Ways to Cut Culture Shock and Charm the French

by Matt Gulizia, ISA France Site Specialist

No matter where you choose to travel, running into cultural roadblocks is an inevitable occurrence.  Many people hold stereotypes of the French as snooty, formal, and even rude, but these can often be chalked up to a clash between two quite contrasting cultures.  While this article does not promise a complete absence of culture shock or uncomfortable run-ins with locals, it does provide some helpful tools for winning over the French and acclimating to the culture more readily.  The following are some simple cultural distinctions to make when planning to study in France:

Politesse

The French adhere to a traditional standard of etiquette or “politesse” that has withstood the test of time.  Demonstrating a knowledge of French culture, history, and politics is an easy way to charm any French citizen, as it shows an eagerness to understand their point of view rather than emitting an air of ethnocentrism.  This goes hand in hand with the linguistic element of French culture; speaking even a few simple words and phrases of French is a tried and true way of showing an earnestness to identify with the culture.  The French take great pride in their language, and they have even established an organization called the “Académie Française” meant to preserve it.  Therefore, attempting to speak even a few words or phrases of French is viewed as extending the proverbial olive branch.  While speaking with locals, it is important to remember to use “vous” (the formal version of “you”) with anyone even slightly older than you until they say “tu peux me tutoyer” (meaning, “you can address me informally”).  While the younger generations seem to care less and less about this formality, it is always best to start off on the right foot by using “vous”.

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In addition, one of the most effective rules of etiquette in France is to always say “bonjour”, “bonsoir”, or “au revoir” followed by “monsieur” or “madame” to the shopkeeper when entering and exiting any establishment (including restaurants, bars, boutiques, boulangeries/pâtisseries, etc.).  While we may be used to slipping quietly into these places in the U.S., it is considered quite a faux pas to attempt to do so in France.  This small gesture promotes understanding and indicates a certain level of respect for the person whose shop you have chosen to enter.

Greetings

Greeting people in France using “la bise” (light kissing of the cheeks) can be an anxiety-inducing endeavor at first, but in reality, it can be a fun and simple way to instantly feel warmth toward a new acquaintance! “La bise” is actually more of a brushing of cheeks with a kissing sound, shared among companions both old and new.  Women will “faire la bise” with men and women alike, while men will typically only do so with women and close male friends (choosing instead to shake hands with new male acquaintances).  The number of pecks and the cheek on which to start varies regionally; in central France, the norm is typically 2 pecks (here’s looking at you, ISA Paris students), in parts of northern France, the norm is often 4 pecks (hey, ISA Lille students), and in many parts of southern France, it is standard to peck three times.  When in doubt, it is best to brush right cheek to right cheek first and then to alternate for each kiss.  The most important thing to remember about this traditional French greeting is not to stress over it! La bise is meant to be a lighthearted social greeting, and the French are understanding and adept at greeting foreigners in this way.

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Food and Dining

Gastronomy is one of the greatest passions of the French, and food is often prepared with the freshest/best ingredients according to careful preparations.  Mealtimes are experiences that should never be rushed; instead, food is to be savored and lingered over, and good conversation/company should be greatly enjoyed.  Dining together as a family is widely practiced throughout France, and most French families would not eat alone, while on the run, or in front of a “screen”, as we may be accustomed to doing in the States.

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Meals in France tend to follow a similar pattern from day-to-day, with breakfast being quite light (the French typically eat a tartine or baguette with jam or nutella for breakfast).  It is the norm to eat something light and sweet for breakfast, which can be a difficult prospect for many bacon and egg eaters in the States to grasp.  Lunch is the biggest meal of the day (especially on the weekends), involving an entrée (meaning “starter”), a main course, a cheese course, and a dessert.  The French eat a smaller dinner, usually later in the evening (around 8pm), but they like to enjoy a “goûter” (mid-afternoon snack) around 4 or 5pm. The goûter is a social and indulgent break in the day and usually involves something “bready” to get through the mid-afternoon slump.  My host family often served madeleines (seashell-shaped sponge cakes) or bread with chocolate for the goûter.

Table manners are a bit different from what we are used to in the States, and one notable contrast is that the fork should always be held in the left hand and the knife in the right hand while eating.  Eating does not commence until everyone at the table has their meals in front of them and the host/hostess has indicated that everyone can begin.  Crossing the knife and fork across the plate signifies wanting more food, while placing them side by side on the plate at the 5:35 position indicates being finished.  Elbows should never be on the table, though hands should be visible rather than in the lap.  Bread rests on the tablecloth or on its own plate and is torn apart piece by piece (rather than cut or bitten into as a whole).  It is best to finish everything on the plate to indicate that the meal was well appreciated.  Having a firm understanding of some of these elements of dining shows respect for your host and creates an instant air of collegiality and appreciation.

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Activism and Directness

The French are well-known for being quite passionate about their beliefs and their desire to maintain their rights and ways of living.  One will not find a great deal of apathy among the French, which adds to the charm of being in this fascinating country.  The French are taught from an early age to question everything, and they believe in striving to enact change quickly for the betterment of their communities.  For this reason, visitors and students in France will often see “manifestations” (strikes) occurring throughout the country, causing transportation disruptions and/or disruptions in public spaces.  This is a common practice which should certainly be expected when planning to spend any length of time in the country.

Finally, it is important to note that the French are often more direct than Americans when it comes to virtually any subject, and this can sometimes lead to misunderstandings.  The French value honesty and directness over “saving face”, and they enjoy intellectual banter and even enthusiastic argument.  There is usually no malice behind this, and they simply like to provoke thought and stimulating conversation in their day to day interactions.  With that being said, there is a notable difference between “directness” and “explicitness”.  The French may view Americans as overly open, loud, and boisterous in public spaces.  A great way to assimilate into French culture is to be passionate and direct in a relatively subtle way.  Being conscious of your host culture, its inhabitants, and the changing environment around you is a sure-fire way to woo the locals.

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