The French Connection: Five Ways to Engage and Interact with the Locals
The adage holds. “To travel is to visit people.”
Think about your trips as a child, traveling to Tarpon Springs to visit your Aunt Sadie and Uncle Bob. Then put yourself back in that frame of mind.As you pull up their driveway, you know what to expect.
- First everyone will greet each other happily.
- Then, before you even come inside to sit down, Uncle Bob will eagerly lead you out to his back shed to see and admire his dozens of multicolored parakeets.
- Next he will invite you out for a ride around the bay in his motor boat.
- Afterwards you will perch yourself in the glider on the screen porch, swinging gently back and forth, drinking Aunt Sadie’s homemade lemonade and eating sugar cookies while listening to the adults talk, laugh, and share stories— and maybe take a little teasing, especially from Uncle Bob.
- If and when you feel comfortable enough, you will join in. Everyone, including Aunt Sadie and Uncle Bob, will enjoy your time together, enhanced by the breeze off the bay and the view of the bridge and water.
Now think of visiting France as you would contemplate visiting Aunt Sadie.
The people you will “visit” while you are in France are a fascinating, stylish, curious, and energetic group, who savor excellent food and wine, and who eagerly seek out and engage good company and discussion. You will have great fun spending time with them — with or without parakeets.
Connecting with the locals in France is high on the list of the pleasures and fascination of French travel. So how do you engage and interact with the French, thus bringing home delightful memories of the people as well as the place?
Start with these five effective ways to connect with the locals:
- Understand the cultural patterns of the French.
- Establish yourself as an individual.
- Use their language, even badly, and add 3 more phrases each day.
- Use flawless manners, French style, to honor the individual.
- Ask waiters and shopkeepers their opinions when making selections.
Understand the cultural patterns of the French
The French are certainly friendly, but only after they know who you are. Unlike Americans, they are unaccustomed to warm exchanges with strangers. Their conviviality and humor are reserved for family and friends. But any excuse will do as a device for crossing over the line between stranger and friend.
“Mild-mannered and dull” would not be an apt description of the French. As a group, French people are known to loathe being bored or boring. The result is that their interactions may seem to us more conforming Americans to be heated and emotional. An exchange that we may consider to be a disturbing argument, can be to the French a stimulating “discussion.”
Making eye contact in France is a serious statement of equality— a recognition of the other person’s identity. This would be considered to be “too personal” an exchange to use with strangers. On the other hand, refusing to make eye contact with someone you are dealing with directly is considered to be a put down, especially if that person is your waiter or shop attendant. To appear genuine, it is essential that you establish some brief eye contact, especially with people who are supposed to be helping you.
For Americans the smile is their single biggest non-verbal miscommunication when in France. The American tendency to smile all the time in order to appear friendly and reasonable creates a climate of distrust, smacking of hypocrisy, among the French unless there is an apparent reason for it. And hypocrisy is very unnerving to a French person. While in France, wipe the smile off your face as you walk down the street, since it gives the wrong message and makes people nervous. But do smile after you break the public shield and get involved with someone specific for a specific reason. The French love to smile, and do so very quickly, as soon as they have a reason to do so.
Establish yourself as an individual
Once you are perceived to be an individual, the fun of interaction begins. So how do you accomplish this self-definition in situations where people do not know you? In a word, make yourself unique and distinctive. Go beyond murmuring your usual automatic reaction. Instead, establish yourself as a person who is colorful and interesting.
Put yourself in their shoes. Which would be more noteworthy to you, a person who is wandering around the shop “just looking” or someone who is “looking for the perfect gift for their beloved mother-in-law who is very sweet and loves pretty things”? The latter form of self-presentation is more likely to establish you as an individual with a particular way of thinking, a clear set of feelings, and a close regard for the significant others in your life.
Use their language, even badly, and add 3 new phrases daily
Perhaps you are among the fortunate who took French in school and remembers everything you ever learned. More likely, you are like the rest of us who remain somewhat challenged in French, if not completely ignorant of it.
