How much truth is there to French stereotypes?

Some stereotypes seem to contain a grain of truth, but then these grains are blown up into types. And these types do not reflect all people of a certain group. The sources of stereotypes are also worth looking at in order to understand how some ideas about the people of an entire nation might have developed. For instance, Americans may tend to speak more loudly than French people, but they also stand farther apart. Perhaps their voices need to carry more and so they turn up the volume while they’re speaking. And perhaps they don’t smell any better than French people – it’s just that they’re standing so far away you can’t smell them. Whether or not there is any truth to such stereotypes, it’s always a good idea to be observant about groups of people you meet. Here are eight observations about French stereotypes:


8 Observations about French Stereotypes

Stereotype #1: French people smell.

Do they smell or not? Well, kind of. One thing that happens in places where there isn’t that much space is that you end up standing closer to people. In this case, you might end up with your nose in someone’s armpit while taking the subway. This means you will be smelling quite a lot of that person in a cramped space and that person may have been out all day.With or without a shower, you might ask? This is interesting because while French washrooms have all of the modern conveniences that any developed part of the world has, water is pretty expensive and when people are paying a lot for something, they will be vigilant. I will note that the American city of San Francisco, located in a state that is perpetually hit by droughts, and having living costs that are soaring, also gives me the impression that the people don’t shower so much. This leads me to consider that cost and scarcity of water are not negligible factors in people’s showering habits and that their smell might be noticeable because of it.

There are also different standards for what is acceptable in terms of personal hygiene and facilities provided in one’s living space. I had a friend in Paris whose boyfriend was renting a chambre de bonne when he met her, and the place had no shower. In retrospect, my friend wondered how much of a motivating factor her shower had been in the development of their relationship. Some of us cannot imagine that there are living spaces that lack something as basic as a shower, but I suppose there are enough people who shower at the gym.

Stereotype #2: French people are rude.

I wouldn’t say they’re rude. They may be less friendly in larger cities and Parisians can be colder than people in other parts of France. For one thing, it is literally colder and damper than cities such as Marseille and Nice, which overlook the Mediterranean Sea. Parisians are often hurrying off somewhere and are less likely to stand in drizzle and mist speaking to random people they encounter on their way to wherever they are going.

Also, the French don’t smile so much. This means nothing, although people who are used to the visual cue of a smile as something welcoming or inviting can be thrown off. On the other hand, a frequent smile could potentially be misinterpreted as well. I have a preppy smile I probably picked up from the preppy American campus where I studied, and people from other places, including parts of the United States, might consider it fake, and they might be right about that 10% of the time – okay, maybe 15% of the time.

There are differences in what people consider rude, depending on their own customs. I think it’s rude to block subway escalators, but people who don’t live in a culture of public transit regularly block foot traffic, since they are used to getting around in cars where they live and there aren’t crowds of people around when they do get out of their cars. So while I might find these people lacking politeness on public transit in more densely populated areas, they might find my preppy smile, accompanying my request to let others pass to one side of them, a bit fake.

Stereotype #3: French people use negative reinforcement.

It’s true that the first answer to requests tends to be no – or “non”. This can, however, change in a relatively short amount of time. Have I mentioned a request I made to change my reserved seat at the Bibliothèque nationale one day? The librarian not only said “non”, but assured me that this was not possible. Five minutes later, I was in a different assigned seat.

Sometimes it’s a manner of speaking. People of different nationalities will have different ways of expressing something. Words like “good” and “bad” can have different meanings for different groups of people, as shown in the examples below:

French: “That is not bad.” ≈ That is quite good.
American: “My vocabulary is good.” ≈ My vocabulary is all right.
Chinese: “My grammar is bad” ≈ My grammar is not excellent.

It’s true that traditionally the French idea of receiving marks for academic work involves the idea that no one is perfect, so chances are, you will not get full marks on papers and presentations that you complete in France. A good friend of mine received a 17 in a seminar for a Master II course and it was the highest mark in the class. The grading system from high school onward is out of 20, but it’s not a percentage the way it is in the States. So a 10 is passable, while a 12 is assez bien and a 14 bien. A 16 is considered très bien. If you are writing or doing anything that is not a mathematical equation, you probably won’t get a 20, because there is always room for improvement.  

Stereotype #4: The French are not adept at languages.

Probably not. I’m actually surprised they’re not better, considering the variety of languages their neighbors speak, the regional dialects that are still present within their borders, their presence within the European Union, and all of the effort they put into developing their educational system.

But they are less adept than their bilingual French-Canadian cousins, as well as their northern neighbors, some of whom learn foreign languages from age ten in public school, are comfortable in their foreign languages, and speak correctly with only the trace of an accent (nobody likes the th sound).

For example, in the Netherlands anglophone television shows aren’t dubbed, whereas in France they are. This means that the Dutch are hearing English spoken on television, with or without subtitles, while in France it is assumed that people need to be listening to everything in French and can’t be bothered to read subtitles. It’s funny to hear the same three actors’ voices used for every anglophone television show that airs.

