An Exploration of French Stereotypes

Rebonjour tout le monde! My name is Van and I graduated in December 2019 from San Diego State University where I studied International Business with an Emphasis in French and Western Europe. I completed a yearlong (2018-2019) study abroad program in Cergy-Pontoise, France at the ESSEC Business School (l’ École Supérieure des Sciences Économiques et Commerciales), thanks in part to the Gilman Scholarship Program. Since graduating in December 2019, I have been studying for the LSAT and GMAT graduate school entrance exams; working on starting an online personal and home apothecary goods business; developing a food sharing app, and am serving as one of the Gilman Scholar Alumni Ambassador Digital Representatives for the 2020-2021 academic year!

This is me in front of my university: ESSEC

Since I spent a significant amount of time in-country, I would like to discuss as well as dispel and confirm two of the more commonly held French stereotypes, which also happen to be among the most common questions that I received from friends and family. 

Do French people smoke a lot of cigarettes?

The short answer is yes when compared to the United States. According to a 2015 global report on trends in the prevalence of tobacco smoking conducted by the World Health Organization (WHO), about 25% of French people were daily smokers, down from 26% in 2010. During that same year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 15% of Americans smoked daily. However, when considering populations during this period (France with ~66.42 million and the U.S. with ~320.7 million), about 48.1 million Americans smoked compared to 16.6 million French. Although the actual number of Americans who are daily smokers far outweighs their French cohorts, there are many factors involved in the disparity between perception and reality.

Population density and dispersion across each country and within the most populated and most visited cities; restrictions on tobacco products and smoking in public places; and attempts by both businesses and individuals to circumvent these restrictions along with general laissez-faire and even romanticism of the habit, all play fundamental roles in forming these perceptions. For instance, the most densely populated and most visited city in France is Paris, which means that not only is there a high density of smokers, but they are also the same aggregate with which tourists come in contact.

The French government has also attempted to reduce the number of smokers by requiring health warnings on packs of cigarettes; through fines and restrictions, which aren’t readily enforced; and via outright bans on smoking in public spaces. However, the majority of restaurant and café owners have indoor/outdoor Les Terrasses (patios) or smoking rooms housed in the interior of the larger establishment, helping them to sidestep these efforts.

Both these smoking rooms are housed within the larger establishment and are from two different businesses, both Queer clubs.

Moreover, with so many references to smoking, everything from songs by Pink Martini and Raphaël to images of famous musicians, fashion designers, and actors like Serge Gainsbourg, Coco Chanel, and Marion Cotillard, it’s no wonder why la cigarette (a feminine word coined by the French around the 1820s) remains to be a cultural icon and is as synonymous with French culture as baguettes and berets. Therefore, it is the aforementioned, and other factors, which contribute to the obstinate belief and the stereotype of the French smoker.

Are the French rude?

I would have to say no. Many Americans hold this belief and may have even “experienced” it first hand, and yet I believe this can be explained away with cultural differences, varying levels of situational judgment and communication styles, and language barriers.

For example, Americans tend to say “excuse me” when getting a product off of a shelf in a grocery store if it means stepping or standing in front of someone eyeing a product on the same shelf or a shelf nearby. Although I have heard French people use a similar phrase “pardon” in this scenario, more often than not, they say nothing. So since we regularly say “excuse me” in this instance, when encountering someone who does not, it is easy to see how it could be perceived as rude. 

Similarly, when getting bumped into while walking around, just like in the U.S., some people may say nothing; some people might say “sorry” while continuing to walk; and others may physically stop, make eye contact, and say “Oh my gosh, I am so sorry…are you okay?”, depending on the offensiveness or severity of the collision. The difference in responses and reactions comes down to the individual judgment of the situation; what should be said if anything should be said; and sometimes even language barriers. France is a very culturally diverse country; thus, many people immigrated there and may not even speak French or English, let alone behave in a manner to which Americans are accustomed or perceive as polite.

However, when looking at both of these scenarios through a cultural relativistic lens, the common misunderstanding of “French rudeness” can be attributed to a difference in cultures. That’s not to say that there aren’t rude people in France, just as there are in the U.S., yet to say that the French are rude is just an overgeneralization and another obstinate, pervasive stereotype.

This is when I spent Christmas with most of the members of my host family. Starting from my left in the image, they are Emma (daughter of Karina), Philippe (spouse of Sonia), Karina, Sonia (spouse of Philippe), and Clara (daughter of Karina).

How has your experience abroad affected those around you?

I think the effects of studying abroad have positively affected those around me in innumerable ways. Following the topic of discussion, my experiences abroad have allowed me to dispel or confirm stereotypes, leading to a deeper understanding of French people, French culture. Additionally, I believe being able to discuss and explain the differences and similarities between Americans and people of other nationalities has also lead to a greater introspection and understanding of oneself – beliefs, behaviors, thoughts, principles – as well. 

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