Demystifying the French: Tip #3
Tip #3. Understand and respect the fact that appearances are very important to the French, and take the time and trouble to look your best.
Why is Paris one of the most beautiful cities in the world?
Well, largely because people in France care about the way things look, and they pay close and careful attention to it–down to the smallest detail, pretty much all the time.
My favorite story about this is the time I went to a photocopy shop in Paris, to have copies made of a handout for class. The monsieur began (of course) by running a test copy. He carefully placed the original–just so!–on the plate glass, closed the cover, pushed the button and waited. But when the copy came out , “Oh la la” he said, shaking his head ruefully. A speck of lint–or something–on the glass, had made a tiny mark on the copy. “Oh, monsieur, c’est pas grave,” I assured him. (Typically, for an American, I was in a hurry to get to class.) “Mais non, madame, c’est pas jolie!” (“It’s not pretty!”) he protested, as he reached for his glass cleaner, cleaned the glass off, and tried again, this time producing a test copy that met his standard of excellence, and handing it to me for inspection, clearly pleased with the result. (Also, just as clearly, hoping for an appreciative remark from me, rewarding him for the care he had taken in the task. Which, of course, I provided.)
On the upside, this careful attention to detail means that everywhere you look in France, things are arranged in such a way as to please the eye, from the grand architectural design of Paris to the artfully composed and colorful shop windows, to the way your food is presented, to the way people dress, with delightful visual detail an important part of the whole experience.
On the downside, you can’t run down to the corner patisserie in sweatpants, hair awry, before you’ve made yourself presentable for the day, and expect to earn anyone’s respect. Because presenting your unpresentable self in a public place is in itself considered disrespectful–to the people you are dealing with, to the values of the culture you are functioning in, and also to yourself.
No one is going to treat you rudely, exactly, just because your physical presentation isn’t what it should be in their eyes. That wouldn’t be considered correct either, and being correct is important in France. But some of the famous French coldness that Americans are talking about all the time may be actually a kind of instinctive recoiling from the shockingly (to them) casual way we present ourselves in public–and possibly dismay at our failure to do our part to make our little corner of the world–our part in the composition, as it were–a more beautiful place.
Looking good is important in France. It’s not an accident that every French home I’ve ever been in has a lot of mirrors! It’s not about having expensive clothing or the latest fashions. It’s about dressing in a way that is tasteful and visually interesting, and carrying yourself in a way that makes you look (and feel) your best.
So, while it’s nice to be able to be accepted “for yourself” however you look, a l’americain, there’s something also kind of nice about taking the time to look good. Especially in France, where people value the effort, and appreciate the result.
Janet Hulstrand is a writer, editor, writing coach, and teacher of writing and literature based in Silver Spring, Maryland. She teaches literature courses in Paris, Hawaii and Cuba for the Education Abroad program at Queens College, CUNY, and twice a year she offers Writing from the Heart workshops in a beautiful little village in the Champagne region of France. This month she is teaching a class at Politics & Prose bookstore in Washington D.C.: “Demystifying the French: Tips for and Tales from Franco-American Encounters.”