Why Don’t the French Smile?

“French people are rude.” We’ve all heard it said before. But is there any truth behind it?  

A good part of the “French people are rude” myth stems from a very basic cultural difference: Americans smile often and the French smile only when they really want to. In the United States a smile is a sign of friendliness and trust. It’s not uncommon for passing strangers to smile at each other as a sign of goodwill. We smile when we say ‘Good Morning,’ or order food from a restaurant. We smile at people we like and those we don’t like too.

The French, on the other hand, tend to reserve their smiles only for close acquaintances. French people are unlikely to smile at passing strangers, servers or even (if you’ll believe it) lost American tourists. While it’s fairly common for Americans to smile throughout a conversation, French conversations tend to be more straight-faced. It’s not a sign of unfriendliness but simply a different way of conducting interactions. French people aren’t unhappy or rude, they simply smile a little bit less than Americans tend to expect.

In fact, Americans value smiles a lot more than many cultures. A few years ago a group of Japanese scientists conducted a study of facial expressions in Japanese and American participants. It turns out that American and Japanese individuals read emotion much differently. While Japanese tend to focus on eye movements, Americans concentrate on the reactions of the mouth. Americans value a winning and expressive smile. Japanese, on the other hand, put a higher emphasis on revealing eyes. According to the researchers both methods are pretty reliable in terms of reading facial expressions.

Smiles are so important to all cultures, however, that even the type of smile can act as a cultural distinction. In one study, researchers showed two series of photos to a group of participants. Both sets of photos were of either American or Australian citizens. When shown the first set, participants had a very difficult time making a distinction between the nationalities. When shown the second series, however, participants were able to identify the nationality of the faces to a remarkable degree. The only difference: in the second set the individuals in the photos were smiling. A simple smile was enough to determine if someone lived in Sydney or Santa Fe!

The lesson in all of this: smiling is a culturally complicated action. When someone fails to smile at you, it isn’t necessarily because they’re being rude or unfriendly. Rather, they actually might be thinking “Why is that creepy stranger smiling at me?”

In American culture, it’s very important to have a smile you aren’t afraid of showing off. While you might be able to get by in Japan with bright, friendly eyes, in the U.S. that probably won’t work as well. If you don’t smile someone could get the idea that you’re unfriendly… or just French.