What a Faux Pas! Rude Americans Arrive in France

What would you do if clueless tourists made one faux pas after another?

December 31, 2008, 12:28 PM

Jan. 6, 2008— -- Ah, Paris, breathtakingly beautiful, irresistibly romantic and of course, oh so chic. And no address is more stylish than the posh hotel Plaza Athénée. It was here, in the next-to-last episode of HBO's "Sex and the City," that Carrie Bradshaw made her grand and giddy entrance.

"American?" asked the desk clerk. "New Yorker," she corrected him. And then, stepping out onto her terrace in her Manolo Blahniks, she squealed with delight at the glorious sight of the Eiffel Tower. Like a French Cinderella, she knew she had arrived.

But on this day someone else was checking in: Bonnie Jones and her husband, Bob.

"Howdy!" shouted Bob to the porter, in a Texas drawl. "Je m'appelle, Bob!" They were dressed in shorts and matching shirts marked: "Paris, Texas" and "Bush '08." Instead of Manolo Blahniks, they wore Crocs. They were loud. They were clueless. And they didn't know the difference between haute cuisine and oat bran.

They're the "ugly Americans," those famously hapless tourists adrift in a foreign culture. But in this case, they were actually actors from the United States. For the first time, "What Would You Do?" took its actors and hidden cameras overseas. We wanted to test the legend of the ugly Americans to see just how ugly American tourists have to get before the French rise up and shout "non!"

Western tourists, oblivious to French etiquette and culture, have thrived in American literature for more than a century.

In "Innocents Abroad" (1869) Mark Twain painted the ugly American as a naive, blundering fool. Novelist Edith Wharton once said, "How much longer are we going to think it necessary to be 'American' before [or in contradistinction to] being cultivated, being enlightened, being humane, and having the same intellectual discipline as other civilized countries?"

The modern version of these blundering Americans appears in David Sedaris' book "Me Talk Pretty One Day," where he describes Americans wearing "the pleated denim shorts, the baseball cap, the T-shirt..."

Fictional ugly Americans have also been immortalized in films such as "National Lampoon's European Vacation," where the Griswolds made American a synonym for hapless.

But is there any truth to the stereotype? And what about the American stereotype of the haughty Parisian who seems to relish putting outsiders in their place? For a week during the summer, "What Would You Do?" took its actors and hidden cameras to Paris in an attempt to find out.

Faux Pas No. 1: Wearing Overly Casual or Tacky Clothing

No doubt about it: Our ugly Americans stood out among the well-dressed Parisians. French etiquette expert Heather Stimmler-Hall, who moved to Paris from Colorado 13 years ago, offered her expertise as our actors invaded the city she knows so well. She writes a blog, The Secrets of Paris, and gives American tourists a course on how to behave -- the dos and don'ts.

According to Stimmler-Hall, our actors' attire was faux pas No. 1.

"You're in Paris, the fashion capital of the world, and people notice your clothes, they notice your shoes," Stimmler-Hall said. "You could be Bill Gates -- he's not going to get treated well either if he's wearing shorts and a baseball cap and a T-shirt."

The very word "faux pas" is French, Stimmler-Hall said. "They have a lot of faux pas," she said. "They're the masters of what not to do."

For their first evening in Paris, Bob and Bonnie headed to one of Paris' most popular attractions -- the world-famous Bateaux Mouche. It's a romantic dinner cruise on the Seine -- talk about a moveable feast! Everybody was dressed in their finest ensembles. Well, almost everybody. Do football jerseys count as evening wear?

If there is one word that summed up our ugly Americans, that word is "loud." Loud clothing … and loud voices.

Faux Pas No. 2: Talking Loudly

"Oh, look, we started moving!" Bonnie screamed as the bateau pushed off from the dock. As other diners gazed quietly out of the windows while they passed the Eiffel Tower, Bob shouted: "Look at that tower! It's just like the one in Vegas. No, I think the one in Vegas is bigger!"

For Jean Lacatos, Bob and Bonnie's waiter, it promised to be a long night. Would this elegant Frenchman keep his cool in the face of the Americans' incessant demands? After patiently explaining how to pronounce foie gras, Lacatos got another request from the couple. Hearing the boat's band warming up, Bob started belting out his own song: the "Star-Spangled Banner."

