In the "Paris Practicalities" series, I lay out some basic advice for the foundation of a trip abroad for the well-informed and savvy traveler.
Being a house guest (at least the kind who wants to be invited back again) means making effort to abide by the general house rules set by the host. While the host tries to make the guest comfortable, the guest does things like take off his shoes at the front door and offer a hand clearing the dishes from the table after dinner.
I find traveling to be follow the same guidelines. When traveling, the host country will want to make an effort to welcome its tourists if for no other reason than to generate income from tourism. And yet the traveler must also work to observe cultural norms and learn what being respectful as a house guest looks like in the given host country.
France has been knocked for being a bad host - one recent article dramatizes its reputation as the "rudest place on earth for tourists." This sentiment is not new in any way, and efforts have been made to improve. Last year information was distributed to the tourist sector of Paris called "Do you speak touriste?" (link in French). In the manual 11 different nationalities are profiled with information on spending habits and preferences to keep in mind when interacting with them. And efforts are still being made to give tourists a warmer welcome in France.
But relationships always involve effort from both parties. We as tourists need to work on our part as well to be respectful house guests. So here are 6 tips to keep in mind the next time you visit France:
1. Mind your manners.
Politeness goes a long way and is an expected part of French culture. When entering a shop or establishment, one makes eye contact with the employee(s) and offers a greeting - "Bonjour" (Good day) or "Bonsoir" (Good evening) depending on the time of day. When leaving, even if one does not purchase anything, one always looks at the shopkeeper and offers a "Merci, au revoir" or just a simple "Au revoir" before leaving,
The two phrases to learn (and are important to know in the language of any country you visit) are the golden words your mother once taught and emphasized: s'il vous plaît (please) and merci (thank you). Don't leave your manners at home!
2. First names are for friends.
When I was growing up, I never would address one of my parents' friends by his or her first name. (In fact, it probably took me a while to realize that they had first names like me.) It was a sign of respect. And here in France, there is a certain formality in place to show respect to others. This means you can give add on a "Madame" or "Monsieur" when greeting people, but no first names with strangers. (Interestingly enough, that manual written last year explained to the Paris tourism industry that Americans do not hesitate to introduce themselves by their first name.)
3. Give a little warning before unleashing the rush of English.
If someone came up to you in your home country and started speaking French quickly (and under the assumption you understood), you not only would be confused but might also be put-off and irritated. So even if you don't know any French, invest in trying to remember this short question: "Parlez-vous anglais?" Asking someone if they speak English will help prepare them to switch over to English if they know it. And if not, you can proceed with some English and charades anyway and hopefully meet halfway - but at least they are more ready to face the language barrier.
The materials on tourists note that Americans expect fluency. In Paris there are certainly lots of people who are fluent or able to speak enough English to aid anglophones, but one shouldn't operate under the entitled mentality that everyone surely must speak English.
4. Louder only helps sounds barriers, not language barriers.
I've witnessed many times people who encounter someone who is not fluent in English try to communicate by repeating what they said much louder. The problem is not one of hearing, but of understanding. Speaking slower, using body language, and trying to rephrase what you are trying to communicate into simpler thoughts is more likely to help the situation.
5. Allow yourself to slow down and settle into vacation mode.
We Americans have a reputation for demanding rapid service. This goes especially in a restaurant setting, when we want to sit down, order, eat, and leave. We often invite others out for a "quick bite" to eat. Which implies having the leisure of sitting down to eat in a culture that is always eating on the go.
If that expectation follows you on vacation, not only are you going to be unhappy with your dining experiences but unfairly judge service in France as awful. Slow down and relax. Eating out is an event to be savored and not just one more thing to "get through" in French culture. It may take a while for your server to take your order, bring your food, and follow up with the next course. But the experience of eating out is not meant to be rushed but to enjoyed for the food, for the space a meal allows for rest and rejuvenation, and often for the pleasure of connecting with others. Try sitting at a café, ordering a glass of wine, watching the world pass by, and seeing how low your heart rate can drop.
6. Don't be shy.
If you need something during your meal or think the waiter forgot something, don't feel bad to flag the wait staff down. Staff do not hover and check-in every five minutes to make sure you are enjoying your meal. Restaurant culture here dictates that diners should be left alone in peace to enjoy the meal which means wait staff is much less intrusive. So if you do need something, just catch the attention of your waiter.
Likewise, you could wait for hours to get l'addition (the check). No one is rushing you out the door to flip the table to the next customer. Take your time and when you're ready, ask for "L'addition, s'il vous plaît." Service in France is not inattentive; rather, there are different values at play.
***Take a look at French.languagedaily.com for some pronunciation help on the phrases I've mentioned.***
Do you have thoughts on France's hospitality? Are there any other pieces of advice you would add to be a more conscientious tourist?