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I’m an expat living in France – here’s how to make the locals love you

Are the French actually rude, or are you just doing everything wrong? There’s a trick to winning them over – expat Anna Richards reports from la belle France

Saturday 30 March 2024 06:00 GMT
Making friends in Paris might be trickier than elsewhere in France because people are busier
Making friends in Paris might be trickier than elsewhere in France because people are busier (Getty Images)

I’d always been told that the French were cold. That integrating yourself here was an uphill battle. That breaking into firmly established French friendship groups was tougher than shucking an oyster with a blunt knife. But after two and a half years here, many of my closest friends are French. So what’s the secret to getting in?

French friendship groups are a hotchpotch of every different style, interest and way of life, and herein is your golden ticket. You, with your funny British accent and odd ways, are different, so there’s a spot waiting for you.

At home in the UK, my best friends in the world, a tight-knit group of British girls, all evolved together a little like an American high school cliché. We all look rather similar, dress rather similarly, and have similar interests. It’s different in France: childhood friendships often endure here, but from my experience they don’t develop a communal style and taste. The heavy metal fans and house lovers hang out together harmoniously.

Socialising over good food and wine is a good way to bond with the French (Getty Images)

Read more on France travel:

The single most important thing you can do to get French people to love you is to make an effort to speak the language. If you can’t communicate with people, how do you expect to form a connection with them? It doesn’t matter if your French is faltering – you’ll always find people ready to be patient with you. What they’re not likely to be so patient with is the arrogance of expecting everyone else to make the effort and speak in English just for you. Mistakes happen, even when you’ve lived here for years, so be prepared to laugh at yourself and turn them into anecdotes. I recently mixed up ‘puppy’ and ‘toilet’ (‘chiot’ and ‘chiotte’), much to the amusement of all around me as I declared I’d like to adopt a toilet.

The author running a half-marathon with French pals (Anna Richards)

Getting drunk and disorderly may be how we made friends as teenagers, but it’s not the way to endear yourself to the French, especially as we Brits already have a (deservedly) bad reputation for drunken behaviour abroad. The French love a drink, and sharing a glass of wine and some good food is a great way to bond with people, but vomiting up said food and shouting obnoxiously in ever more incomprehensible English? Not so fun.

Complaining is welcomed, but make sure it’s about the right things. Complain about the government, always. Complain about transport, and administration, and the rising costs of pain au chocolat, but never, ever complain about the quality of French food. Prepare to laugh in a self-deprecating way about British food too, when the tenth person that week recounts the horror story of their British school exchange, where the host family fed them nothing but Monster Munch and jam sandwiches with the crusts removed, and they thought they were going to die of malnutrition.

You don’t need to be over the top. Overt friendliness when you don’t know someone is often misinterpreted as fakeness in France. This is a country where there are two ‘yous’ after all – the formal ‘vous’ and informal ‘tu’, and it’s better to be polite at first, before warming up to big displays of affection.

Don’t take offence too easily either. For all the flowery words and phrases in the French language (why use five words when you could use 50?), they tend to be a lot more direct than we are. “I don’t have time to talk now” or “That’s a weird skirt” doesn’t mean “I hate you” or “I hate your entire wardrobe”, it means exactly what it says on the tin.

Making an effort with the language is key to making friends in France (Getty Images)

There is a chance they’ll hate your entire wardrobe, though, particularly if your mini skirt is too short and paired with bare legs. Another stereotype in France is that the British, despite our inclement weather, have an aversion to wearing adequate clothing.

All of this applies all over France, except in Paris, where even the rest of the French don’t dare to mingle, and not a single person has friends. We’ve all heard of Paris syndrome, where the French capital’s pretty face fails to live up to expectations, and leaves visitors feeling cold… and friendless.

I’m joking, of course, and I’m friends with several Parisians, but as with how Londoners are viewed elsewhere in the UK, the Parisians have a reputation for being standoffish. I’m convinced, however, that this is just a side effect of busy lives, as it is in London, and not intentional rudeness.

There’s no big secret to making friends in France, and if you put in the effort, it’s likely to be reciprocated. An old, unflattering saying goes, “God created France, the most beautiful country in the world. Feeling guilty and to keep it fair, he created the French people”. Thank God he did – I can’t imagine my life without them.

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