On soup and being rude

Did you know you can’t find pre-made chicken soup in France? No broth either. And it’s not terribly common to make it at home, something I find shocking, given how food focused the French are. Mark almost always has chicken stock on hand, or at least a bag of bones in the freezer. It’s his secret ingredient for so many recipes. So when a couple of friends got sick with Covid, he was ready for action. He whipped up a big batch of soup for delivery. Maybe it’s just a midwest thing, but where I grew up there’s an unwritten rule: if you get sick, someone will bring you chicken soup. We have faith in its curative powers, which may have nothing to do with the soup itself, and everything to do with the sense that you’re being cared for.

Kate, an American, took the soup and declared she felt better, as one must do when soup is given. Xavier, a Frenchman, not wanting to make a fuss, turned it down, which led to a whole discussion about our beliefs about soup and healing. Turns out, it’s just an American thing. After a while and after some thought, Xavier texted and said, was it rude to say no to soup? Was it a cultural faux pas? No, Xavier, you can always refuse the soup. But you’d better say it’s because you already have some!

There are a thousand ways to be unintentionally rude when you live outside your native culture. In France, as you may know, to be polite at the most basic level, you must say bonjour all the time. I’m finally getting the hang of it. Going into a shop? Bonjour. Getting on a bus? Bonjour. Walking into a doctor’s waiting room or the laudromat? Bonjour, bonjour. Anywhere people are gathered indoors, it’s bonjour. If you see someone you know for a second time in a day, you say rebonjour, and if you see them again you can just shorten it to re, something that never fails to amuse me whenever I get the chance to use it. But I forget all the time to say s’il vous plaît. I’m more of a thank you gal. I’m rude.

Now that we’ve lived here a while, you’d think that I’d be becoming less rude with every passing year, but the opposite is true. As my language skills improve, so do my opportunities to put my foot in it. When you speak french at a lower level, you’re given a pass if you say something untoward, but as fluency increases, your excuses go away. You should know better. It’s endless. Thus I recently learned that saying j’ai la poisse is a fine but familiar way of saying I have no luck, but je suis poisseuse, which should simply translate to I’m unlucky, is rather crude. And it’s not just one set of rules of rules to learn. I have one French friend who uses bouffe all the time as a slang word for food (think chow), while another finds it distasteful. I avoid the word entirely now.

We are taught from an early age, elbows and arms off the table. One hand can rest at the wrist while you’re eating, the other must be in your lap. For the French, this is bad manners. Both hands should rest at the wrist on the edge of the table and no hands should disappear below. Not to mention they find it strange that we swap our fork and knife after cutting food. Why not just leave the fork in your left hand? Why not indeed.

The deeper you go, the more the details multiply. Ask what someone does for a living? Not done. Ask a Parisian what arrondisement they live in? Rude. That one floored me, I’m always so curious to ask people about where they live. Turns out, this is perceived as wanting to judge them. Given the large wealth disparity across Paris, this is akin to me asking what you paid for your house. Rude, rude, rude.

I’ll never be French, but it amuses me to keep trying! We’re celebrating our 5th anniversary of living here. Here’s to another year of faux pas and embarrassment. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Having soup with Xavier in a Japanese restaurant. Yes, we slurped. It would have been rude not to! (Note the hand positions.)




  1. Part of the pleasure of living abroad, discovering those little differences as well the similarities. I miss you both this Thanksgiving and hope that all goes well in Montpellier. I worry when I see you eating inside a restaurant with no masks visible. We have not yet given up our mitigation protocols as too many of our friends have contracted the virus. Are you baking une dinde? Stay healthy !


    1. Rest assured Michael, that was a one-off. The restaurant was postage stamp sized and well-ventilated. We’re almost as careful as you! No dinde for us (thankfully 😉 ), we’re in Toulouse having cassoulet chez nous!


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