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French Hygiene and Stereotypes

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French Hygiene and Stereotypes


Hygiene in France- if there is such a thing- is somewhat different than in most parts of the planet. I am in a position where I must state that the smelly French man stereotype really did come from somewhere. It is true- French people stink.

Well, so do I.

But I am a traveler and have eight years of Road crust growing over me. I must say that my pharamoans are a little different than most.

My friends from Chile, a place where the people wash themselves almost obsessively, seem to find a little humor in the French cleaning habits.

“You can smell some of these people from five kilometers away,” she said, and continued with, “The people open their mouths to laugh and they don’t have any teeth! They just have black holes and no teeth!”

My friend then continued to tell me about a time when she went to a dentist in France and told him that she wanted her teeth cleaned. With a puzzled expression on his face, the French dentist asked her why in the world she would want her teeth to look clean.

“So they look nice,” my friend hastily replied.

The dentist then implied that it was a very vain pursuit to want to make your teeth look clean.

Simply put, the French sense of personal hygiene is pretty unique. It is at odds with many places in the world because they have the means to shower regularly and to brush their teeth, but many people simply choose not to. It is interesting, cultural, it is just the way it is, and I think that I like it. I mean, who the hell wants to spend an hour a day cleaning themselves? I don’t.

I also do not give my t-shirts the smell test here in France, as it simply does not matter. I am beginning to find a certain sensibility in France.

It is just interesting to me to travel around the world and collect various impressions of cultures and societies for the purpose of comparing them (this is all just playful speculation anyway) Every culture has aspects that stand out and make it unique. Some people call these aspects stereotypes, and pretend that they are unfounded. I do not believe this. I stand by the ascertation that stereotypes most often come from somewhere; that they are derived from reality. I think that knowing a certain culture’s tendencies is very valuable to the traveler.

So I happily acknowledge that Americans are loud, French people stink, Moroccans are dishonest, and Chinese people have a collective mind. These are oversimplifications, and when applied to individuals they are most often proved to be false. But the fact remains that these stereotypes did come from somewhere- someone simply did not make them up one day without provocation. And I find them funny to boot- most humor is found in stereotypes.

Every human on this planet comes from a culture that has a folk lexicon of how they should view the world. I found that most of the criteria of my own- as a person coming from the country side of the USA- is nonsense, and I have over-ridden much of this socialization with personal experience; but some of it does hold little anecdotes of truth.

I do not approach people through a lens of their particular stereotype, but I use the stereotype as a slight indication of the peaks and valleys of a given culture. Cultures have patterns, tendencies, and regular tidings; it is just the way that it is. Negative seeming stereotypes should be used as a warning for the traveler to consult, but not believe in. To understand a culture is to realize that it has certain tendencies that can be viewed as ungregarious. I do not believe it rude to realize that Moroccans have a habit of shortchanging customers. It is just the way that it is. I do not approach every Moroccan as if he will rip me off, but experience has taught me to count my change a little more thoroughly in Morocco.

Quickly being able to recognize particular cultural patterns enable a traveler to act with a little more assurance. For example, I know that I can sit down and eat a meal in most places in China without first asking the price, and be charged the same as a local. I would never even dream of doing this in South or Central America. Cultures simply have different ways of approaching the foreign traveler, I do not mean this to seem offensive. To have a feel for a culture’s tendencies- as stereotypical as they may seem- is to give yourself a necessary advantage while traveling.

I have watched people try to “smash” stereotypes in places such as Morocco and India, and get burned to the extent that their “open-mindedness” just lead to them unwitting reinforcing the same stereotypes that they set out to disprove. I must laugh when I see travelers trying to be friends with touts and taxi drivers, as I know how it is probably going to end.

To acknowledge a stereotype does not mean that you must believe in it.

To feel the world as it is: the beauty of traveling.

Wade from Vagabond Journey.com
Anduze, France
December 17, 2007

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Filed under: Culture and Society, Europe, France, Travel Philosophy

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 76 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to Forbes, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3048 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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Wade Shepard is currently in: Polis, Republic of CyprusMap