Do better than Emily in Paris (a French person’s take)

Emily in Paris is a Netflix show that came out on October 2nd, 2020. It tells the story of a young American woman coming to France for work.

Let’s get this out of the way first: you’re allowed to like the show! If you had fun watching it, or if you personally found something valuable in the show, I think that’s great.

But personally? I don’t think it’s a good show. For me, Emily’s behavior in Paris flies in the face of everything Comme une Française stands for. She is rude, and she doesn’t make any effort to learn about French culture.

I don’t want you to be perceived that way when you visit France. So, let’s see how you could do better than Emily in Paris.

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1) Basic politeness: Bonjour

The character Emily doesn’t accept cultural differences, and the show gets a lot of jokes out of that. But often, the show doesn’t even seem aware when Emily makes a cultural misstep. And so you, the viewer, might miss some of the ways in which Emily’s behavior wouldn’t be well received in France.

You deserve to have the best experience in France, so let’s see how you should act instead — even if you don’t speak French very well!

We’ll focus on one scene in the first episode, when Emily goes to une boulangerie (= a baker’s store.)

The first joke is supposed to come from her bad pronunciation of un pain au chocolat. But that’s not the problem. At all. You’re allowed to speak French imperfectly. It’s good, because it at least shows that you tried!

No, the real misstep here is that Emily doesn’t say Bonjour (= Hello) when she enters the shop. Even after the baker greets her!

That’s very mal élevé (= rude, impolite, literally “badly raised”). You should say Bonjour whenever you enter any French small shop, like une épicerie (= a small grocery store), une librairie (= a bookstore)… or really any shop that’s smaller than a supermarket.

You can at least answer back with “Bonjour” when the shopkeeper greets you.

2) Basic Politeness: S’il vous plaît

The second misstep Emily makes is that, when asking for your pain au chocolat, you should also add s’il vous plaît. (= please.) It’s basic politeness, and it will make your stay in France that much more pleasant.

It’s very basic French! Emily probably knows these words!

Of course, once you know a bit more French, you can also go the extra mile and use a complete sentence:

  • “Je voudrais un pain au chocolat, s’il vous plaît.” = I’d like a pain au chocolat, please.
  • “Je vais vous prendre un pain au chocolat, s’il vous plaît.” = I’ll have a pain au chocolat, please.

Je voudrais / Je vais vous prendre are two everyday French structures that you can use in any small shop when asking for a product. You’ll sound polite and already quite confident in French.

On the other hand, don’t use Je veux [un pain au chocolat] = I want a pain au chocolat. It’s a bit too direct. It sounds like an order!

3) Dealing with people correcting your mistakes

The baker then corrects Emily’s pronunciation. That’s a real thing that might happen to you, too!

Most times, though, the French person would just repeat the correct pronunciation back to you, instead of explicitly teaching you where you made a mistake.

It’s true, French people love their language. So, when they hear you struggle, they want to help you get better at it. These corrections mostly come with good intentions!

But it’s also true that:

  • It’s counterproductive. You don’t need more stress when trying to speak French!
  • You can repeat the correct pronunciation back to them, and learn a bit.
  • You don’t really need constant correction. What you need is to practice, and make a lot of mistakes.

So try to not feel bad when French people correct you. Because if you associate “making mistakes” with “feeling bad,” then soon enough you’ll be afraid of speaking French!

(I know, it’s easier said than done. You can start by practicing French in a safe environment, among your peers and/or with a teacher, so you’ll fix your most common mistakes before engaging in “real” French conversations.)

Often in American media, French characters are played by non-native French-speaking actors (or plainly non-French-speaking actors) with a heavy accent. Sometimes I can’t even understand what they’re trying to say…

But in Emily in Paris, the French cast speak real, everyday spoken French. You can use those conversations to help you improve your French comprehension!

4) Basic Politeness: Ce sera tout ? Bonne journée !

Ce sera tout ? / Ça sera tout ? = Will that be all? is a real part of your interaction with a shopkeeper.

When asked this question in the bakery, Emily should have answered:

  • Oui, merci. = Yes, thank you.
  • Oui, merci, ça sera tout. = Yes thank you, that will be all.

The thing is, this is a really basic French conversation, but it’s extremely codified. Even though it’s all informal!

Some students told me that after I introduced them to these unwritten rules of spoken French, their interactions at the bakery really did flow much more naturally!

Another very common question from a baker: “Et avec ceci ?” = “And with that?” = What will you have with that?

You can answer with “Et un pain au chocolat” for example, or close the deal with your own “Ce sera tout.”

When leaving a shop, you can simply say “Merci, bonne journée.” (= Thank you, have a good day!) That’s the usual way to say goodbye to a shopkeeper.

5) On cultural differences

Once again, I’m not really interested in all the things Emily in Paris does right or wrong. But I think it can be a valuable springboard for talking about cultural misunderstandings.

