From Edmonds to Paris: Snob or not? Taking a step back to appreciate the Parisian social culture

By Amanda Waldron

Parisians have, worldwide, the unfortunate stereotype of snobbiness, and I have (equally unfortunately) received just enough Parisian snob to admit that they really live up to their reputation at times. But just like in any society, there will inevitably be rude cashiers and store clerks and any number of people who are just plain having a bad day. And just because everyone honks a little more liberally here (understatement warning) and just because strangers on the street never exchange smiles, doesn’t mean that Parisians walk around hating the world and each soul living in it.

Culture extends beyond food, music, dress and history; it unites a people based on how they interact with each other. And for the French, their social culture has taken some getting used to, but I am just now beginning to understand, respect it — and live in it with confidence. Perhaps this will be my très optimistic take on the inhabitants of this glorious city, but regardless, observing the Parisians for the past seven weeks has led me to make some tentative conclusions on the fascinating patterns of French social behavior.

I was determined to find some rational and perhaps generous explanation as to why the Parisians seem to walk around with a big “Get Away” (to keep this discussion G-rated) stamped on their foreheads. I was also determined to understand where the line between rude and polite lies in France, and to adjust my American line accordingly.

In seven weeks of professional people-watching, I’ve concluded that the French have every intention of interacting politely and formally with others in society, but they reserve true kindness for their informal relations within the inner circles, which are almost impossible for outsiders to penetrate. It is evident in the way the French talk with one another. For instance, the French make a pretty fair distinction between “tutoyer”-ing and “vousvoyer”-ing someone. That is, to address someone as “tu” is to acknowledge that, a) you know this person or, b) he or she is not superior to you in age or position. I use “tu” with my friends and peers and with my host-parents’ grandchildren. To address someone as “vous” is to acknowledge that you are, in fact, inferior to this person in age or position, “vous” also functions as a formal way of politely addressing someone you have just met (your waiter or the person behind the counter at the post office), or it can simply mean “you all” when addressing more than one person. I use “vous” with my host parents, my professors, the bakers and the bartenders and strangers in general.

Of course it’s just a respect thing, but this lingual distinction acts as a nice parallel to French social behavior. In my opinion, a Frenchie’s intimate “tu” circle is not meant to be mixed with the outer “vous” circle. Oftentimes, Parisians grow up and go to school with the same circle of small friends from the time they are tiny all the way through college. Parisians don’t move around as much as Americans do, from what I can see. (All roads lead to Paris, so why leave?) And where I had the choice of going to school anywhere from New York University to California to the UW in my own backyard, Parisians graduate high school and matriculate on to university (for FREE, mind you) right in Paris. There are no big national universities in other parts of the country that offer a different experience.

Thus, Parisians my age have had the same friends since elementary school, still spend every second with them, still live at home with their parents, and don’t have much need for additions to their circle of “tu.” Not to mention the fact that seemingly everyone in Paris is happily in a relationship, and demonstrating it on just about every street, metro, cafe, bridge and monument in the city. (The word for single in French? “Celebataire,” yes, as in celibacy.) That’s not to say that Parisians don’t make new friends or switch around their inner circle, because I am sure they do, but it’s clear to see that Parisians have a well-constructed group of people to whom they can offer two kisses on the cheek and all the love and support possible in the world, but which is quite distinct from exterior circles.

Now does any of this “tu” circle/“vous” circle stuff warrant the cold, curt, distant behavior of the Parisians? Probably not, so let me try to explain further.

Parisians can perhaps be better explained through looking at customer service, a domain in which I spend a lot of time in Paris. From the service point of view, the waiters at restaurants and cafes don’t ask you how your day is going or where you are from or what your plans are for the day; they get straight to the point: que desirez-vous, madame? Clothing store clerks won’t ask you if you need help finding anything or what style you’re looking for: They’ll tell you the total at the register and that they do, in fact, accept your American credit card, and that’s about it. In general, there is no small talk in Paris. There’s no perceivable need to make people feel “special” or welcomed, which I (having worked restaurants and front desks, myself) believe to be the basis of customer service in the States.

From the customer point of view, in America, anyone behind a Counter who serves you something is only there for your utility and it is thus acceptable to treat them as a means to an end, an object, a non-human. Perhaps that is put a bit harshly, but having worked at one of the most high-volume restaurants in the world, I can really appreciate the fact that in France, it’s obligatory to acknowledge that person behind the counter or desk or table as not only a fellow human, but as someone with the power to either grant or refuse something that you desire. If you walk into a bakery or up to a ticket counter in Paris, the first words out of your mouth are a jolly “Bonjour, Monsieur/Madame!” Whereas in the States, it’s often, “Yeah so I need…,” “Where can I find…?” or “Double-tall-extra-hot-caramel-macchiato-please.” In Paris, it’s direct, blunt and simple, but still polite and formal.

