You are walking down the street in a big city. A stranger approaches you with a big smile.

Vous marchez dans la rue, dans une grande ville. Quelqu'un que vous ne connaissez pas vous aborde avec un grand sourire.

i smile back

I smile back, of course.

I would smile back and continue on my way.

I would smile back and say good afternoon.

I would smile back and stop walking, waiting for them to say something.

I would smile back but I would be very cautious and aware of what the stranger may want. I would not let the stranger know what I am thinking, however.

I would smile back, no question.

I would smile back, unless he was creepy.

I would smile back.

I'm immediately suspicious of this person

If I am not in a hurry, I answer any questions s/he may have (but avoid non-profit survey questionnaires).

smile back

Smile back and keep walking.

Smile back and keep walking.

Smile back and possibly wave hello.

Smile back but veer away.

Smile back, say 'Good afternoon'.

intérieurement je me méfie de cette personne, mais je lui demande la raison qui le pousse à m'aborder.

J'attends calmement de savoir ce que cette personne me veut.

Je l'écoute. Je me demande ce qu'il me veut. Il a l'air sympathique donc je peux lui consacrer un peu de temps

Je le salue et lui demande si l'on se connait

Je lui réponds poliment et attends de savoir ce qu'il veut.

Je lui rends son sourire et écoute ce qu'il a à me dire

Je lui souris à mon tour et lui dis "Bonjour".

Je lui souris et lui demande ce qu'il veut.

Je me méfie, il veut sans doute me vendre quelque chose.

je répond positivement

Je réponds avec courtoisie mais n'hésite pas à abréger la conversation selon le sujet de celle-ci.

je souris

je souris à mon tour

Je suis étonné et je lui demande comment il me connait

Je suis étonné et je me demande qui cela peut bien être

Si la personne ne semble pas menaçante, je lui retourne son sourire et le salue

Vous cherchez quelque chose ?


Les réponses sont identiques : la plupart renvoie un sourire, et certains sont méfiants en pensant que ce sourire cache quelque chose.

Je pense que les français ne sont pas les plus ouverts (Ici, difficile de trouver une maison ouverte, sans clotûre et sans panneau "attention chien méchant"). Même si on est acceuillant, on ne vas pas forcement aller vers les gens qui sourient pour engager la discution, mais plutot se poser des questions. Et chez vous, allez vous vous facilement vers les gens que vous ne connaissez pas ?

The responses aren't exactly the same.  Several French students assumed the smiling stranger was someone they knew from somewhere, while none of the Americans did.  I think it might be more common here than in other places to smile at people on the street, without wanting anything from them.  I don't like it when people stop me on the street to try to get me to sign a petition or donate money, but exchanging smiles or nods with random strangers is not terribly uncommon.

Is smiling at strangers seen as a friendly gesture in France, or is it just weird?  Here I think it's a way of showing you aren't a threatening person (unless it's a creepy smile, in which case it can have the opposite effect).

Cela reste tout de même très surprenant que dans une grande ville un inconnu puisse nous sourire sans nous vouloir quoique ce soit vu le grand nombre de personne que l'on croise au quotidien ! Je n'ose d'ailleurs pas imaginer cela dans des grandes villes comme New York ou Paris, où les gens se déplacent en "masse" et sont bien souvent pressés.

Ayant vaicu mon enfance dans un petit village, j'avais pris l'habitude de saluer les habitants que je pouvais croiser au quotidien même ceux que je n'avais apriori jamais vu auparavant. Lorsque j'ai déménagé dans une "grande" ville, j'ai gardé cette manie et la plupart des gens étaient surpris et me lançaient des regards suspicieux...

Il pourrait être intéressant de faire de nouveau le test ...

Je suis d'accord avec thomas, je viens aussi d'un petit village, et j'ai pris l'habitude, de saluer les personnes que je croise (même si je ne les connait pas). Cependant, il ne me viendrait pas à l'idée de le faire dans une grande ville.

Dans une grande ville, la majorité du temps la personne qui nous aborde veut soit nous vendre quelque chose, soit nous faire signer une pétition, soit nous demander une information.

