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10 Tips On Understanding French Culture

French President Francois Hollande's visit to the U.S. this week included mentions of the two countries' long-standing friendship, one that dates back to the American Revolution. But citizens of the two countries sometimes find themselves at odds.

KPLU travel expert Matthew Brumley lived and worked in France early in his career. He says the French aren’t being rude. In fact, as a culture, they’re extremely polite. Knowing that before you get on the flight to Paris can make all the difference, and there are 10 easy tips to make sure things go well. But first, a story.

The Man On The Metro

Brumley and his wife were in Paris’ famous Metro system of trains. An American man approached the ticket counter.

“He said, ‘I’d like Metro tickets, please,’ and she looked at him and quietly said, ‘Bonjour,’” Brumley said. It went on. The man asked again. The woman behind the counter again said only, “Bonjour.” The man asked again, loudly. And the woman calmly replied, “Bonjour.”

It wasn’t rudeness or even a language issue, Brumley says; it was a culture issue.

“She would not give him his Metro tickets until he greeted her and said good morning, bonjour, and recognized she was there and human,” Brumley said. “She walked away from that experinece thinking he was a very rude American. He walked away from that experience thinking ‘This is the rudest experience I’ve had in Europe, ever.’”

So, how do you avoid this fate? Make note of these 10 tips from Brumley:

1. Learn 10 key French words before you go. Bonjour, Merci, etc. and use them liberally. Here are a few to choose from.

2. Be polite! Always greet a shopkeeper, ticket sales person or museum staffer with a warm "bonjour" (good morning) or "bonsoir" (good afternoon) when you walk in a store. Or better yet, the more formal “bonjour, madame.” And when leaving always say “merci et au revoir” (thank you, goodbye).

3. Don't expect your waiter to become a part of your conversation when dining. And don't be insulted when they are not overly warm. Waiters in France are taught that it is unprofessional to disturb those enjoying a good meal.

4. When dining, don't expect to receive the check before asking for it. Lunches and dinners are meant to be slow.

5. Contain your enthusiasm, especially toward strangers. Smiling broadly at a stranger in France is often taken the wrong way. They'll most likely think you are either insincere, silly or a lunatic.

6. Refrain from touching, grabbing, pinching or feeling fruit and vegetables while at a grocery store or market, tempting though it may be.

7. Remember, the French generally like Americans. However, they would appreciate it if, at the very least, you greet them in French.

8. Be humble. A little humility goes a long way toward showing you appreciate the culture, and will pave the way for better interactions.

9. Don't worry about making a mistake. You’ll most likely get an 'A' for effort.

10. Have fun! You’re in France!

Ed Ronco is a former KNKX producer and reporter and hosted All Things Considered for seven years.