I guess you could call this “culture shock” and that is exactly what it is. I just have to say that there are some clichés that are based in truth and one of these is that the French don’t smile in public. Now I am not even an especially “smiley” type of person myself. By American standards, I am considered fairly reserved. So to encounter people who smile even less than I do is pretty extreme.
The French are polite people, but being polite doesn’t necessarily translate to being warm or friendly. Yes, they say bonjour without fail to everyone they encounter during the course of a day. But notice…they do not make eye contact and they do not smile when they say this. Even a reserved American such as myself will forget sometimes and make direct eye contact with someone and smile when saying bonjour. This has yet to reward me with a smile in return. The reactions I get range from blank incomprehension to downright suspicion. (“Why is that moron smiling at me? An American, no doubt”)
The most extreme example occurred last weekend when I was walking the streets of Amiens by myself. The mairie was cranking out the weddings that day, and as I walked along the sidewalk there was an open convertible stopped in traffic next to me with a bride and groom and their wedding party. They had the car decorated with their version of “Just Married” and were tooting the horn enthusiastically. In the spirit of the moment I completely forgot my manners and commited the grievous faux pas of looking directly at them, smiling, and saying (gasp!) “Congratulations”.
If looks could kill, my family would have already received notification of my death. The icy glare I got in response to my friendly greeting could have peeled the paint off a wall.
And say you’re waiting at a bus stop – something I do every day now – and several people are waiting there with you. They Will Not Speak To You. They Will Not Look At You. They Will Not Acknowledge Your Existence. What is that about? In the U.S., we can share our entire life story with someone behind us in the checkout line before we even pay for our groceries!
It is hard to know how to express friendliness here in an appropriate way. Yes, I can mumble bonjour in passing just like they do. That’s fine. But I just don’t understand how they can be so offended by a simple smile. And seriously, anyone who knows me knows I’m not Gomer Pyle over here going “GOLLLY! Hey, Folks! Shazam, how are ya’ll doing!”
This post isn’t intended to be down on the French people, many of whom I know to be very warm and friendly on a one-on-one basis. It is just that the “rules” of social encounters in public are very different than what I’m used to. It is difficult adapting to a social environment that frowns on a smile.