated to either traditional or military dress/uniforms, or an eccentric or nationalistic headpiece.
If you see someone wearing a beret with their everyday clothes today, they’re either trying to make a statement, or an old gentleman genuinely rooted in a region and tradition where this was once common. Or, if they’re a woman, maybe they’re trying to look old-school glamorous or whimsical.
Sorry to shatter the illusion, but on the streets of Paris today, you’re far more likely to see people wearing hoodies or even baseball caps, than berets.
French people stink
When you look for the origin of this stereotype, the overall consensus seems to be that it comes from the French diet (or somewhat stereotypical diet) of onions and pungent cheeses.
But why would that make it true? If you eat a lot of onions or stinky cheese, does it make you smell any different?
In reality, a 2015 survey revealed that 57% of French people shower every day. This may sound like confirmation of the stereotype, but as an article in La Depeche points out, the French are far from being the dirtiest Europeans – that honor goes to the English, of whom 80% claim not to shower on a daily basis.
The percentage of French people who don’t shower daily is also only slightly higher than Americans, who this Atlantic exposé considers to be of average cleanliness.
Those are the facts, as much as statistics can be trusted, anyway.
From personal experience, I’ll say that in France, access to running water is the norm, and inexpensive shampoos and soaps are widely available. Also – another statistic – a majority of French people use deodorant. But I will admit, I do often smell body odor on public transportation or in crowded rooms.
I think that the reason for the persistent idea of the French being stinky comes down to proximity and heat. Unlike some countries, air conditioning isn’t a given in most French places, and even when there is air conditioning, it’s not usually at polar blast level.
Even when it’s only a bit warm, due to the weirdly prevalent French fear of draughts, and you’ll often have windows that remain firmly shut, even when it would be nice to get a breath of fresh air. In the US, where I grew up, I was rarely around sweaty people indoors, but in France, it happens all the time.
Add to this the fact that people here are often more packed together because there’s such great public transportation and train networks, unlike in countries like mine, which depend mostly on people taking their own vehicle around.
And “people” may not be the issue. Just one unwashed, malodorous person (often, sadly, someone without access to running water, or elderly people with different hygienic standards or difficulty cleaning themselves) can make an Metro, tram, or train car — or an entire bus — stink, and it suddenly seems like everyone’s to blame.
French people are rude
This is one of the most common stereotypes about the French, and probably the most unfair.
First of all, not all regions of France have the same general culture or attitude towards other people. It’s probably like this in the country you’re from, as well. In France, people from the North and people from the South are generally considered to be warm and friendly – and in my experience, they are.
On the other hand, even fellow French people will probably tell you that Parisians are rude. Part of this is because they’re not necessarily talking about actual native Parisians but lumping them together with transplants from other regions of France who are in Paris to work and find it too fast-paced and urban, which makes them somewhat miserable all the time.
As a city person, and a former New Yorker, I do not understand either of these sentiments, but they’re a thing. So, these people may not be radiating sunshine when you talk to them.
Still, as a longtime Paris resident, I know lots of people who (like me) are perfectly happy – even delighted – to live here, and even those who don’t feel this way aren’t necessarily downright rude.
This takes us to the second reason why the French/Parisians are seen as rude. For most French people, overtly expressing your emotions, smiling all the time, and just generally being warm and fuzzy and exaggerated makes you seem insincere, maybe even stupid.
This is why many French people have a hard time believing Americans like me, who have no problem saying things like, “That was the funniest movie I’ve EVER seen!” (and meaning it, in a certain way…for now). The French just don’t show enthusiasm like that, and don’t react to it in an overt, smiling way when other people do it. But it doesn’t mean they don’t feel happy or enthusiastic. It also doesn’t mean they hate people who do.
Many people who say the French are rude are tourists. They may come from countries where the customer knows best. They may have previously been in countries where they’re constantly greeted with smiles, even given compliments. Some of this, ultimately, may be insincere, but it’s the way they think they should be treated.
In many places, if you just speak English to a waiter or shopkeeper without saying even a simple greeting in the local language, they’ll try to help, but most French people will consider it rude and presumptuous (and also a kind of scary – more on that a bit later). And when you think about it, they have a point. If you think a French person is being rude to you, keep these things in mind, and when it comes to the point I’ve just made, ask yourself if you’re being polite.
French people only listen to accordion music
Many of the stereotypes on this list come from dated impressions. The accordion was a popular instrument in France in the 19th century, up to around the 1930’s, with its bal musette music. Today, you’ll almost certainly hear accordions if you’re strolling around central Paris. They won’t be coming from a cabaret, but from a busker who wants to be paid for that expected melody.
Some performers do continue to keep accordion music alive, but most contemporary French music is pretty much like music in most Western countries. You have singers of all sorts, from traditional, folk, and regional groups, to pop and rap stars, not to mention a modern French music phenomenon: internationally famous DJ’s and electronica stars like Daft Punk and David Guetta.