"Oh, say can you see by the dawn's early light…"

Lacatos was momentarily stunned. "Ah, the hymn, yes, I know," he finally said, as Bob continued to sing.

"Would you see if they know it?" asked Bob. Lacatos looked incredulous. "I don't know, I'll ask him," he said, walking away.

But the more outrageous and extroverted the couple behaved, the more everyone, even the Parisians, seemed to love Bob and Bonnie. Where were the haughty French we expected? Not on this boat, it seemed.

Bob and Bonnie mugged for snapshots, shouted "George Bush!" at passing boats and bragged about the United States. "You've got to come," boasted Bob. "It's so much prettier!"

Some of the other diners were quite friendly. Several of them even joined Bob and Bonnie in group photos and toasted their champagne glasses as they sailed down the Seine.

At the end of the ride, "What Would You Do?" anchor John Quinones caught up with Lacatos to see what he really thought of the couple. Surprisingly, Lacatos said that the actors did not bother him. In fact, he said it's the French who are often the most difficult diners.

"Are [Americans] too demanding sometimes?" Quinones asked.

"No, not at all, very nice," he said in French.

Faux Pas No. 3: Ordering the Steak Tartare … Cooked

But what would happen if Bob and Bonnie invaded one of the most charming, picturesque restaurants in all of Paris? They were about to make an unforgettable impression.

The next stop: Brasserie de l'Ile Saint-Louis, a charming, quaint cafe perched on an island in the Seine River, a short stroll from Notre Dame. This sleepy French café was about to get a wake-up call.

Bob and Bonnie hadn't even sat down, but one Frenchwoman spotted them right away, and made a face not to be forgotten. If looks could kill, this woman would be lethal.

"You got beer here?" Bob asked loudly. "Two beers, big ones! I don't know why they don't have red, white and blue Budweiser."

She continued eyeing the actors, staring in horror at their plastic Croc sandals.

"You got English menus?" Bob said as she looked on. "Yeah, no French crap."

"We don't speak no French," Bonnie chimed in.

For more than 20 minutes, Parisian Giane Noutardier never said a word. But her looks spoke volumes.

Faux Pas No. 4: Referring to Your Waiter as Garçon

Signaling the waiter, Bob began shouting, "Garçon, garçon!"

Etiquette expert Stimmler-Hall explained. "You're basically saying 'boy,' which probably came from back in the days when he was actually your servant. Your food will come out with a fly in it if you do that."

But of course, this waiter had no idea that hidden cameras were rolling. Or that worse behavior was still to come.

It was time to order from the menu, and to ratchet things up. So Bob and Bonnie called the waiter over and placed their order: the steak tartare … cooked.

For one young Frenchman at the next table, it was just too much. He couldn't bear to look and covered his eyes.

At another table, one woman was not at all amused by Bob and Bonnie's T-shirts marked "Bush '08." She turned out to be German. "It's as if I had a T-shirt that said 'Hitler'!" she complained to a friend. Another young Frenchman remarked, "[Americans are] the center of the world. But they are idiots!"

It was time for the check. And just when it seemed that no one would directly confront the couple, a woman approached Bonnie and leaned in close.

"You're traveling, you're abroad, you're a guest in this country," she scolded. "Behave yourself!" She stormed off, but a few moments later, she was back.

"Go back! Go home!" she shouted at Bob and Bonnie.

It was exactly the kind of reaction we were expecting from those famously feisty French. However, when we caught up with her, we were surprised. Though she refused to be identified, it turned out that she was actually an American tourist.

So where were all of those rude French we had heard about, the ones who love to put tourists in their place? We had one final stop to make in one of Paris' oldest cobblestone neighborhoods. Chez Janou, a bistro so quintessentially French that only locals know about it. Tourists hardly ever venture there. But guess who was coming to lunch? That's right, Bob and Bonnie Jones.

Would the French finally rise up and tell our them to go home? There were plenty of surprise twists still to come in this Paris experiment.

To find out what happens, click HERE to watch the last act of the episode that aired on "What Would You Do?" And for more information on avoiding faux pas when traveling to Paris, check out The Secrets of Paris, a blog by etiquette expert Heather Stimmler-Hall.

About the authors: Chris Whipple is senior producer of "What Would You Do?" and Anna Norman is a production associate.