Of course, Emily could have learned some French before going to Paris, but that’s not her main problem. It’s better to know just a few basic, polite words and be respectful, than to speak perfect French while still ignoring all cultural rules.

On this topic, I strongly recommend the book Cultural Misunderstandings – The French-American Experience, by Raymonde Carroll. It’s my favorite book about cultural differences between France and the English-speaking world, and I agree with basically everything she writes.

Here are some other lessons about cultural differences to get you started. You’ll learn about 6 cultural missteps you should avoid, I’ll tell you a story that happened to me about meeting new people, and you’ll even get to master the scary, heated French debates between friends.

À tout de suite !
I’ll see you in the next lesson!

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Join the conversation!

  • The movie is completely ridiculous and completely fun. But I am so glad to see Geraldine’s remarks. I wish her commentary would follow the movie.

  • Bonjour!

    C’est une polémique avec cette série de Netflix, je ne connais pas une seule personne dans l’Youtube que critique pas cette fille « Emily» .
    C’est une guerre déclarée contre Emily & Netflix, mais beaucoup des personnes que je connais dissent que les français ne sont pas sympathique avec des personne que ne parlent pas français, dans les marchés, les rues, etc.. C’est vrai que les américains ne sont pas intéressé avec autres cultures, mais il y a des exceptions bien sur. Je n’ai pas problème avec des français.

  • I do not think this is being taken too seriuosly at all. Geraldine is merely pointing out the correct greeting, how to be polite etc. Its excellent that she is taking the trouble to point out, otherwise we would have maybe Americans thinking this is OK to behave like this with grammar and pronunciation etc.

    • Exactly.

      And it’s not even for “Americans” in general – but specifically for people watching our videos. We want to help them (you) by using Emily as a springboard.

      – Arthur, writer for Comme une Française

  • Ok so don’t you see that it is SUPPOSED to be over the top and funny because IT’S A COMEDY! Even the most naiive of Americans know not to act this way. I thought it was hysterical. And if we are being honest some of the sterotypes have some truth to them. After all art imitates life. I’m sure season 2 will be about her learning more French language and culture from her new handsome French boyfriend. Sorry but you people criticizing it are taking it WAY to seriously. It’s not a documentary. 🙄

    Ok alors ne voyez-vous pas que c’est censé être exagéré et drôle parce que C’EST UNE COMÉDIE! Même les Américains les plus naïfs savent qu’il ne faut pas agir de cette façon. Je pensais que c’était hystérique. Et si nous sommes honnêtes, certains des stérotypes ont une part de vérité. Après tout, l’art imite la vie. Je suis sûr que la saison 2 portera sur son apprentissage de la langue et de la culture françaises de son nouveau beau petit ami français. Désolé, mais vous les critiquez, vous le prenez au sérieux. Ce n’est pas un documentaire. 🙄

  • Trois choses – 1) Emilie á Paris est une victime de “the wrong story at the right time.” Nous sommes tous en depression a cause de la pandemique. Les robes, le lipstick, les high-heels, les jolies scenes de paris – tous les choses pour nous revitaliser. 2) Les chichés sont un moyen de nous attraper. “Oh, I know that one!” Oui, ils sont banals, rudes et completement de la passé, comme une blague vieux racontés par un oncle cher. 3) Geraldine, votre video s’est congelé en transmission…c’est possible de compresser encore vers une taille plus petit? Merci encore pour votre conseils et vos opinions. –Elizabeth M

  • I enjoyed the series, it was so pretty and no Covid references to depress me. Remember Emily replaced a co worker at the last minute so she had no time to prepare. I think it was meant to show a young person’s naive experience through her perspective. Yes she has a lot to learn! Maybe season 2 will show that, if there is one. I enjoyed Geraldine’s dissection of the scene, BTW.

  • Oui, Geraldine, je suis tout à fait d’accord avec tous ce que vous dites, mais si vous me permettez — c’est un conte de fées! On dois le regarder pour la beauté de Paris, des vêtements, des hommes. J’adore le regarder car je ne peux pas me rendre à Paris pour le moment. Et parce que tous les acteurs ont l’air de s’éclater!

  • Je suis parfaitement d’accord avec toi. Le seul part de cette série est les jolies scènes de Paris. J’espère que j’écris les phrases sans error!

  • C’est très stéréotypique, et j’étais horrifiée par son comportement. Mais comme une américaine, je le comprends. Elle et jeune, dans un pays étranger, et elle n’a pas le moindre idée qu’elle n’est pas polie. Plus que son comportement, je trouve les vêtements d’Emily très impraticables pour Paris! Trop de couleur, trops de talons avec les pavés, etc.

  • Merci, Géraldine! J’ai détesté “Emily in Paris”! Elle n’a pas de manières. Elle est inconsciente. C’est une série très frustrante!

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