Parisians aren’t unfriendly – we just have main character energy

written by
Madévi Dailly

updated 17.05.2023

Travel writer and former Parisian Madévi Dailly responds to the results of a recent Rough Guides poll which saw our readers denouce Paris as the world’s unfriendliest city.

Hundreds of Rough Guides readers have declared Paris to be the most unfriendly city in the world – news as surprising as the best croissants being made with butter.

“Brusque”, “unwelcoming”, “snooty”, “surly” and “rude” are just some of the accusations levelled at locals by Rough Guides readers, and indeed by travellers the world over. Paris may be one of the most visited places in the world, but its residents, it seems, aren’t exactly happy about it.

The body of evidence is impossible to ignore. “There is something glacial, fishlike, and prodigiously remote about Parisians”, quipped American storyteller Pat Conroy in My Reading Life. “At the sound of an approaching foreigner, their faces are as bland and expressionless as salamanders.”

Eager beret-clutching visitors to the City of Light are in for a rough ride. If they survive the gauntlet of louche cab drivers on arrival, they’ll have to deal with a whole cast of Parisians ready to wreck their stay.

Distracted hotel staff will ignore them at reception. They’ll get barked at in bakeries for hesitating too long between subtly different baguettes, and dismissed by sales girls telling them they don’t stock larger sizes. Lap-dog wielding grannies won’t hesitate to jab them out of the way with the sharp end of their walking sticks. Waiters will rush past them instead of welcoming them with a smile.

Parisien market vendor © Shutterstock

A Parisian market vendor. Snooty? It's nothing personal © Shutterstock

This can be so shocking to visitors that Japanese tourists have even coined a term – ‘Paris syndrome’ – to describe the psychological distress they feel when confronted with the reality of the city of their dreams.

But as a former Parisian, it’s my duty to roll my eyes at this damning indictment. Parisians have every right to be appalled when hordes of hapless, selfie-snapping visitors descend on their city year-round, demanding to be shown the way to the “Louv-rah” and fuelling a proliferation of flower-covered Instagram-ready cafés. Sorry to break it to you, bébé: it’s not us, it’s you.

That’s right, you’re doing Paris wrong. You’re pushing already stressed Parisians over the edge with your inability to operate the metro doors, roll your Rs, or cross the street without causing an international bicycling incident. You’d do well to heed the advice admonishing tourists to make an effort to fit in.

Getting familiar with etiquette basics is a good start: say “bonjour” and “bonne journée” to waiters and shopkeepers, don’t mangle our beautiful language (we’re sticklers for good pronunciation and grammar) and move out of the way of passersby if you’re stopping to get your bearings.

Madévi Dailly. Photo: Private archive

Your friendly writer, Madévi Dailly © Puxan Photo

But these tips could apply anywhere from Bali to Budapest – they’re simply good manners. You’ll need to dig a little deeper into the local psyche to level up your Parisian experience.

Parisians live and breathe main character energy, fuelled from a young age by a diet of romantic poetry, Nouvelle Vague films and over-dramatic pop music (Brigitte Bardot had a hit song in the 60s about no longer recognising anyone when she rode a Harley Davidson). You’ll see it in the way people drag photogenically on their cigarettes on café terraces, or stop for lingering kisses on bridges at sunset.

Every Parisian is the star of their own show, whether they’re a penniless student or an avenue Montaigne heiress. We are wholeheartedly absorbed in the hurtling trajectory of our own destiny and you, hapless visitor, barely register as a blip on our radar. In gaming terms, you’re an NPC – a non-player character hovering in the background of our narrative.

Arrogant? Maybe. Unfriendly? Not quite. All you need for a friendly reception in Paris is to approach people on that very human level. Don’t take anything too personally. Yes, Parisians are grumpy, but it’s rarely about you. We just love a good moan – in fact, there’s nothing we love more than moaning about how moany Parisians are.

Parisien police officer talking with an elderly woman © Shutterstock

Just misunderstood – a Parisian police officer © Shutterstock

So enjoy your antagonist’s huffing, puffing and shoulder-shrugging for the comedic expression of local character it is. That distracted receptionist? Probably struggling with a new faulty booking system. The bakery is just overwhelmed by its social media success. The granny prodding you with her walking stick might just be pointing out that you’ve stepped in dog mess.

Adjust your expectation of what constitutes good service: in our Bastille-burning society, not even the customer is king. And flattery will get you everywhere: praise the softness of that cashmere jumper, the pong of that aged cheese, the scent of that outrageously priced Diptyque candle.

In short, treat people with warmth and curiosity and they’ll likely respond in kind. The best thing about main characters is that they’re usually transformed by the end of the story. Younger Parisians have travelled the world, learned new ways and languages, and gained an appreciation for all the things that make Paris such a wonderful place to be. So give us another chance – you might even get a smile or two.

Main character energy: Madévi Dailly © Puxan Photo

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Madévi Dailly

written by
Madévi Dailly

updated 17.05.2023

Madévi is a freelance food and travel writer. Find her work in in-flight magazines, online publications and in guidebooks to destinations as eclectic as Brussels and Cambodia. Follow her on Instagram at @madevidailly

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