French women don’t shave
In the nearly fifteen years I’ve lived in France, I’ve probably seen a handful of women who didn’t shave their underarms, and I don’t think I’ve ever met a woman who didn’t shave her legs. The women with the unshaved underarms were older, maybe starting around age 50.
But globalization of pop culture and fashion and beauty standards means that an overwhelming majority of women from younger generations shave – more than 75%, according to a survey cited in La Parisienne. The article also reveals that nearly 80% of those surveyed were against the “all natural” movement touted by countless feminists and American pop stars like Miley Cyrus.
French people hate Americans
Let’s not say “hate”. Let’s say that we’re frenemies.
French people actually really like a lot of things about America. They’re one of the biggest filmgoing populations in the world, for example, and most of those films are American.
They also love American music, TV series, and believe it or not, even American food, from McDonald’s, to currently trendy street food (gourmet burgers and other food truck fare).
Most French people want to visit the United States, especially places they’ve seen in movies or on TV, and many have already been – even multiple times. Some even stay, including many French celebrities.
On the other hand, most French people disagree with a lot of aspects of US culture and politics, whether temporary issues like the current president, or concepts like the lack of universal healthcare coverage. As I’ve mentioned before, French people also tend to have a problem with most Americans’ bombastic way of expressing our opinions and emotions.
Add to this the fact that French people see themselves as proudly resisting a world power whose language has overtaken theirs in the domains of diplomacy and travel, and you’ll get some insight into that conflicting relationship.
So, if you’re an American in France, will you automatically be hated? Mais non! But if you are getting a resentful vibe, show them that you’re more than a stereotype.
Frenchmen are the most romantic people in the world
Ah, l’amour! The French have a reputation for being romantic and seductive. In surveys of the most romantic languages, French is often among the top results. Alas, this is another stereotype that isn’t necessarily true, although it’s less “untrue” than the other stereotypes on this list.
The reason is that romance is relative. Remember what I’ve said about the French not being overt and expressive about emotions? If you’re looking for a man who will be extremely affectionate and sing out their love for you, you’re probably barking up the wrong tree. If you like grand, romantic gestures – prom-posals, skywriting and the like – look elsewhere.
On the other hand, if you like passion but not making a fuss about everything, prefer sex to a routine date, and value meaningful but not excessive gifts, you might want to give dating a Frenchman a try.
The French always surrender
I can understand the misconceptions behind other stereotypes, but this one genuinely annoys me. If you’re even remotely interested in history, you’ll probably understand why.
For centuries, France was one of the most significant military powers in the world. Even if you don’t know anything about William the Conqueror or the American Revolutionary War (they were our allies, fam!), you’ve probably heard of a dude named Napoleon Bonaparte. Under his leadership, the French army conquered most of western Europe. Even after his time, the French went on to military victories in conflicts around the world, as this exhaustive list shows.
So why the stereotype? It comes from World War II, when France was occupied by the Nazis. But even then, a number of French armed forces made their way to England, fighting for their country under leader Charles de Gaulle. And everyday French citizens fought too, in subtle ways we may never know about, as well as by becoming members of the Resistance or the Righteous Among the Nations (people who hid and/or helped Jews escape to safety).
Today, France is still a formidable military power, taking part in major world conflicts. So yeah, surrender isn’t really a French thing.
The French are intellectuals
The French reputation for being intellectuals started in the Middle Ages, when Paris was the center of education for all of Europe, and it continued into the oh-so-cool philosophers and writers of the 1950’s and ’60’s. The idea is still very present in pop culture today.
To some extent, there is a grain of truth to this stereotype. For one thing, philosophy is an actual compulsory subject in French high schools.
Even out of school, many French people keep learning. Thanks to lots of vacation, they’re able to travel and discover new places and cultures. Most French people like to be informed about national and international news, and you may just find yourself cornered by someone who wants to discuss a current event that you’re barely aware of – even if it pertains to your own native country. (As someone who prefers TV series to the nightly news, this regularly happens to me.)
But you’ll meet some perfectly average- or even daft-seeming people here, as well. And, for all the philosophy studies and reflection on current events, problems that many people think portent the end of civilization as we know it, such as text speak, are issues in France, too. Just watch some French reality TV shows (there are oh so many), and you’ll see that not every French person is Jean-Paul Sartre or Simone de Beauvoir – nor do they want to be.
The French always eat gourmet meals
We often picture French people regularly sitting down to amazing, elaborate homemade meals that would be worthy of a five-star restaurant anywhere else.
While the French do value good food and quality meals, people are people, which means that many of them are too busy or tired or plain lazy to cook like that all the time.
Grocery stores, supermarkets, and Picard, a chain specialized in high-end frozen food, outnumber farmer’s markets, even in France.
