The sincere smile of a Frenchman


“The French don’t smile” is a comment I’ve heard many times, sometimes by visitors to France, sometimes by people like myself who have lived in France a long time.  As I was writing “Joie de Vivre“, I began wondering:   How could I say the French had joie de vivre if they (supposedly) don’t even smile?

Et voilà, I came up with a couple of answers:    l)   if you come to Paris and smile at someone you absolutely don’t know as you walk down the street, you’ll probably get the same treatment you’d get in L.A. or New York City:    Why is this perfect stranger smiling at me?  By the same token, if you go outside L.A. or New York City or Paris to smaller towns, you’re much more likely to get a smile right back. The “no smile” factor is greater in Paris than in the provinces, no doubt about it. 2)  The French DO smile. It’s just that they don’t practice the “general” smile, directed at humanity in general, something we “Anglo-Saxons” are more used to and fond of doing. The French reserve their smiles for the people they know.

This “not smiling” is no joking matter!  It may be one reason foreigners think the French are rude and snotty and arrogant (mais oui ).  Who hasn’t heard the expression “ignorance is bliss”?  According to one American who knows the French well (this time around, it’s not yours truly), “it drives me absolutely insane when I hear people French bash, particularly since, almost 100%  of the time, these “French bashers” do not speak the language, do not know the culture, have never been to France, and have never even met a Frenchman.”  This woman, who studied French and worked in a French company in the States for years, said she’d take “the sincere smile of a Frenchman ” any day and – get this – she’d give her right arm to work for the French again.

Why?  “The French,” she writes,  “have priorities other than money, like respect for intelligence, education, and loyalty, and they care whether their employees live or die. The American economy is where it is now partly because of how callous American companies have become.” (Could that be because Americans don’t strike the way the French do everytime something goes wrong? That’s another subject!)

This woman was responding to a column on French bashing that my (French) husband posted on his greatly visited website,  I’m glad to see that some Americans understand the French reserve and don’t see it as threatening.

And you know what?  This woman’s name is Miracle.  Quel miracle that she wrote about her appreciation of the French just as I was about to write this column.  Merci!



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