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French Hygiene and Stereotypes

French Hygiene and StereotypesHygiene 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 [...]

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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:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 91 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3720 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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VBJ is currently in: New York City

5 comments… add one

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  • Anonymous January 21, 2010, 2:24 pm

    I'm French and I'd like to add that too much soap, too much rubbing damages skin. That's what we're always told at primary school anyway. So yeah, we prefer smelling a little bit more than our European neighbours but WE do have better health and a lower obesity rate (varying between 9 and 11%) than the other European countries, and that's the most important thing!

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  • anonymous July 23, 2011, 8:50 pm

    My mother is from France, since I was a kid she always told me that using too much soap dries and damages the skin, and it’s better to shower in the evening so the natural oils return and the sun won’t cause damage…plus it keeps the sheets cleaner.

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  • Your Stink Is an Overabundance of Putrid Bacteria January 7, 2014, 12:55 am

    Lazy idiots protesting proper hygiene are tiresome hippies.

    Lost “natural oils,” soap harm, and all those stinky, anecdotal excuses are nonsense. In this modern age that provides countless thousands of affordable personal-hygiene solutions, it is possible to be gentle to the skin while washing, restore any depleted oils, and forgo cavities forever. There is no acceptable reason that you or the French must stink, suffer gum disease, lose teeth, etc.

    If you are capable but so f-in’ lazy that you refuse to spend a half hour a day to wash, brush your teeth, etc., then you are an undesirable pig by choice and in the smelly minority. You belong in an asylum.

    Just like science, medicine, and dentistry, the majority of civilized humans around you today has evolved.

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  • Veronica Farrelly September 15, 2020, 9:58 am

    The French habits of not-washing with soap and water on a normal basis is a European Continent tendency which leads to the current-day crisis of Corona-disease. This is what my students in Russia have concluded. Diseases spread like wildfire out of control when a society, not just France but all of Continental Europe, just has as a habit not washing their hands with soap. And rinsing. And I’ve noticed since being here that they don’t tend to use any kind of disinfectant product, be it bleach, disinfectant cleaner, anything, when they clean buildings or floors that collective people have slept on. Lack of hygiene is what’s really behind this Corona “crisis.” Any disease spreads like wildfire out of control when you as a society don’t wash your hands.

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    • VBJ September 15, 2020, 2:01 pm

      Hmm… but there are MANY cultures far less sanitary than Europeans that have had WAY less Covid. I don’t believe this is really a cause for spread as it’s mostly airborne.

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