If you’re like many Americans, you consider the United States to be the greatest country on Earth, or at least one of the greatest. A unique combination across all history of civil rights, varied geography, the melting pot of many races, military contributions to world stability, being at the forefront of many cultural trends, and leading much of the world’s technological and economic advancements, America has certainly earned the respect of much of the world, but also sometimes envy, scorn, and outright hostility.
For all her perks and blessings, America is sometimes a stressful place to live, especially in times of heightened political tension and disagreements like currently happen so often. That, on top of life’s regular stresses, drives many Americans to seek a vacation overseas to catch a break. France is a common choice for a vacation, as it is one of the most-visited tourist destinations around the world. From the historic beaches of Normandy, across the fields and vineyards, to the Riviera shores of the Mediterranean and the slopes of the Alps, France has a surprisingly wide variety of geography and experiences to explore.
Of course, many Americans just go to Paris, which can easily fill a vacation all by itself. The Eiffel Tower is a landmark known (and sometimes physically replicated) around the world. The Arc de Triomphe and Versailles are also famous sites to visit, and if you wanted to, you could spend a week just inside the Louvre! However, while the French are known for their manners and hospitality, not every American who visits here doesn’t always feel all that welcome. If you want to enjoy your vacation without getting harassed for being American, or being held responsible for how someone feels about your nation, use the following 15 steps to prepare for your trip and enjoy your time here while somewhat blending in:
Do’s And Dont’s Of Being An American In France
1) Learn a few French phrases: Given how tightly packed many countries are in Europe, most Europeans are multilingual. This holds true in France, particularly in Paris and towards the Atlantic and the North Sea coasts, where English is a very common second or third language. Remember that BBC radio reaches French soil, and London is only a train ride away thanks to the Chunnel. However, one thing that identifies arrogant or rude American tourists right away is starting a conversation with “Do you speak English?” Use an app, a class, or even a phrase book to learn a dozen or so things in French. Most will be happy to switch to English once you falter, but beginning any talking in their language shows respect to the fact that you are in their country. You’ll be far more happily received and served. To get you started, here are a few basic phrases:
Bonjour -> Hello
Au revoir -> Goodbye
S’il vous plait -> Please
Merci -> Thank you
Oui -> Yes
Non -> No
Pardon -> Excuse Me
Je ne comprend pas -> I do not understand
Je ne parle pas francais -> I don’t speak French.
En anglais, s’il vous plait -> In English, if you please
2) Tweak your wardrobe: Wearing clothes that have English printing on them in a country that doesn’t speak it isn’t a dead giveaway, but it doesn’t help, particularly if it is paraphernalia of local sports teams, schools, or colleges and universities. Consult websites that show how everyday people in France dress for tips on the wardrobe to pack, which will also probably help you pack less and avoid baggage fees with the airlines. If you really want to go the extra mile, there are businesses in Canada that will ship you T-shirts identifying you as Canadian, with a host of tips and pointers about pretending to be from your northern neighbor. Just don’t pretend you’re from Quebec, as your French might get tested immediately.
Do plan to up your game if you are going to visit Paris, which is considered by many to be the fashion capital of Europe, if not the entire planet. Avoid sweatpants or overly-short shorts in public, and especially in restaurants. There’s no need trying to pass as a local, but if you don’t want to be visually identified as a tourist immediately, or at least an American, avoid T-shirts, jeans, gym clothes, and flip flops. Navy, grey, and black colors dominate French attire, but you won’t see a lot of make-up or accessories. Think stylish yet sensible without going overboard, and no one will pay too much attention to you.
3) Use an inside voice: Americans are internationally thought of as loud and obnoxious. This might not be actually true, but the kind of voice volumes acceptable in the United States might be considered too much in other places, and France is among them. Speaking too loud in restaurants or subways is considered somewhat insulting if it distracts others around you. It’s great if your vacation is making you excited, but don’t get annoying. This holds especially true in subways where local professionals are likely tired and on their way home from work (or dreading going in). French restaurants are also known for being relaxed and even subdued, so loud conversation is certainly going against the grain here.
4) Be mindful getting around: Back home, you’re used to street signs on corner poles, perhaps hanging from utility lines. In Paris, look for blue plaques attached to buildings near the corners. Also, metro lines in French cities often have doors that do not automatically open, so don’t stand there and look dumb waiting while holding up the line. Look for a handle to lift or a button to press. Take care on the sidewalks in French cities. Personal space is not as big a concept in Europe as it is in North America, so expect people to brush by you. Americans often go shoulder to shoulder, but Europeans tend to turn their bodies so there’s room to slide by.
5) Don’t have high expectations of your restaurant beverages: The refills do not come as fast as in America, and ice is not commonly served unless asked for. In fact, most establishments simply won’t have it. Don’t worry, you might actually get to even like warm soda. It’s actually just a good idea to request a carafe of water for your table to avoid having to wait for refills. (That’s ‘une carafe d’eau’ if you were paying attention to #1, but don’t worry, there’s no quiz at the end of this article.)