As I mentioned, the French simply don’t feel the need to sugar-coat anything with extravagant — and usually less-than-genuine — politeness, which to Americans who sugar-coat everything, can seem quite cold. The French don’t put things delicately or beat around the bush in order to avoid hurting someone’s feelings. They don’t pretend to care in order to make you feel important. They will correct you, interrupt you, talk over you and disagree outright — without much hostility behind any of it. At first, this was very difficult to accept. I am so accustomed to Americans who speak almost entirely in euphemisms, who don’t say what they really mean, who don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. You could say that I was lacking the iron shield that I assumed everyone was walking around with here. I was getting my feelings hurt all the time and I thought everyone hated me. How could people live like this?!

But over time I began to understand that the emphasis is not put on the person in France, but rather on society as a group. Equality in France is what matters, not one’s individual liberty. Things function in France because everyone more or less falls into the same line. Sure citizens have varying political opinions, incomes and beliefs just as in the States (my host parents happen to detest the new socialist President, Mr. Holland), but everyone mostly seems willing to pay a little more out of their own pockets to support the welfare state, to make society a bit more homogenous.

Despite its position as the world’s iconic city of fashion, the everyday-Parisians are only worried about blending in. Looking around the metro, the Frenchies don simple styles in almost purely neutral colors: It’s a sea of beige trench coats and black shoes. Women don’t wear runway fashions nor do they put much effort at all into their hair and makeup. It’s not about standing out or creating your own unique style, it’s about fitting in. Born and raised in the States for all my 20 years, these new unwritten rules have been incredibly difficult to realize and to begin to adopt. But I’ll have a bit of a tougher shell at the end of this journey, and becoming just a tad less egocentric can never hurt.

I’m beginning to learn that it’s usually unfair to deem one culture inferior or superior to another; it’s better to recognize that each system works best for that particular country. It’s not obligatory to accept or like every aspect of another culture, because I certainly don’t, but just by observing, wondering, asking, and learning about another way of doing things, I’ve learned infinitely more than I ever had in a classroom.

So snob, or not, you ask? I say, if you take off the American lens for a brief moment, if you really try to understand, from multiple angles, human interactions in this great city, you’d discover it’s not rude at all. It’s all about perspective: Euphemisms and sugarcoating works for the U.S., while blunt and honest works for the French.

Besides, perhaps Paris is saving all its sugar-coating for its pastries, and of course, that is OK with me!

Au revoir from Paris!

Amanda Waldron, a 2010 graduate of Edmonds-Woodway High School and a junior at Santa Clara University, is studying in Paris this fall and has agreed to write about her experiences for My Edmonds News.

  1. Thanks Amanda for your insights! Very interesting. I’m sure it’s hard to take off those American glasses-but you learn so much more when you do. I’m looking forward to reading your next installment!

  2. Amanda, I love your columns! You have caught on to a lot of deep cultural tides (and undertows) in your 7 weeks in Paris, and I hope you have also caught on to all the ways Parisians are polite that Americans would never dream of–always saying Good morning, or Good afternoon/evening when entering a store, or even a small cafe, (“Bonjour mesdames, messieurs” said to the whole room) and always say good-bye when leaving a store–all this happens even when buying a newspaper at a kiosk or asking the guard at the Louvre where the bathrooms are–the French think Americans are super rude because they just demand things without a “Bonjour, monsieur” first –Thank you is used a lot, always–associates in stores and cafes pay attention to you when dealing with you–in USA often do not even look at you and already look at next person. Often French are reacting in kind to the (unintentional) rudeness of Americans. Note how Parisians deal with each other, not just with you…….and keep having a wonderful time. It is the one place in the world I love with all my heart….. (p.s. friendly waitstaff here often hopes for a bigger tip–in France, no such thing–so how sincere is it here?)

  3. Well done,Amanda,on capturing the essence of being a guest in another persons city!The observations allow us a broader view of life,especially as compared to America.This allows us all a momentray look and feel for this adventure.Thank you so much.

  4. Hi Amanda,
    I have just been turned on to this blog. You write wonderfully and your stories are fun, informative and it is nice to read about your adventures. I love your take on the “snobby” issue. It is nice to read your thoughts on this and I appreciate your insight. Love the blog and will keep reading!! Thanks.

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