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4 Honest Questions Americans Have for the French

France United States
by Maureen Hudson Mar 19, 2015

1. Why do the French seem so rude?

The perception that the French are cold and inhospitable is widely held, and not just by Americans. International surveys have repeated found the French capital to be one of the world’s most hostile places for visitors. The French come off as rebellious, self-righteous, and are full of rhetorical questions. Why should they have to wait in line? And why shouldn’t they blow smoke in your face?

No doubt rude people are everywhere but between Americans and the French, the perceived rift often stems from differences in standards. France has had centuries to engrain accepted behavior standards in its citizens. America is much younger and more fluid in terms of rigidly defined standards. What seems perfectly acceptable to Americans may seem ill-mannered to the French. And conversely, what comports with French standards may come across as arrogant to Americans.

Take for example two American tourists ordering a meal in a French cafe. Dressed in sweatpants and sneakers and talking loudly, they order without first saying “Bonjour, monsieur,” to the waiter. The French waiter writes down the order and walks off, without squatting besides the table, smiling and introducing himself. To the waiter, the Americans are disrespectful not only in their dress, but also in their manners towards him and his profession: a time-honored service craft in France. To the tourists, he’s just another snooty French waiter.

Formality and good manners win the day here. How you look and how you behave very much matters in France. While it may seem trivial and in contrast to America’s casual, anything-goes style, give it a try. You might be pleasantly surprised to discover some of the adorably quirky and good-natured attributes of the French.

2. How do the French get the reputation for being connoisseurs at sex and romance when they don’t bathe every day?

Author Henry Miller said, “One becomes aware in France, after having lived in America, that sex pervades the air. It’s there all around you, like a fluid.”

Yes, sex seems to be a national obsession. Daily showers… well, not so much. Here are the key ingredients for creating their lofty reputation: First, you need ambience. France has plenty of it. From its cozy restaurants bathed in old world patinas, riverbanks for strolling, sunsets, and Champagne, no other city sets the mood like Paris. Next, add to the mix unbridled passion pouring out on to the streets as depicted in Robert Doisneau’s famous photo of “The Lovers” kissing on a Paris street. Next, douse liberally with routine media reports of philandering French politicians and mistress scandals. And finally, sprinkle in sexual images everywhere to stir and heat the pot, from provocative billboard ads to French films unvaryingly depicting nude scenes and steamy, extra-marital intrigues. Et voilà, your recipe for a sex-primed culture is complete.

Alternatively, Novelist Anita Loos provides a more practical explanation: “France is the thriftiest of all nations; to a Frenchman sex provides the most economical way to have fun.”

3. How on earth are the French so skinny despite living off French food?

With diets high in saturated fats, it seems surreal that the French have fewer coronary problems than we do. But drinking a glass of red wine a day may keep the doctor away. That and their proclivity for eating fresh and keeping a close check on their cholesterol levels certainly help. But state of mind is a factor here. The French eat for pleasure and take pleasure seriously. They delight in seeing, touching, and tasting their food. Catch them in the act fondling their vegetables when they think no one is looking. They take pleasure in the presentation, color and variety of food, not in its quantity. The French eat with their heads, slowly and in moderation, knowing how to savor un peu de tout.

4. How do the French get away with working so little?

“Life is not work. Working too much sends you insane.” This quote from President Charles de Gaulle perfectly sums up the French work philosophy, ideal for a culture focused on pleasure and joie de vivre.

The French work to live and Americans live to work. Albeit different from the American 70 hour workweek, who is to say if the French approach is better or worse? Who wouldn’t like a 35 hour workweek with at least five weeks of paid holidays in addition to bank holidays, and long weekends throughout the month of May?

The French posit they are more productive if their incentive is extra time off. Plus, working less is good for the French economy, as the French tend to stay within their country eating and drinking. In exchange for fewer advancement opportunities, government workers get a stress-free job for life. The French insightfully point out they have more time to improve efficiencies because they’re not wasting time researching performance statistics. It’s a culture where it is better to have no decision than a hasty decision. For the French, who place a high value on leisure time, their work culture provides a successful work-life balance. We all measure happiness and success differently but I can’t help thinking the French may be onto something here as time goes by.

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