I have heard versions of this remark snarled, whined, and growled so many times, it's a wonder I ever dared to venture onto French territory. An article I came across today cites a poll showing that the French are viewed by the British as the rudest, most unfriendly nation on earth. If English speakers overwhelmingly believe this to be the case, there must be some truth to it, non?
To those who believe for all the world that the French are insufferably rude (and probably not many among my readership are included in this number) , I offer what I have learned over many long and short visits to France. Call this little course How not to get treated badly in France 101.
Most of us in the US think of Japan as a culture of politeness. We understand that there are rituals of politeness that one would be remiss to ignore as a visitor in Japan. What we often overlook is that France could also be considered a culture of politeness. Polite rituals and codified formulas of politeness are deeply imbedded in French society, especially when it comes to interactions among strangers, be they French or foreign.
The US, in contrast, is a more casual culture. We tend to appreciate simplicity and what we would consider a lack of pretension. Years ago my father expressed disapproval at my landlord, to whom I referred as Mr. Gordon. He thought Mr. Gordon must have ego problems to insist on being called Mister. Except for my years in a southern state, I have heard very few Ma'am's and Sir's in the US. In France, titles are used much more frequently. It's sometimes hard for us casual folk to adapt to that. But if we well-meaning, informal Americans go to France and behave according to US standards, we do in fact come across as too abrupt and, well--rude. So if we are unwittingly rude because we didn't bother to find out what the norms are in France, why would French people go out of their way to be polite to our rude selves??
Most people presumably know that as the visitor in a foreign country, the onus is on the visitor to learn what is considered proper there and to act accordingly so that one does not embarrass oneself and one's compatriots. When we are chez les Francais, it makes sense to use the polite expressions that they use among themselves, or the English equivalent.
One American asked me why, when she went up to a French woman and asked for directions, the French woman started beating her with her purse. I told her that I was sorry that happened to her, but that the French woman must have simply been flat-out crazy. One could have the misfortune in any country to approach a lunatic, even with exquisite politeness, and to be flagellated with a handbag, I suppose. But by far the more common outcome is that if you make a polite and respectful approach, which might even seem exaggeratedly polite to an American, you are likely to be pointed in the right direction and perhaps even escorted to your destination.
So before the quiz over this mini-course, get a phrasebook and memorize (using the awful phonetic pronunciation guides if need be) a few of the polite expressions for approaching a stranger for information or for service in a place of business. Do NOT edit out the titles and seemingly excessive politeness. You will be treated with respect and hospitality, unless of course you are unfortunate enough to stumble across that French woman who likes to bludgeon American tourists with her handbag. If that happens, I'm sorry, but you're on your own.