It is not a problem to be less than fluent in French while you are visiting France. But it is a problem to refuse to speak the language at all, especially if you hope and expect to connect with the French people you are visiting. What is essential is that you attempt at least some level of basic communication using the French language. A few key phrases will go a long way, especially if you add more phrases daily to make your repertoire grow throughout your visit.
Many French people do speak some English, some better than others, as well may be expected. But given the substantial differences between the French and English languages, particularly in how to properly sequence words when they are put together into sentences, the French are as self-conscious about fumbling around in English as Americans are about their inadequate skills in French. Think of it this way. When you do make an effort to speak French, even a clumsy one, you open the door for the person with whom you wish to communicate to do likewise. The result may not be at the literary level of Tale of Two Cities, but it does establish a connection point that can become the beginning of a memorable moment in terms of relationship.
Use flawless French-style manners to honor the individual
As important as it is for you to become a distinctive individual yourself, it is equally essential that you perceive and approach the French as individuals too, especially those who will be enlisted to help you. The standards of well-mannered exchange are higher in France than those to which Americans generally have become accustomed.
When you walk into a shop, for example, it is considered poor manners if you do not greet the shopkeeper. Shopkeepers in France do not consider themselves to be faceless functionaries for you walk by and ignore. They are the host or hostess of an establishment you have chosen to visit. The same rule applies when you leave the shop, at which point it is expected that you will say thank you and goodbye. And always use “monsieur” or “madame” as part of every hello, goodbye, please, thank you, or excuse me. To leave this off would be highly discourteous.
Ask waiters & shopkeepers their opinions when making selections
Just as important as considering that the people who help you in France are individuals, is to value their opinions. Ask what your waiter recommends. Ask what the shopkeeper would suggest. Ask what the person in the booth at the outdoor market thinks about this color versus that one, and what would look best together, if not what would look best on you. These are additional and welcomed indications of your respect and interest in what they think. And these are the sorts of interactions that can and will lead to priceless connections.
It was market day in Chamonix, a quaint village in the French Alps. The wind had come up suddenly, and the shopkeeper of a large and stylish booth of women’s clothing was struggling to keep her merchandise and umbrellas from blowing away. And there I was, looking through a rack of lovely crocheted tops in a variety of colors. While holding several escaped hangars of clothing in one hand, and a tumbling umbrella in the other, the shopkeeper focused her attention on me and my selections.
Knowing better than to ignore her efforts to help, I asked her opinion, and she engaged immediately. “No” to the blue, “yes” to the salmon. “Because I think the blue is not like you,” she explained in French. “You are more vivid and colorful.”
As our exchange continued, I joined her in snatching up the clothes as they blew away, and laughing with her at the chaos that was being created by the wind. We moved on to select not only the “right” crocheted top for me, but also the perfect scarf to enhance it.
So there it was. A sense of connection, accompanied by shared laughter and many smiles. And even a discount when I added a second scarf to match the green shoes I had purchased at a previous stop —the first green shoes I had ever owned in my life, as I shared with her, to her enthusiastic delight.
The highest and best advice about how to connect with the locals while you are in France is to honor and present yourself as the unique, interesting and wise individual you are, and likewise to honor those you meet in the same way. The Golden Rule serves us well once again—and in this case will provide us with unmatchable memories of connecting with the French while we visit them.
Her upcoming “Your Great Trip” travel series, co-authored with her son, Brian Lane, includes: “Your Great Trip to France,” “Your Great Trip to Italy,” and “Your Great Trip to the Swiss & Italian Lakes & Alps.”
Retired from an engaging career as a professional instruction designer who specialized in applied learning theory, she co-authored (with Dr. Marie Langworthy) the award-winning book: “Shifting Gears to Your Life & Work After Retirement,” published by New Cabady Press and available through amazon.com.
She has happily “shifted gears” herself, and is thriving in her “next and best career” as a traveler and travel writer.