Le vendredi et le samedi soir (les soirs de fête) il est par contre courrant d'aborder des gens que l'on ne connaît pas juste pour le plaisir de la conversation. On est en général mieux disposé à parler et plus joyeux (en plus on a le temps).

To comment on Thomas's post, I believe that the same thing happens in the United States. I've lived in both a small suburb (in the state of Georgia) and a comparably big city (in New Jersey, half an hour away from New York City). In Georgia, I generally smiled and said Hello or waved at the people in my suburb even though I honestly only knew 1 out of 15 neighbors. It was common courtesy. In New Jersey, it never occured to me nor was it expected to say hello to strangers. In fact, people would think it was weird and be puzzled over whether they knew you or not. 

Personally, I'm not keen to approaching strangers unless I already know something about them or if its absolutely necessary. 

I am also in agreement with Thomas, and quite surprised at the answers on the American side. I volunteer to raise money at MIT for public service and philantropy every year, and I know for a fact that even my fellow classmates express distaste, and do not reciprocate to the most welcoming of smiles (classmates here not meaning students who take the same courses as me, but my fellow classmates in my class year).

From my experiences, in a big city, there are so many people that you pass by on the street, that it is immpossible to smile at everyone, and so the norm is usually to carry about with your own business. No one really stops to exchange plesantries unless they have an ulterior motive in mind. Keep in mind thatI mean only in the street and not in a store or shopping complex, or what have you in a big city.  I also agree completely with Laura's comment, and get quite annoyed when bombarded and attacked by complete strangers on the street, as in all big cities in the US every charity representative is ready and waiting to try to guilt trip you for not trying to save the world or for not believing in whatever morals they have, so to speak.

There are exceptions though, as tourist and elderly people (both of which are easily recognizable) usually just want directions or something like that, or want to tell you who you look like, or sometimes even a story respectively.

My questions to build on this topic: what is the attitude of the French when stoped by someone who does not speak French who is demanding your help, time, and energy? Are the streets of Paris also crawling with charity volunteers? and finally, how disrespectful is it to ignore elderly persons on the street given that the notion to be respectful to your elders are ingrained from young in European culture?

"Dans une grande ville, la majorité du temps la personne qui nous aborde veut soit nous vendre quelque chose, soit nous faire signer une pétition, soit nous demander une information.

Le vendredi et le samedi soir (les soirs de fête) il est par contre courrant d'aborder des gens que l'on ne connaît pas juste pour le plaisir de la conversation. On est en général mieux disposé à parler et plus joyeux (en plus on a le temps)." 


I agree with Thibaud, I think that it really depends on the situation as to whether or not it seems appropriate to try to smile and perhaps initiate converstaion with someone. 

Haha, when I first got to Boston, my first impression was that people are so much colder here than in KY, where I've previously been. This impression was from interactions on the street. It felt like here people were generally worried and thinking about their own things, not paying attention at what was going on around them.It felt like such a big difference. Now I'm used to it and don't notice it anymore, but the first few days in Boston, I felt quite unwelcome. I suppose that's normal for big places. Also, maybe the pace of the city has something to do with it. When one is busy, they generally  act differently than when they have a lot of time on their hands.

I agree with the comments that being in a city versus a town affects people's response to strangers smiling. 

However, I am wondering if it might also be because that smiling is not as common of a greeting in France as it is in the US. Here, I think of a smile as being equivalent to saying hello. But it seems like the French view it as being out of the ordinary. Thinking back to the forum on "A rude person is...", I remember that saying "Bonjour" is the polite greeting in France. Do you think that the responses on the French side would have changed if the situation was a stranger saying "Bonjour" instead of smiling, or would it not have made a difference?

Je pense que si la personne avait dot "bonjour", on aurait répondu par un "bonjour", que ce soit pour voir si elle voulait s'adresser à nous, ou pour un simple salut. Le sourire est plus ambigu, on ne sait pas si la personne nous connait ou se moque (ou est mentalement dérangée).

Et souvent, dans les grandes villes, lorsque quelqu'un nous approche, c'est souvent pour nous demander quelque chose, soit de l'argent, une cigarette, soit de répondre à un sondage, soit de voter une pétition, etc...Et on a tendance à se méfier au final des personnes inconnues que l'on croise.

