Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Nobody Smiles Here

Back when I was in graduate school, we were forced to read an article about a survey of three hundred French people who were shown a photo of then President Fran├žois Mitterand smiling and less than 1% of them could identify who it was (the implication being that the French are so unaccustomed to seeing anyone smiling that even a very recognizeable public figure such as their President becomes unrecognizeable with a grin on his face). At the time I pretty much dismissed the article as crap, or containing some seriously flawed research. Since moving to Paris though, I've discovered that indeed the French do not smile. However, more surprising than this fact is the reason why they don't smile. Apart from the obvious reason (that you find something amusing), a smile in the United States can mean many things, among them: “thank you”, “hello neighbor” or even “I sympathize with your situation”. Not so in Paris. The French are very suspicious of random acts of kindness. Smiling can mean any or all of the following: 1) I know something about you 2) I’m after something you have 3) I'm selling something or 4) I've recently undergone a full frontal lobotomy. If you are a woman who smiles there is also the added implication that you are interested in a casual sexual encounter (I learned that one the hard way when I mistakenly smiled at a stranger who then proceeded to follow me around my arrondissement for twenty minutes while I completed my morning errands). I've had a really hard time with this simply because I’m a pretty happy person in general and having spent the last thirty plus years of my life smiling almost every day has made it difficult to quit cold turkey. I mean, how can you not walk around with a constant smile on your face when you live in one of the most beautiful cities on the planet, right? Well, I've had to develop some pretty hard core tactics to stop doing it because I can't have anymore strangers following me home.

1 comment:

  1. Gah! Isn't that the worst?? Our first day in Paris, I was so geeked to be going out to dinner, I smiled at the first person I saw at the bar, who happened to be a man. He gave me that dead-pan Paris face, and I realized my faux-pas. Mortified.