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People-watching in France – offensive or respectful?

A man sitting on a windowsill watching people in the streets
An outdoor french cafe with green and white umbrellas

One bit of culture that is unique to France is their people-watching culture, and they are serious about it. 

Up and down the streets of Aix-en-Provence, France, you can find cafes with outdoor seating and people chatting at all hours of the day. All of these people have one thing in common – their chairs are rotated to look at the rest of the street and watch the people go by. As a tourist, this comes off as a little bit nosy and aggressive, but when you dig deeper, it may actually be well-intentioned.

France has a rich history of having communal cities. Businesses are on the bottom floor of every building, and residences are right on top. This creates a close-knit group of people who live in a condensed space. The French are also very elegant and distinctive in their style of clothing, and never leave the house in a bad outfit. The combination of these factors made cities into a runway for fashion – personality could be expressed, and wealth could be shown at all times through an outfit.

So why the people-watching? Historically, the people of Aix-en-Provence likely had their chairs rotated at the café to respect and take note of their peers’ outfits. The world is much more interconnected today, and Aix-en-Provence has over 150,000 people, so it may not be as tight-knit as it used to be, but that has not stopped people from looking at each other. The people in France don’t hate you, and they aren’t judging you either – they are only curious about your actions and your outfits as it has been ingrained in them for hundreds of years.

An outsidefrench cafe filled with customers with a red umbrella
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Barcelona Experience II

Mateo Moyon (Information Science), Elisabeth Overton (Public Relations), Catherine Johnson (Mass Communications), Ellie Phelps (Mass Communications)

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