Monday, 4 January 2016

Are the French Really Arrogant?

Understanding Frenchman and I don't often have real arguments, but we quite often have fake ones, usually relating to the quirks and inconsistencies of each of our languages and cultures. Whether the starting point is the bizarre illogicality of the French administration or the very serious question of why the British don't use mixer taps, the debate often ends when UFM comes out with some particularly outlandish statement of French superiority, and I tease him saying, "Et voilà, la fameuse arrogance française." This usually ends the argument because he knows that I don't really think the French are arrogant, but he hates the fact that they have this reputation.

In my experience, France is in many ways a country riddled with self-doubt. From adults who interrupt themselves in the middle of a sentence to check with their interlocutors that they have used the subjunctive correctly to entire TV debates about why the entire nation might be going down the tubes, there are endless examples of how the French can lack confidence. So where does the stereotype come from?

I think the answer lies in the impression that (some) French people (in some situations) give to the outside world of being somewhat haughty and convinced that they are right. But the haughtiness is largely due to the fact that in French, politeness, especially with strangers, means keeping your distance and respecting the right to privacy rather than being overtly friendly. So for example, that snooty waiter is being polite to you by calling you vous and Madame, and not hovering around your table when you might be having a private conversation. By contrast, in the UK or the US, they would approach quickly with a friendly smile and probably ask questions that the French would construe as intrusive (and to which, as UFM repeatedly pointed out when we were in New York last year, they don't really want to know the answers!).

Another factor is the conviction, in France, that there is a correct way to do just about everything. French children are brought up obeying strict social and cultural codes that range from the right colour to use for underlining in their schoolwork, to dressing appropriately for the weather, to the correct food combinations to serve at a dinner party. Usually there are very good reasons for these things, but when a French person says to a foreigner, "Il faut faire comme ça," it can come across as a refusal to acknowledge that there is any other way of doing things and that the foreigner must be wrong.

As well as imposing strict rules for presenting their written work (I was amazed, in my first teaching job, when I asked the class to write a word in the middle of their page, when several children immediately put up their hands to ask how many squares they should count in from the margin to find the middle), the French school system also instills the idea that being right is very important. If a pupil carries out all the correct steps to solve a maths problem, for example, but makes a silly calculation error, they will have to identify the mistake before being praised for understanding the method. This can be hard on the pupil, but in the long term, I'd prefer to live in a country where the engineers, pharmacists and bankers get their calculations right as well as understanding how they work. In the same way, the foreigner who is corrected for using the wrong gender in a sentence might feel looked down on, but in the long term will probably end up with a better knowledge of grammar.

The importance of being right also applies to debate and discussion. In France, if you are going to defend a point of view, you need to do so with conviction. When I was learning French at school, we were given lists of different ways of saying "I think that ..." to use in our essays, but in real life France these are almost completely useless, as no French person ever introduces an argument with je pense que or à mon avis. If it's your opinion, it's because you are sure that you're right, so why would you suggest that there might be any doubt! However, given the abundance of heated intellectual debate in France, both on TV and around the dinner table, I don't think this is a sign of a nation of people stubbornly refusing to change their minds.

When a mistake has been made, it's true that French people are less likely to admit or apologise for it than British people are. This can be extremely irritating, but most of the time it's not a sign of genuine arrogance, but rather a fear of the criticism that may follow (which I'm sure is largely a consequence of the school system).

There is one area of life, however, where I would say that the French reputation for arrogance is probably justified, and this is when they talk about their food, particularly in relation to other countries' national cuisines. They seem to feel no shame whatsoever in not only declaring French cooking to be the best in the entire world, but also telling people of other nationalities (or maybe it's just Brits and Americans) that their cooking is rubbish as they sit down to eat a meal cooked by those very same people. I've heard it happen so often that it makes me laugh now, and I have enjoyed developing a whole battery of arguments as to why they might be wrong (that's a whole other blog post), but it's the one example where I feel that not only is the arrogance genuine, but the willingness to flaunt it is also pretty rude. The only explanation I can think of as to why this would happen in a country where people are generally very polite, especially in social situations, is that the importance of food trumps the importance of other people's feelings. And all though I don't agree with that, it's a sentiment that the gourmand in me can definitely understand!


  1. Firstly, congratulations! You're too fast putting up new posts ;)

    Ha, I remember telling a French class to write something down and then all the questions... Red or blue pen? Should I underline it? I think they were really shocked when I said I didn't care.

  2. I remember is some French literature course the professor was talking about the idea of "l'exception culturelle" and the fact that both France and the US think they have cultural/societal models that other countries should emulate, which is why of course they are often at odds with each other.

  3. My former host family in Paris was very specific in how people were seated around the dinner table. When I visit them now, I know to stand behind my chair and wait for the father to decide who sits where (the mother sometimes gives input too). Usually guests are seated next to the father, and then the order is boy-girl-boy-girl as much as possible. I know this is not usually done nowadays, but just the fact that it exists in some families was very educational for me.