Our journey in learning how to meet locals around the world has taken us from the busy streets of London to the small, community-oriented village of Lake Yojoa, Honduras, and over to the middle east in Beirut with stops in Dublin and Córdoba along the way. While each place and people certainly have much to offer in terms of culture, nowhere has that je ne sais quoi quite like the alluring capital of Paris. If you’ve visited then you know, meeting Parisians can be a fine art, and I don’t mean the sort you find in the Louvre!
Parisians get a bad reputation for being elitist, snobbish, and rude. While it is true that the French at large revere their language and culture, Parisians are similar to most any other major-city dweller. They lead busy lives and to boot, they are living in one of the most heavily-visited cities on the planet. Keep this in mind when approaching one to ask where the Eiffel Tower is–a question I’m sure they’ve had to endure more times than they would like. (A couple of my Parisian friends told me that they’ve never even been up the thing and make all attempts to avoid it).
So how can you make the most out of your Parisian séjour and find a way to engage the locals? Here are my 5 tips for rendez-vousing with the Parisians.
1) Dress the part
While this may seem superficial, Paris is known as the fashion capital of the world and you would do well to make some attempts at dressing the part of a Parisian. No, I’m not saying that you need to rush off to the Christian Dior or Louis Vuitton boutiques in Saint-Germain-des-Près quarter (but hey, if you roll like that, it doesn’t hurt!) but you certainly want to look presentable. The Parisian street style is typically known to be classic, minimalist, and in a word: sophisticated. No self-respecting Parisian would
want to be seen conversing with someone who looks like they just rolled out of bed and is in their PJ’s. Author Stephen Clarke jokes about how Parisians get dressed up just to take out the trash in his hilarious yet true In the Merde series. So, tourists, take those fanny packs and oversize tees and do yourself a favor and leave them in the hotel! Your first step to getting into the inner Parisian circles is to look like you belong!
2) Learn the rules
As evidenced by my first tip, the key to meeting Parisians and actually making friends is learning how to abide by their cultural rules and norms. You can think of inner Parisian society as an ultra-exclusive club on the Champs-Elysée. There is a certain etiquette you should follow in order to become more approachable to the busy Parisian. First and foremost, although it is a busy metropolitan city, Parisians practice common courtesy and acknowledge one another. Make sure that you say ‘bonjour’ (or ‘bonsoir’ as the case may be at night) before starting any interaction with a local. I vividly recall being reamed by a small shop owner as I burst in to ask where the Père Lachaise cemetery was–I had neglected to say a simple ‘bonjour’ before hastily uttering my request. It’s little niceties such as these that go a long way. Similarly, simply being humble will get you far rather than coming across as the arrogant know-it-all traveler. You are a guest in their city and don’t forget that–I think this is a good rule of thumb for travelers anywhere, but especially in a city like Paris where locals have such pride for their culture.
The infamous bise is another simple cultural gesture that you’ll need to know. Rather than the Anglo handshake, the light kiss on each cheek is the standard when making a new acquaintance (although male counterparts when first introduced will still usually opt for the handshake.) This is not a heavy smooch–in fact, often times it will seem as though there is no contact whatsoever. The bise is also the preferred way to say goodbye–a hug is much more intrusive and less customary throughout France.
Another good general rule is to know what topics of conversation are permissible. Typically, it is not polite to talk about personal affairs, especially regarding finances. Topics of conversation that are welcomed, though, include politics, religion, and current events. Often times in the U.S., these topics are seen as taboo and a quick way to get into a heated debate, but the French enjoy a hearty debate–especially if you can offer some witty retort in support of your viewpoint. So, make sure you are abreast on both local and world affairs–there’s nothing more embarrassing than having a Parisian lecture you on your own history or politics and coming up short with a response.
3) Learn Some French and Go to A Franglish Event
If there was one reason for why I think tourists come away from Paris with a negative view is because they did not take the time to learn some of the language. Although most Parisians will know English and speak it to you even if you try to speak French to them, the simple act of initiating a conversation in French will usually start your interactions off on the right foot. As previously stated, the French are generally proud of their cultural heritage and this goes double for their language (which is protected by the governing body, the Académie Française) By learning some basic phrases and using them with locals you are showing both respect for their culture and that you have actually taken the time and interest to be able to interact with them. I cannot tell you how many times I have been praised for simply attempting to converse with a Parisian in French–even if they respond to me in English. The standard response is usually a face of amazement followed by some variation of ‘Wow, an American who actually tries to speak French.’ Usually this has afforded me discounts on tickets, positive interactions, and of course extended conversations with curious Parisians.
A great way to practice this tip while on the ground in Paris is to attend a Franglish event. I detail these wonderful cultural and linguistic opportunities on my Parisian travel blog, but basically Franglish takes the speed-dating model and adapts it for language learners. You’re paired with a native French speaker (who is usually a local) and for 7 minutes you speak in French and then another 7 minutes you speak in English. After the 14 minutes are up, you switch partners. This goes on for several rounds and at the end of the event you have a whole new network of locals that you can follow up with!
4) Get to Know Your Arrondissement: Paris famously is organized into a snail shell array of 20 arrondissements, or neighborhoods. It’s one of the reasons for which I love the city so much; it’s a vast urban area but still retains many village-like neighborhoods. A really good way to interact with locals is to explore the arrondissement in which you are living. Do as the Parisians do and shop locally. Make a point to have you neighborhood boulanger (baker), boucher (butcher), and café. As you frequent these places natural conversation will occur, especially if you’ve been practicing your French and can amaze them with starting a conversation in their language. These relationships can be some of the strongest you develop. To this day I am still amazed that my local boulanger in the 14th arrondissement remembered me as the Monsieur who was leading a group of American students when I returned the next summer. Granted–it’s probably memorable when you are ordering 36 picnic lunches–but still, in a huge and busy city such as Paris, surely I was just one face in a crowd. Even more impressive was the owner of a small grocer who remembered me from my student days in Paris when I returned 5 years later to lead the student group. He ran to the back of his store and pulled out a photo we had taken those several years prior. The relationships you can make in your arrondissement are some of the easiest to establish just by doing everyday activities and can lead to other connections that will help you build your Parisian network.
5) Attend the Plethora of Cultural Events and Stay Away from Tourist Haunts: This is my last tip and it is perhaps the most basic yet so powerful. Of course there are so many tourist sites to see while in Paris but I can tell you that if you are spending all of your time at these sites then you are lessening your chances of building that network of locals–they are not going to be there! Instead, satiate your cultural appetite while increasing your likelihood of interacting with locals by attending any of the numerous (and often free) cultural events throughout the
city. Paris is known for many things, not the least of which includes its cultural opportunities. Galleries, concerts, exhibitions, open air markets (and cinemas!), parades, festivals, you name it Paris has it! The Paris.fr site is a great way to stay up-to-date on the goings on of the city. I usually find myself in Paris in the summer so I am most familiar with the events going on during this time of year. Highlights include the Jazz festival, Festival Soirs D’Été, Cinéma en Plein Air, La Fête Nationale and the Bals de Pompiers, and Rock en Seine, but no matter the time of year there are countless venues and opportunities for you to meet locals and have a good time while doing it.
So, don’t waste your time in line waiting to go up the Eiffel Tower complaining about how Parisian waiters are awful–instead get on your classy clothes, learn some French, and put yourself out there to meet people from one of the most passionate and lively cultures on this planet! Chances are if you leave Paris with a negative viewpoint, you’ve just not made an effort to fit in.