03 August 2011

Myths about the French

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about how I will never fit the Parisian mould due to my love of beer and my inability to part with my white socks/sneaker habit.  To be honest, a lot of my observations are quite anecdotal, and it should be noted that Parisians ≠ French.  Nor do all Parisians behave in the manner by which I or Magny described.  Really, it all boiled down to how I feel trying to navigate my way through this exhilirating city and relationships with its citizens.

That being said, I thought it would be fun to follow up and dispell myths about the French.  When I was a French professor at a US university, I used to get questions all the time about what the French are really like.  Some were great questions about dating, eating, vacations.  Others were...well, they raised my doubt about the saying "There are no stupid questions..."  When I have friends visit from the US of A or even when I go home, I usually have a conversation about the French and how it is to live among them as a badass American spy American expat.

So who are these Frenchy folk?
Myth 1:  French women don't shave.

Fact:  I've heard varying stories as to why this myth exists in the first place.  But my fellow Americans, it is simply not true.  In fact, if you head over to the local Monoprix (or other fine retail establishment), you are bound to find a well-stocked hair removal product area.  I will say that shaving here is not the popular method.  Waxing and depilitory creams are way more popular than in the USA.  Going to the esthéticien (beautician) is a popular ritual here in Paris.  French women really care about how they look, and this includes body hair maintenance.

Photo:  Notrefamille.com

Myth 2:  French people don't work that hard

Fact:  I too was a victim of this myth.  Imagine my dismay, if you will, when I went to my first day on the job and learned that my hours were from 9 AM to 7 PM.  You're probably picturing a frown on my face.  Now, imagine an even bigger look of dismay when I saw that even though the clock said 7 PM, most of my colleagues were still there.  Not wanting to make the wrong impression, I stayed until most people started to leave...around 8:30 PM!  And no, I don't work in a bank or with high-level managers.  In France, there are the government workers who have a really nice 35 hour week.  They get upwards of 10 weeks of paid vacation plus those nice extra days we get every month called RTTs.  Those in the private sector, however, do not work only 35 hours.  They put in way more time.  The French have similar productivity levels as Americans, so the argument is completely baseless if you look at the stats.  I will however say that one thing that sets Americans apart from the French is that we tend to do work that might not be in our job description.  It is a common trait for someone to say that something is simply not their job in the French office and therefore they won't take on the work.  But really, you can find those people in every culture, no?  After a couple of years in the professional realm, it is safe to say that the French work hard and play hard.

Myth 3:  Infidelity is the French national sport

Photo:  FNAC

Fact:  The DSK affair really put French attitudes towards infidelity in the spotlight.  As the months pass, it becomes more and more apparent that the man had himself some sexual good times outside of his shared bedroom with Anne Sinclair.  And of course, the concern in some of the articles that I have read is that more Americans will perceive French men as cheating dogs.  While the French have been shown to have a more casual attitude about infidelity, they actually tend to have fewer casual relationships than Americans.  And when they are in serious relationships, they remain faithful.  In fact, national surveys conducted in 2007 showed that more married Americans had more than one sex partner in a year than married French.  Contrary to popular belief, when infidelity does happen, many French women do not believe in looking the other way while their husband (and vice versa) has an extramarital tryst.  However, they handle it differently.  There is not a "one strike and you're out" attitude towards infidelity here in France.  It is viewed as an occupational hazard of being married.  Infidelity happens everywhere, but the French are not as sex-crazed as many imagine.

Myth 4:  French people are rude

Fact:  In my post regarding my inability to ever become Parisian, I mentioned that those living in this city can be quite rude.  And yes, I have run across some people who make you want to crawl under your covers and cry.  However, every big city has rude people who are in a hurry or who only think of themselves.  I think some of the malentendus that we Americans have with the French revolve around the following:
  • In France, it is not rude to talk at the same time as someone else.  You can interrupt someone to ask a question from time to time.  Or even in an argument, people tend to talk over one another, and it's not a big deal.  This can be quite a shock.
  • It is also a common character trait to defend oneself or an idea.  If you don't defend yourself in France, you are often not seen as a strong person.  France is all about challenging oneself and always making things better (in theory...)  So when someone challenges you, be ready to push back a little.  It'll get you respect.
  • Customer service does not mean making a best friend with the sales person.  Your waitress will not tell you her life story.  If something doesn't look good on you, the salesman at the clothing store will tell you.  They are there to help, not flatter and entertain.
I could go on and on, but I think those three points are pretty key.  It's all about learning the rhythm of the culture you're in before you can finally figure out what is rude and what is the norm.

The moral of this story is that sometimes you find people that live up to stereotypes.  But if you look beyond the myth, you'll see the real people.


  1. This is a really great article. When I visited Paris, I only encountered one person who I would truly call rude, the women weren't hairy, the streets were clean (without dog doo everywhere), and the people were genuinely pleasant to be around. It was disconcerting to be stared at, but you get used to it, and I liked it when the sales people/were honest with me. The whole experience was overwhelmingly refreshing. I'd love to spend more time there.

  2. Ah the Parisian stare. They do it to everyone. I've seen fights break out over it in the metro. It does kinda creep me out after a bit or makes me wonder if I spilled something on myself.