“Aren’t French people mean to Americans?”
And when I respond, “No, not in general,” the next comment is often, “Well, that’s probably because you speak the language.”
Which, to an extent, is true.
But French people weren’t generally nice to me because I spoke proficient French.
They were nice to me because I didn’t automatically expect them to speak English.
And this isn’t specific to French people.
Let me explain.
I was on a train to Normandy years ago, chatting with a very nice American girl I’d just met. We got off the train together, and before I could say anything, she went up to the nearest train station employee and blurted, “Can you tell me how to get to the beaches?”
No Bonjour. No fumbling Parlez-vous anglais. Just a straight-up question in English in a country where English is not the official language.
When I (nicely) pointed this out, her response was, “Well, you know they understand us!”
Firstly, no, we do not know that; not all people who work at transit stations are required to speak English (even though this one did, and was actually quite helpful.) Secondly, even if you do think someone understands English, it’s common respect to at first address them in the language of the country in which you are.
“But that’s easy for you! You speak French!”
This is true. But I have also traveled through Hungary, Greece, Portugal, the Czech Republic, Italy–all countries where I’ve never studied a word of the language. And I still don’t go around blurting out questions to people in English. What I do is this:
Look up a few choice phrases in each language. For me, these typically include: hello, please, thank you, I don’t speak [language], do you speak English? Where are the toilets? How much? Does this have meat in it? I’m a vegetarian.
I write these down in the correct spelling of the language, and then write it out phonetically. Nowadays there are also apps that can do this for you (though I recommend not relying too heavily on wifi.) And then when you arrive in the country, you’re at least attempting to speak to people in the language they understand.
This will not only help you and them–you will also find that people are “nicer” to you. Because you’re not being an ethnocentric American; you’re acknowledging the fact that you’re in their country and are doing your best to help them help you.
So if you’re traveling to any non-English-speaking countries anytime soon, I beg you to please at least attempt this. As French people are likely tired of the “mean French person” stereotype, I am tired of the “rude American person” one. So please, help me change it!