In defence of French hospitality

Restaurant, Honfleur, Normandy

Restaurant in Honfleur, Normandy

In the UK we grow up with a love-hate relationship with our Gallic neighbours. We love to hate them, and tell countless jokes at their expense. I’m fairly sure it’s mutual. Travelling to Paris several times in my teenage years, the stereotype of the rude arrogant Frenchman was reinforced, as we were looked down upon and offered the worst in service.

But in recent years we’ve visited France many years and have come to appreciate the fact not only does it offer so many great places to visit as a tourist, but the people are actually, well, very hospitable.

Having just returned from a few days in Normandy, I was once again impressed by the high standards of service and the warm welcome that we received at every stop. There are certain things that are worth remembering. Firstly, I’ve found that it always pays to make an effort at speaking in French. My ability to converse in French is very limited, but for restaurants and hotels I can get by without too much difficulty. Once you’re seen to try, invariably you’ll be greeted cheerfully with a fluent English reply.

Secondly, remember that it is almost obligatory to greet the staff when entering a premises. Even if you are just browsing, it’s polite to offer a Bonjour to the assistant. Do that, and you’ll start on a good footing.

I always thought that the English were obsessed with courtesies and etiquette, but was surprised that the French seem to out-do us in this regard. As a recent example, we sat in a restaurant in Honfleur on the Normandy coast and were the only non-French diners during the whole evening, although the others were also tourists. We sat and observed as each diner got up to leave and bade farewell to everyone else in the restaurant. Indeed when it was our turn, we offered our Au Revoirs and Bon Soirs, and were cordially sent on our way by the staff and remaining customers. It was very nice to observe. I’ll try that in Pizza Express next time and see what reaction I get.

We’ve encountered similar hospitality in other parts of France, and it leads me to think back to my teenage years and whether it’s the French that have changed or whether it’s me. Yes, I’ve heard others say that the reception given to foreign tourists has improved over the years, but I am sure there’s more to it than that.

To receive hospitality you have to be wanted. In some parts of the world the fact that you have $$$ is enough to be wanted, but this was not the case here, where the tourist market is 90% domestic French. An effort at fitting in, a tacit acknowledgement that you are a visiting guest and a little bit of respect goes a long way to ensuring a warm welcome. I am sure that I got the welcome I deserved in my early years.

Will I cheer for the French when the World Cup starts? No, of course not. Some rivalries are just meant to be. But for anyone thinking of visiting France for the first time and concerned about a reputation for surly and unhelpful service, I would put your mind at rest. The welcome in France is as warm as anywhere else in the world; it’s up to us to behave in the right way to receive it.

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Freelance travel writer

8 Responses to “In defence of French hospitality”

  1. I think the same goes for most countries: make an effort to speak the language and it will be repaid tenfold. It is frustrating however, when your best, albeit slow foreign language skills, are met with rapid-fire responses, or with English. The cheek of it! I spent three years at school perfecting how to ask for directions at a train station, and they just ignore it. It wouldn’t be so bad, if foreigners’ English wasn’t often so good!

    April 18, 2010 at 10:38 pm
  2. Your post comes at a perfect time. We leave for France on the first of May. Coming from Canada, you would think that we are fluent in French, but Dave and I grew up in English speaking Canada and our French is limited as well. We took it all through school though and have enough to get by. We have been to Frane twice before and have found it to be quite friendly. Like you said, when we try to order our food with our terrible French, we are answered with fluent English and a friendly smile. And then they say “are you from Canada?” Everyone just loves it when you try to speak their language. I wish I was fluent, but at least I still have fun trying.
    The French in Quebec Canada are the same as well. Give it a try and they are friendly and kind. Start talking to them in English right off the bat, and they will pretend not to understand a word:-)

    April 19, 2010 at 2:57 pm
  3. So true, Mark! However flawless the French I speak sounds in my head, the reply too often comes back in perfect English. But like you say, it’s making the effort that gains the respect…

    Dave and Deb, I hope you’ll have an ash-free flight over! Where are you heading in France? You guys sure do some serious miles 🙂

    April 19, 2010 at 10:54 pm
  4. We travelled by train throughout France for a month, and in all ways, this was one of the best holidays I have ever had. If we spoke English, or limited French, I found the people of France to be friendly and helpful. I was tremendously impressed, and I would say that France is highly tourist-friendly. I learned some French in school (another Canadian) and for several months before we went I refreshed my French by computer learning and IPod presentations. If I run into people who are shy about travelling, I recommend that they go to France.

    April 20, 2010 at 12:03 am
  5. I spent over a month in Normandy my last year in college studying and we traveled around extensively to other areas in France. In that time not one French person was rude to me. Hear in the U.S. we have the same stereotype of rude French people. When they are rude to Americans, I am sure they have good reason to be and the fault lies with the tourist not the host. Your tip about speaking the language and their formalness is spot on. They even have a separate pronoun for “you” when speaking formally with people you do not know and with more senior people.

    April 20, 2010 at 3:53 pm
  6. French people are usually very friendly, especially outside Paris. I guess the stereotype was created during world wars to somehow fit the political brainwashing of that time. Reality is always different.

    April 21, 2010 at 6:07 pm
  7. Glad to hear so many nice things said about the French people. Stereotypes are there to be shattered… thank you for the comments and sharing your experiences.

    April 21, 2010 at 6:48 pm
  8. Hugo vandenBerg #

    In europe there are big languages (more than 50 million native speakers in a contiguous area) and small languages. In the small language areas tourists are not expected to speak the native language…so they are treated warmly even when they don’t make the effort. Go to Portugal, and the older lady will go out of her way to get her grandson/grand daughter who can speak some english to get the conversation flowing again. Never seen that in the big language areas. Hey I’m dutch, I may be wrong.

    July 1, 2011 at 6:23 pm