It was interesting that even though it seemed like the American students were more welcoming, most saying they would smile back, more French students said they would either wait for the person to speak or initiate conversation themselves, despite having suspicions about the person's motives. In contrast, several American students said they would smile but keep walking, or even walk away.

One explanation might be as Laura suggested, where the Americans are more willing to give the stranger the benefit of the doubt, while the French are more suspicious. However, I think there's also an alternate explanation, given the "walking away" responses, which is that Americans might see smiling as more of a perfunctory courtesy, while the French are more inclined to actually help a stranger, or at least think it's polite to acknowledge their intent.

Is is a difference in what people see as a polite response? Or is it a difference in willingness to be helpful?

As Jean-Baptiste said, after having lots of people come up to you just for the sake of asking something of you, you start being wary or suspicious of someone smiling at you because you expect them to ask something of you as well. However, in my experience, that kind of person doesn't normally just smile at people, because they would probably just keep walking or as some responses put it, they might walk away or avoid them. That kind of person usually starts talking to you right away to make sure they get your attention. So personally, I don't associate smiling with something negative in strangers. 

As Madeleine, I do not associate a smile with soliciting. It is very obvious when someone is soliciting, as they are usually standing with a pen and a questionaire on their hands.When I walk in Boston, I smile at people passing me, and I am usually given a smile back. Maybe, Americans are used to smile without a reason, since we all have been doing that since we were children, while the French need a reason to smile (like knowing the person). Here people smile all the time, just for the sake of showing some politeness and kindness, which is then followed by a remark about the weather if one is in an elevator or waiting in the same place as the estranger. In France, do people smile at strangers at elevators, say bonjour or things of the sort? Of course no one will smile at every single stranger in the street, but I feel that it is mandatory once you share a space with them for some time.

So it seems like while Americans want to act friendly to everybody on a surface level, the French don't think it's appropriate unless they know the person really well.

This may not be true, but I've heard that French people are sometimes wary towards American tourists. Might this be because the French don't believe the Americans deserve a welcome because they are strangers or is it something different?

The only experience I have with this is Los Angeles versus Montreal.

In Los Angeles, if you smile at someone, you will (provided you don't get snubbed) receive a smile in return. However, it won't reach their eyes. Though the corners of their mouth will turn up, it will be obvious that they received no enjoyment from your smiling at them nor from smiling back.

However, in Montreal, if you smile at someone, they were visibly brighten. Their features will light up. It will be obvious that your small act of smiling at them will have made their day just a teensy bit brighter, and they will return the favor for that.

I do not know about France.

I have noticed in the US that people who conduct surveys and want petitions signed sometimes target tourists as they are easier targets than the general public. Is there something similar that goes on in France?

It seems that the smile is quite an important cultural element for both Americans and French, and that it has different functions in different societies, as we've talked in the class. That is a bit unfortunate because everyone assumes they know what the smile means, but it turns out what the smile means to them may be different than what the smile means to others.


We've talked in class how it is very common in US to smile at people regardless of having a big reason for that, but just as a signal of ackowledgement. In France, it seems, people smile less often, and have a higher threshold for smiling. This leads to situations in which people feel like they get mixed messages from their counterparts of the other culture.  And ultimately, this probably often leads to disappointment. I suppose this is quite unfortunate, but it's just a cultural difference and once understood, should make communication easier.

Just out of curiosity, would anyone smile at a stranger on the metro in France?


I only ask because in New York City, the people on the subway seem to absolutely refuse to look at another person, no matter how packed the car is. It can be almost comical. It feels almost rude, like you are violating someone's person space if you even look at them in such a small space. Is there this perceived sense of etiquette on French metros?

-- Jonn-Ross Andrews

what is the attitude of the French when stoped by someone who does not speak French who is demanding your help, time, and energy?

J'ai souvent été arrété dans la rue, principalement par des routiers étrangers mais aussi des touristes, pour me demander leur route et quand je peux les aider je le fais avec plaisir. Tout dépend aussi si l'on partage une langue ... J'ai le souvenir d'avoir été abordé par une personne d'origine hispanique qui ne parlait ni l'anglais ni le français et je fus malheureusement dans l'incapacité de l'aider !