I can't think of a more common stereotype about the French than the one about how rude they are. Even people who have never set foot in France take it upon themselves to warn potential visitors about the "rude French."
The fact is that there are polite people and there are rude people in every country, city, and street on Earth. No matter where you go, no matter who you talk to, if you are rude, they will be rude back. That's just a given, and France is no exception. However, there is no universal definition of rudeness. Something which is rude in your culture may not be rude in another, and vice versa. This is the key to understanding the two issues behind the "rude French" myth.
Politeness and respect
"When in Rome, do as the Romans do" are words to live by. When you're in France, that means you should make an effort to speak some French. No one expects you to be fluent, but knowing a few key phrases goes a long way. If nothing else, know how to say bonjour and merci, and as many polite terms as possible. Don't go to France expecting to be able to speak English to everyone. Don't tap someone on the shoulder and say "Hey, where's the Louvre?" You wouldn't want a tourist to tap you on the shoulder and start jabbering away in Spanish or Japanese, right? In any case, English may be the international language, but it is far from being the only language, and the French in particular expect visitors to know this. In the cities, you will be able to get by with English, but you should use whatever French you can first, even if it's just Bonjour Monsieur, parlez-vous anglais ?
Related to this is the "ugly American" syndrome - you know, the tourist who goes around yelling at everyone in English, denouncing everyone and everything French, and eating at only McDonald's. Showing respect for another culture means enjoying what it has to offer, rather than searching for signs of one's own home. The French are very proud of their language, culture, and country. If you are respectful of the French and their heritage, they will respond in kind.
The other aspect of the "rude French" myth is based on a misunderstanding of the French personality. People from many cultures smile upon meeting new people, and Americans in particular smile a lot, in order to be friendly. The French, however, don't smile unless they mean it, and they don't smile when talking to a perfect stranger. Therefore, when an American smiles at a French person whose face remains impassive, the former tends to feel that the latter is unfriendly. "How hard would it be to smile back?" the American might wonder. "How rude!" What you need to understand is that it's not meant to be rude; it's simply the way of the French.
The Rude French?
In summary, if you make an effort to be polite by speaking a bit of French, asking rather than demanding that people speak English, and showing respect for French culture, and if you avoid taking it personally when your smile isn't returned, you'll have a hard time finding the "rude French." In fact, you'll be pleasantly surprised to discover how very friendly and helpful the natives are.
Still not convinced? Don't take my word for it; there are literally hundreds of messages in my forum about others' experiences: The Rude French
This article is one of the "stops" on the Virtual Amazing Race, a lesson plan suitable for grades 5 and up. Students gather research in a webquest of around-the-world topics and (optionally) create a Web site Using PowerPoint.