The French president Emmanuel Macron seems to be overturning this stereotype with his English conversational skills during diplomatic meetings, which reflects a willingness and an effort to be more of an international figure. But there is always room for improvement, is there not?

Stereotype #5: French people have many lovers.

I’m not sure they have any more than anyone else, but they are more willing to admit that this occurs. People keep more or less quiet about having multiple liaisons, unless writing a prime-time television series or a 300-page novel. Extramarital lovers are an extra-big no-no. This makes it very difficult to get accurate statistics on things like extramarital affairs. As Jared Diamond observes in the fourth chapter of his 1991 book, The Third Chimpanzee, it is notoriously difficult to get accurate scientific information on adultery (since people lie about it). As for situations with many lovers that have agreed-upon parameters by all parties involved, this is probably not too different from what you would find in other countries with similar laws, values, and dating apps.

Polyamory seems to be trending on dating websites, but wasn’t a huge thing in the circles I ran in while studying in France. Relationships at the École Normale Supérieure, where I lived for a year, seemed more like Noah’s Ark, with young people pairing off and even sharing dorm rooms. That sounds like a formula for separation to me – but what a space-saver for the ENS!

There are certain social behaviors that seem almost institutionalized, including romantic relationships. In the old days a king might have mistresses, an emperor might have concubines, and a French president might have a second family. This has a lot to do with power structures and perhaps less to do with national character. The modern-day ENS version of these institutionalized relationships would be the bourgeois woman who has her official boyfriend who is the “right” kind of guy from her social circle, and the other fun guy on the side. This also suggests social class more than nationality, since what would stop her from pairing up with a specimen that was more fun for her in the first place?

Speaking of political figures, politicians have a bad reputation globally, but at the moment scandal after scandal happens to be coming out of the White House while the French president, Emmanuel Macron, is married to the high school teacher of his dreams. (This love story did begin during his wife’s previous marriage, though.)

Stereotype #6: The French surrender in war.

Are the French quick to raise a white flag? There was actually a period during France’s Ancien Régime during which the national flag was white, symbolizing purity. An alternate version was the fleur de lys on a white background (you can still see the fleur de lys on the Québécois flag). This could potentially be confusing for those who interpret a white flag as a sign of surrender during times of war, although there doesn’t seem to be this level of confusion with the Japanese flag, perhaps because the crimson disc really stands out from the white background.

As for actual moments of surrender, France’s occupation by Germany during World War II is a great contributor to its reputation as not valiant in war. Although occupation lasted from 1940-1944, the French Resistance steadily gained momentum in its obstruction of German communications and transport, which culminated in six months of civil war between its members and members of the German Gestapo before the invasion of Normandy by Allied troops. Additionally, the French were on the side of the Americans during the Revolutionary War against the British, so having the French as allies seems to be desired while being attacked on French soil might be less so.

France’s geographic location doesn’t seem to be prime war-zone real estate, as the hexagone is neither on a peninsula nor an island and does not stretch the width of an entire continent, and is therefore prone to attack on quite a few fronts, at least on the ground.  

Stereotype #7: The French don’t like to work.

The French do a lot to protect their 35-hour work week, their job security, and their vacation time. This is seen as necessary for maintaining a good quality of life and a healthy interest in the activities and culture that are available in France. The French are very focused on workers’ rights and their unions are quite strong. These are, interestingly, modeled after American unions in the 1930’s, which have since then steadily declined and have been featured as endangered on a recent cover of Harper’s Magazine.

French protective measures of personal time and space from the workplace include a recent law passed that prohibits work-related email exchanges after hours. Granted, this can be frustrating for international collaborations, particularly those with people who have 70-hour workweeks, sleep at the office, and are in different time zones. But you do have to hand it to the French for putting their foot down when it comes to workers’ rights. This is indeed something they have worked very hard for.  

Stereotype #8: The French are fashionable.

Fashion is quite important in France, with Paris hosting Fashion Week semiannually. There are many stylish clothing options available in Paris, as well as other French cities, such as the southern city of Marseille, where you can find some very nice options for warm-weather clothing and beach gear. People in France generally pay attention to their clothing, think it is important to dress nicely, and would never wear sweat pants to the theater (I once saw someone in a Juicy Couture sweat suit attend the Christmas Spectacular at Radio City Music Hall in New York and I am 99.9999999...% sure this person was not French).

Although Paris is a great fashion capital, Parisians don’t seem to take that many sartorial risks; you would be more likely to see edgier fashion in London, for example. French fashion tends to be more classic, which is reflected by the timeless items produced by Coco Chanel, famous for wardrobe staples, such as the Little Black Dress, the lip color Boy (which is perpetually sold out at makeup counters), and the fragrance Chanel No. 5. This penchant for a more classic style could be because if they have a choice of buying something of the moment or something that will last a long time, they will go for the timeless €300 dress. Why skimp on something that makes you look fabulous? When you think about it, it’s less expensive than regular sessions with a personal trainer.

As for me, I speak softly, dislike touching people in the subway, have an irrational fear of germs, shower often, smile a lot, have never given a student 100% on an oral exam, and have never spent more than €200 on a pair of jeans. I’m sure there’s a stereotype for people like me out there ...

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