6) Expect slow service and long waits: You’re not going to see many French citizens getting coffee to go. Service is going to be slow in most businesses, but especially restaurants, where a meal might be several courses over an hour or two. Americans often get impatient in these settings since they don’t know what’s going on, and then they get mad and don’t tip, further complicating things. If you find a nice place to eat that you might return to as a home away from home on your trip, do things like the locals to make friends with the staff.
When you are seated, put your napkin on your lap. Keep hands on the table surface, but not elbows. Don’t expect your wine glass to get more than half full, and note that locals break bread rather than cut it. Fold salad with the fork, and never cut it. Peel and slice fruits before eating them, and never slice cheese off the point. These little points will make locals wonder where you really are from. If you want coffee or tea, do so at breakfast. It’s okay to have them at other meals, but wait until after dessert, but not with dessert.
Take your time eating, and never do too much in one course. Even a basic lunch can run four courses, starting with an entree, le plat principal (main course), the cheese course, and then dessert. Remember that France is the prominent food destination of the planet. Savor it! And don’t be shocked if your check doesn’t show up too fast. Your domestic server at Red Lobster wants a new group at the table to make more tips, but in France, you might have to raise your hand when your waiter goes by and ask “monsieur/madame, l’addition, s’il vous plait!’
7) You don’t have to tip: French laws in many areas actually stipulate that a 15-percent service charge is automatically added to your check. If you see “service compris” listed, then the tip is already included. “Service non-compris” means it wasn’t. Still, if the service by the waiter was excellent, albeit leisurely given the culture and atmosphere, then leaving a few euros is a nice thing to do, especially if you’re used to tipping 20 percent or more back home already.
8) The customer isn’t always right here: Even if you follow these manners to your best ability and feel like the service or experience was inadequate, don’t expect to get too far with a complaint. Food service jobs might be considered low-end careers in America, with high turnover, but French restaurants usually employ career staff, from chefs to waiters. They’re lifelong professionals, and they might just tell you what they think of you, rather than agree with you and give you a refund. This even boils down to asking for alterations to a dish, where the waiter might just tell you it’s best to let the chef do his thing and why. France has earned its reputation as the gastronomic capital that it is.
9) Don’t antagonize the smokers: Even though cigarettes are far more expensive in many places in Europe than in America, you might see more smokers. It’s still socially acceptable in France, even at younger ages than back home. It is outlawed in most indoor locations, so expect to see a lot of smokers outdoors. Just hold your breath and keep walking, avoiding eye contact.
10) Don’t show off cleavage or expect to see it: French ladies have mastered the art at hinting at cleavage without showing a lot. Your eyes might catch the outline or even color of a bra underneath a top, but plunging v-necks are nowhere to be seen. If you’re a woman, dress like this so you don’t draw attention to yourself as an American.
11) Men gawk at women here: It’s considered crass in the States for men to do this, but French men do it. The women here rarely smile or return eye contact with others, and this might be a driving force behind that. Of course gawking at women on your own and appreciating natural beauties is not a great thing to mimic, especially if you’re traveling with the woman you love (or hope to continue loving).
12) Don’t gawk at the dogs either: Neutering male dogs isn’t as big a thing as it is in America, so dangling dog parts are going to be seen, a lot.
13) Skip politics and religion in conversation: Remember, you’re on vacation and hoping to avoid all the hyper-partisan stresses of back home. You’re also hoping to not be identified as an American and be given an earful of a local’s feelings. If they see you honoring local customs and culture, they’ll behave themselves. Religion is actually a quiet topic in France anyway. Fashion, cuisine, and sports are safe topics in most cases if you do have the chance to make small talk with citizens.
14) Forget your French jokes: The French don’t honestly have the most respected reputation in some quarters of American society, and even if you have such sentiments, keep them to yourself when in their nation. If need be, try and remember that the Revolutionary War might not have been won without their reinforcements, the Statue of Liberty was a gift from France, the Louisiana Purchase helped make America the nation the size it is, and French Resistance fighters helped pave the way for the successful invasion of Normandy. The two countries share a deep alliance and connection dating back centuries, and deep enough exploration of the history and landmarks of Paris will show it.
15) Take a break: Sometimes, immersion into a foreign-language culture can get a little overwhelming. If you’re in France for a long stretch, consider hopping the train back to London for a day or a weekend. Getting back to an English-speaking area, or just listening to BBC on the radio, can help you remember who you are, even when you’re not trying to broadcast your nationality on someone else’s soil.
Some travelers, especially actors, try and take things as far as they can, actually speaking in English dialects not common to the United States. An entertainer well-versed in Canadian accents, or the trained to sound like he’s from the Bahamas or Caribbean, might be able to get away with this, but it’s not generally recommended. Those who make a living off of tourists in France can not only identify American accents but sometimes even what state someone is from, given how many tourists they deal with on a daily basis. Also, never try an ‘alter-ego’ or nation change on government officials, law enforcement, or travel professionals. Be honest about what your passport says.
Having said that, using the 15 tips in this article can help you avoid drawing attention to yourself as an American in France, and possibly even looking like you’re from somewhere else entirely. Use them in Paris or anywhere in this magnificent country, and remember that much of the advice can also work in most of Western Europe. Your active United States passport lets you visit the country for up to 90 consecutive days without prearranging a visa. Bon chance!