After spending my fall semester in Paris on a UD study abroad program, I definitely feel that I was able to become part of the city, rather than a tourist, which was a rewarding and fun experience. Thanks to spending three months there, I came away with a better understanding of the people, culture, and day-to-day life of the city. Below, I affirm some Parisian stereotypes, challenge others, and offer more observations from my time in Paris! (Disclaimer: I refer to Parisians specifically instead of French people because I only lived in Paris, but it is possible that these observations could be true for other parts of France as well! All of these views are also based on my own opinions.)
Stereotype: Parisians are arrogant and rude
In my experience, Parisians have been very helpful, respectful, and kind. Even when I traveled to Paris with my family four years ago, while we were walking around on the street with our luggage looking for our Airbnb, a lady stopped to ask if we needed help and gave us directions. That same trip, a man helped my sister carry her suitcase up the metro stairs. During my time studying abroad, I always had positive interactions with people. For example, an older lady in my apartment building always stopped to talk with me, and restaurant servers, museum employees, and retail workers were always polite.
However, it is true that Parisians do not smile as often as Americans, so that may give the appearance of arrogance. I remember that one time, I saw a girl smiling while crossing the street, and it was jarring because I was so used to seeing Parisians keep straight faces while walking around or taking the metro. In general, I think Parisians are just more quiet and less energetic than Americans, which I actually really enjoyed about Paris! In the morning while going to class, sometimes I would be riding the metro and not one person would make a single sound!
Also, some Americans might be thrown off by restaurant customs in France. It is customary for the server not to come check on customers during the entire meal until the customer signals to the server when they are finished eating. This way, the customers can enjoy the meal without disruptions, but it does take some getting used to and could be seen as rude unless you are familiar with this difference compared to American culture.
Finally, I did notice French people’s complaining because it’s so lyrical and expressive, and I think they are more likely to voice their frustrations. For example, during one of my classes, the projector would never work, so my professor would always exclaim, “Oh la la” (“Oh my gosh”), “Ça m’énerve” (“This is getting on my nerves”), and “C’est pas possible” (“It’s not possible”) the whole time she was trying to get the projector to work again. However, I noticed that the complaining was never angry; rather, it was just more pronounced.
Stereotype: Parisians value manners
It is definitely true that Parisians think highly of manners. For example, when entering a store, it is important to say “Bonjour” to the clerk before asking for help or before shopping, and to say “au revoir” when leaving. One time, I ran into a routine checkpoint in a metro station (when officers verify that everyone bought a metro ticket or pass), and even though all I had to do was hand the officer my metro pass, wait for him to quickly swipe it, and then keep going, he still took the time to say “bonjour” and “au revoir” at the beginning and end of the ten-second interaction. Also, in the apartment building where I lived, I would run into strangers on the elevator, but even though I didn’t know them, we would always say “Bonjour” to each other and “Au revoir” or “Bonsoir” to say goodbye or to wish each other a good evening, even if the rest of the time, we were silent.
Stereotype: Paris/France has delicious food!
I can definitely say that Paris has the most delicious bread I’ve ever had! Bakeries are everywhere, so you’re never far from a warm, freshly baked baguette! Cheese is definitely valued as well. My host mom served either cheese or yogurt after the main dish at dinner every night, and she switched the type of cheese every couple of days so I could try the (many) different varieties. However, I noticed that some slightly more unusual foods were common on restaurant menus, such as smoked salmon, gizzard (which my host mom even made for me), snails, frog legs, and duck. My host mom also always served food in courses, starting with the appetizer, then serving the main dish, then putting out the cheese or yogurt, and finally providing fruit for dessert!
~ Other Parisian Observations ~
–Parisians are environmentally conscious. You have to bring your own reusable bags to the grocery store, or else you will need to buy one. My host mom also did not have a dryer; instead, we dried our clothes on a drying rack. Also, around Paris, there are containers on the street for collecting glass bottles to recycle, and I would hear the sound of someone tossing glass bottles into the bin to recycle them every day.
-Public bathrooms are not free. I once had to pay 2 euros at a bathroom next to Notre Dame!
-Scooters (the motorcycle type) are a popular way of getting around to zig-zag around traffic.
-Offices or other places close at inconvenient times. For example, I once tried to go to a public library on a weekday, and it only opened at 1:00 P.M.
-Some restrooms are labeled for both men and women, rather than labeled as just men or just women.
Thanks to my semester-long study abroad program in Paris, I came back with a greater knowledge of the city and its people. Some French stereotypes exist for a reason—cheese is truly a French staple—but others were challenged by my individual experiences. I had a lot of fun discovering cultural differences between Paris and America and can’t wait to go back to eat more baguettes (but only after saying hello to the bakery employee, of course!)