The French also enjoy fast food. Just watch the trailer for the recent French movie, Les dents, pipi et au lit. If you go to the 1:02 minute mark, you’ll see a grown man torturing the kids who have invaded his apartment (long story) by eating McDonald’s while they have to have a homecooked dinner. Yes, lots of French kids love McDonald’s – although the restaurant’s popularity wasn’t always a given.
The French all have poodles
Dogs are the iconic French pet, right? In reality, there are almost twice the number of pet cats than canines here.
Still, many French people do love dogs. Millions of households have at least one, and yes, if you come to Paris, you’re likely to see at least a few people promenading their pooches down the streets.
But one thing you’ll probably notice is that very few of these are poodles, and if they are, you’ll probably never see a poodle with the puffy haircut you’re imagining. In fact, according to this study, poodles aren’t even among the top twenty most popular dog breeds in France. Désolée, poodle fans!
All French people love to eat frogs’ legs
Although frogs’ legs are a legitimate thing here in France, and some people enjoy them, they’re not as popular as most people imagine.
Since moving to France more than a decade ago, I’ve been served (but not always eaten) everything from standard meals of chicken, pork, and beef, to less common fare like rabbit, snails, and tripe. I have never had frogs’ legs. I’ve seen them on menus but only in touristy places.
But in case you think this is some conspiracy to keep France’s delicious frogs’ legs to myself, check out this list of the top ten most popular dishes in France, based on a recent survey. No cuisses de grenouilles to be found.
If you need even more proof that frogs’ legs aren’t on the menu for every French person, look no further than Rainettes, a recently-opened restaurant in Paris’s Marais district. Its novelty is that it specializes in this otherwise fairly rare dish.
When it comes to the lower part of an animal that most French people seem to love, think chicken drumsticks, or even pigs’ feet. That’s another specialty, but I know more French people who eat pigs’ feet, than frogs’ legs!
French people can’t or won’t speak English
Not all French people speak English, but most of the people I know here have at least a basic notion of simple words and phrases.
There are three reasons why a French person may not speak English to you:
- They truly don’t know how to speak English. This is especially common among older generations.
- They’re fed up with people just assuming they speak English. Picture this scenario: You’re at work, when someone bustles in and starts forcefully talking to you in a language you barely understand. That would be a little off-putting and intimidating, right? Many French people deal with this regularly. English is the lingua franca of tourism, but many tourists take it too far. I’ve seen people from all around the world strut up to a French shopkeeper and without so much as attempting a Bonjour, just rattle off “Yeah, I want to buy that keychain.” In this case, they’re the ones being rude. No matter what country you’re visiting, take time to learn how to say “Hello”, “Goodbye,” “Please,” and “Thank you” in the local language.
- They’re intimidated. This is probably the most common reason a French person won’t speak English to you. The French seem like confident, romantic, cynical souls, so it’s hard to believe that they’re scared of you, a mere tourist. But their fear is rooted in childhood. French teachers have no problem openly critiquing – even borderline mocking – their students. Marks are regularly shared, not kept confidential like they are in the US, for example. I’ve worked at French elementary schools and was regularly shocked to see teachers – who were perfectly qualified, kind, and devoted – say things like, “Well, she’s a bit stupid.” about a student. The kids themselves aren’t any better, regularly teasing each other and classifying each other as a good or bad student, laughing at each other in class, and so on.
And it doesn’t get better with age. First of all, ask just about any French adult, and they’ll automatically tell you, “French people are bad at English,” or even bad at all languages altogether.
I think the opening paragraph of this article about language learning statistics sums it up perfectly. The author begins:
Ce n’est pas un grand secret, les Français ne sont pas des champions en matière de langues étrangères. A commencer par notre chef de l’Etat. Rappelez-vous qu’il avait écrit un seul mot en anglais sur sa lettre de félicitations à Barack Obama pour sa réélection, “friendly“ pour dire “amicalement” ce qui est un non sens. (It’s no big secret, the French aren’t exactly foreign language champions. Just look at our Head of State. Remember that he wrote a single English word in the letter he sent to congratulate Barack Obama on his reelection: “friendly”, instead of “Amicably”, which is nonsense.)
Ouch. Not only does that put down French people in general – it even goes after former president François Hollande for a relatively minor mistake. This is what French people are up against. and not just from cranky journalists.
I might be hanging out with a group of adult friends, and if one of them dares to say something in English, the others are often quick to mock their “bad accent”. Understandably, this leads to many French adults – even ones with powerful jobs or enviable looks or super-intelligence – to be extremely hesitant about speaking English.
So that’s the real reason why most French people would refuse to speak to you, even if you’re just asking them where the bathroom is.
Hopefully this article has shed some light on why these common stereotypes about the French are flawed.
The next time you interact with a French person, try to notice things about them beyond the language they’re speaking. You’ll probably find that they don’t fit any of the descriptions on this list. And if they do, you’ll at least have some insight into why.