Foreigner Alert: Avoiding Les Faux Pas in France
This guest blog was written by Michigan native Megan Carter.
While studying abroad in France, I’ve learned a lot both inside and outside the classroom. They say that making mistakes is the best way to learn, and I have certainly made many of those. Over the course of the year, I’ve unintentionally implied I was a prostitute, called men “animals,” and told my host mother that I was a pregnant animal—all during simple dinner conversations. I have tried to bike on the sidewalk (illegal) and failed miserably at getting any sort of business done over the lunch hour (impossible), things that are completely normal chez moi.
Rather than storing up these cross-cultural lessons in my personal memory bank, I’d like to share them with the rest of you, hoping to save you some awkward moments. The following are tips for behaving in French streets, stores, and restaurants.
How to behave in the street
Before coming to France, I had heard that the French don’t smile at passersby in the street, but of course this piece of information escaped me in my jet-lagged state as I left my new apartment to go explore the neighborhood for the first time. I was reminded in the first few blocks after my friendly smiles and Bonjours received a mixture of averted gazes, hesitant smiles, and concerned looks.
While here, I have heard of two exceptions to this rule:
1) if you live in a small town, similar to in the U.S., people are friendlier and more familiar on the streets and
2) if you are looking for something a little more, ummm, shall we say intimate, than a simple hello.
It’s not that the French don’t smile; they smile when they have a good reason. As opposed to us Americans who smile all the time for almost any reason, smiling for no reason is considered disingenuous, fake, or a sign of mental instability. (Cultural differences in what constitutes a good reason are a completely different story, which I still don’t completely understand.)
How to behave in the store
While Americans should say less than “normal” to the average French person on the street, it is actually good manners to say a little more when entering an establishment such as a store. The first thing to do upon entering a store is to say Bonjour (or Bonsoir if it happens to be evening) to the associate who greets you; sometimes you greet the other customers if it is a small place. The same rule applies when leaving, even if you haven’t purchased anything; saying thank you, good day, or goodbye is considered polite.
The same is true in venues other than stores, including laundromats, waiting rooms (isn’t that a HIPA violation back home?), and other places where it still catches me by surprise. Expats and tourists get bonus points for learning hello, good bye, please, thank you, and numbers 1-10 in French; it can really come in handy and will be much appreciated!
How to behave in a restaurant
One of the first lessons that I learned when I came to France was that it is polite to eat with both hands on the table, usually with a knife in one hand and a fork in the other. If you eat with one hand in your lap, as my mother had trained me well to do, they may wonder what’s going on down there!
The second lesson was that the French savor eating and mealtimes. You might spend hours—or what seems like hours—at a formal dinner, or waiting for the waiter to bring the check. Really, they’re not trying to be rude; they’re letting you enjoy yourself, your food, and the company. You might as well take your time anyway because many places (like banks, offices, and many tourist attractions) won’t be open during lunchtime. For other mealtime dilemmas (Do I eat the rind of the cheese or not? Should I put my bread on the table? Etc.), I would say watch your host and do as the French do!
At end of the day, I have found the French to be similar in many ways to Americans. Some French people are friendlier than others, some are more or less outgoing, just like Americans, and I’ve generally found we have something in common. They do have an amazingly rich history, culture, and geography, which in my opinion make it definitely worth a visit. Be ready to adapt, learn, and not judge, and have a Bon Voyage!
Megan Carter is an undergraduate student at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, MI. An Advertising and French major, she has spent the past two semesters in France studying French and international communications.
All photos via fotolia.com