Three French Stereotypes That Are Completely Wrong
Three years ago, I decided to plan a three-month solo trip to Europe. I started in Germany and made my way through Switzerland, France, and Spain by train, using the Eurail pass. While I speak Spanish fluently, I have very basic knowledge of German and don’t know much more than “Bonjour” in French. My little knowledge of German didn’t frighten me, but I was incredibly nervous about spending two weeks in France with the inability to string a coherent sentence together in the native language. The pervasive stereotypes in the US is that the French are unwelcoming, intolerant of foreigners (especially Americans), and refuse to speak a language other than French.
My first stop in France was Lyon, and my stomach was in knots when I exited the train. What if I couldn’t find my way around? What if I got lost and couldn’t communicate? I had downloaded a French phrasebook on my iPad and had been studying it the entire train ride from Geneva, yet it seemed every word had escaped my brain. When I arrived at my Airbnb, my hosts were not there and their neighbor had to let me into the apartment. After saying, “Je suis désolé, je ne parle pas le francais” (“I’m sorry, I don’t speak French”) with my hideous French accent, he smiled and spoke to me in English, welcomed me to Lyon, and willingly let me into his neighbor’s apartment. With each person that I met after him, the French stereotypes that float around America were broken.
Stereotype 1: The French are unwelcoming
My Airbnb hosts in Lyon charged me $20 a night to stay in their two-bedroom apartment. In return, they cooked me dinner, served me breakfast, and drove me around Lyon on a two-hour tour. They even dropped me off at the train station when I departed. They were not interested in making money off tourists; they were solely interested in learning more about other cultures, while providing travelers with a native’s view of Lyon. They welcomed me–an American with no ability to speak French–into their home and made me feel incredibly welcome in a country I was so excited and nervous to visit. I had this experience countless other times during my stay in France, which is when I realized how far from true this stereotype is.
Stereotype 2: The French are intolerant of foreigners
While in Lyon, I walked to a small market every day to purchase lunch, snacks, and wine. The first time I entered this tiny shop, I said the one word I know oh-so-well, “Bonjour,” and when I got up to the counter, I apologized again for not speaking French. The cashier spoke no English, but instead of being rude or intolerant, she communicated with me slowly in French and pointed at the objects that she was speaking about. She began teaching me a few words of French every time I came into the store. I found that all of the people I encountered were the complete opposite of intolerant; they were compassionate, approachable, and quite understanding of an American trying her best to communicate.
Stereotype 3: The French Refuse to Speak English
While not everyone I encountered spoke English, those who did tried their best to help me when I needed something. Considering my French vocabulary consists of only two very basic phrases, I did not have a hard time finding people to help. I did not meet one person who protested speaking with me in English, and even those who couldn’t speak the language – like the lovely woman in my story above – found a way to communicate with me without begrudging me for being an American.
While on my trip, I observed other American travelers and how they communicated in foreign countries, and I have also discussed traveling and communication with others since I returned. I have found that many Americans travel abroad expecting everyone to speak English. They don’t learn a few words of the language and they don’t make an effort to communicate in the native language (even in a hideous accent); they simply expect another culture to conform to them. I even witnessed two Americans in Switzerland getting upset when a local shop owner did not understand them.
I have learned that making a concerted effort goes a long way. I think if we turn that around, and imagine if someone approached us speaking another language here in the US, we may be put off. If that’s the approach that you take when visiting another country, you will surely be dismissed. I found if I learned only a few words of French, that I was embraced with open arms by the people whom I encountered. My solo journey to France taught me that being kind and compassionate can go a long way, as can saying, “Je suis désolé, je ne parle pas le francais.”