Despite the fact that a google search turned up 20 million hits (that sound you heard was my mind blowing), this is just not true. I’ve always fought against this stereotype since I have never experienced across-the-board incivility when in France. (That would have been in Italy where everyone is an asshole.) As “evidence” of the Gallic cold shoulder, foreigners cite how they never smile. Not true: the French only smile at people they already know, and they usually have to have met you a couple times before they consider they “know” you.
To my way of thinking, they just know that they have an awesome country with great food and culture, and they don’t suffer fools, gladly or otherwise. However, I have also found the French to be exceedingly polite, almost to a fault. These are people who still exhibit remarkable decorum on a regular basis because that’s just comme il fait.
During my first week here in July, the weather was nice enough that I had the windows open 24 hours a day. One night just after 1:00 AM, an older woman yelled into the inner courtyard that whoever was playing music loudly should close the window. (This had been going on for the last forty minutes — I know ’cause I looked at the clock.) The volume was immediately lowered and a young man, completely devoid of snark, said, “You are completely right, madame. My apologies.” The woman shot back that it was a bit late to be playing music so loudly and the guy reiterated his position: “Yes, you are totally right. I’m sorry. Goodnight madame.” As he was closing the window, I heard the woman (not so loudly this time) say goodnight back.
When I was looking for another sublet in November, I sent out a million emails to people who’d posted ads online. I’d put together a standard message that very briefly told the person about me and tried to make me sound responsible. One night, I got a message back from one person saying that they were sorry, but that their apartment had already been rented. Then, they added this
Je vous souhaite de trouver car vous avez une très bonne présentation, lorsque l’on vous lit ça inspire confiance.
…which is basically “I wish you luck finding an apartment. You present yourself very well and inspire confidence in whosoever reads your message.” Now, there is just no need to go so far in complementing a total stranger, right? Why do it then? I figure it’s got to just be the person adhering to the social niceties, but, I’ll admit that I blushed when I read it. I thought, “Wow! They really liked me! My writing inspires confidence!” Honestly, this person just made my day.