The Common Thing Tourists Do In France That Makes Locals Think They're A Bit Strange

How often to smile while abroad might not be on the top of your list of considerations when you're planning an international trip, but it probably should be. Flashing a grin is a behavior that varies greatly around the globe, and the appropriateness of when to smile is a cultural difference that many travelers find surprising. If you're someone who hails from a particularly smiley country, you may be pegging yourself as a tourist before you even utter a word.

If you travel often, you'll undoubtedly become accustomed to some common stereotypes. People from the United States, for example, are stereotypically loud and very enthusiastic, to the point that locals in some countries find them off-putting. On the flip side, people from the U.S. often unfairly peg people living in France as "rude." The reality is that both of these ideas likely stem from simple cultural differences, like when to smile.

If you're from a part of the world where smiling at strangers is common, expect to turn some heads on a visit to France. You may be used to smiling for all kinds of reasons — when greeting someone new, passing someone on a narrow sidewalk, or simply whenever you make eye contact — but the French tend to be more intentional about it, and only smile when they really mean it. While you may think it's a bizarre rule you have to follow, if you're looking to blend in during your trip to France, stop smiling so much!

Smilers vs non smilers around the world

Tourists from the United States are notorious for their near-constant tendency to flash a toothy grin. It's definitely part of the culture, and we're almost conditioned to appear cheerful all the time. Having worked in customer service in the United States for years, I've had complete strangers tell me I need to smile more. Honestly, I can appreciate how people from other countries find it extremely odd. Interestingly, smiling may have little to do with actual happiness and quality of life in countries around the globe. According to the World Population Review 2024 World Happiness Ranking, the U.S. came in at number 24, even though locals claim to be able to spot Americans from a mile away based on their megawatt smiles. Why do we smile so much even when we aren't genuinely happy?

Studies have shown that there may be a correlation between smiling and diversity. In countries with a history of immigration, like the United States, smiling is more common, probably because it is a good way to communicate nonverbally when there are language barriers. We sometimes smile because we feel happy, but other times it is a way to build trust and help others feel more comfortable.

In countries like France, smiling is considered more intimate. It is something that is generally reserved for close friends, romantic partners, or family members. Smiling at strangers on the train may come across as flirty, insecure, or even a bit crazy.

Appropriate ways to greet people in France

While smiling all the time isn't common in France, they're definitely used to seeing tourists' toothy grins. Locals might roll their eyes at you, but that's about it. Still, aiming to achieve cultural chameleonism while traveling is always a good idea. Just as you may consider changing your wardrobe for a trip to France to fit in with the country's famous laid-back elegance, you may consider adjusting your behaviors to fit the local culture.

Consider learning a bit of French before your trip. In major cities like Paris, and tourist destinations, you'll find that many locals speak some English, especially if they work in tourism or hospitality, but most locals prefer to converse in their native tongue. Spend some time learning French before your trip, or at least practice essential words and phrases. The language is beautiful, and learning a bit will ensure that you can really immerse yourself in the incredible French culture. Instead of tossing around a smile, you can simply murmur "bonjour" or "salut" as a polite greeting. In fact, "bonjour" is more than just a simple hello — it's so customary that it's essentially an unspoken greeting rule amongst the French. When meeting someone new, shaking hands is common. Closer friends often greet each other with the endearing "la bise" – in which you casually touch cheeks and mimic a kiss without actually touching your lips to one another's face.