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How to Fit in With the French Culture

Preparing yourself culture-wise is one of the most important steps for studying abroad. Being aware of the cultural differences and customs will help you transition better and faster into your new life in France. Whether you’re at school, trying to make French friends or simply exploring your new surroundings, knowing and practicing the below customs will help you in all social situations with the French.

Parlez-vous Français?

Speaking French on some level is a must. Contrary to popular belief, the average French person does not speak fluent English. They may know some English curse words and a few key phrases learned from American movies and music but not much more. Any attempt to speak French will be greatly appreciated, even if not always understood. The most important thing to know is that French is a language with formalities and using the wrong “you” form could offend someone. If they are older than you/ your professor or you do not know them- use vous. If they’re a child or your classmate- use tu.

Learn a bit of French before you go with an app like DuoLingo, or if you’ll be in France for a while, consider investing in a learn-at-home program like Rosetta Stone.

Where are Your Manners?

French culture is also formal. Stopping someone on the street to ask for directions, time, etc. without excusing yourself and apologizing for bothering them first is considered rude. If you get lost, I recommend using a Metro station map or going into a store, as this is more acceptable situation to ask someone for help. Interacting with strangers for no reason is also a no-no. For example, I once said a vos souhaits (the French version of God Bless You) to a woman who sneezed next to me on the street and she looked at me liked I had slapped her! But holding the door for the person behind is still appreciated and expected.

 

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Greetings and Salutations

In France, greetings, both in person and virtually, are essential. It’s considered rude to just get down to business without saying hello, asking the person how they are doing, and asking them if they are available. If you don’t know the person, the second part of your greeting should be a minor introduction (meaning your name and your affiliation with them). This goes for all personal and business relationships. A small bonjour and introduction can go a long way!

Kiss Me, You Fool

The French are not big huggers. What they do instead is the tradition of les bises— the planting of a kiss on both cheeks. There are three versions of les bises:
1. Using your lips to plant an actual kiss on each side of the cheek
2. Merely brushing your cheek against the cheek of the other person
3. Just doing the motion but no actual skin to skin contact. This is a standard greeting amongst all ages and is typically seen woman to woman and man to woman. It can sometimes even be done by two men, so no need to get freaked out if this happens!

 

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Turn Down the Volume

The French aren’t loud speakers. As Americans, we’re usually boisterous and loud. This is a trait that will make you stick out and be a target to panhandlers, gypsies, and theives. For your time in France, turn down your speaking volume to avoid attracting unwanted attention or making someone think you’re yelling at them. And when we aren’t being loud, Americans will use a lot of gestures in their communication, so be sure to turn down the “volume” on gestures as well, and you’ll fit in just fine.

 

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Fashion Forward

The French aren’t outrageous dressers. If you have a strong fashion sense (ex: punk, hip hop, club, retro or simply love bold/bright colors and crazy prints) it will need to be toned down a bit while you’re abroad in France. The French dress “simple chic”. They always look great, but never over the top, with muted colors and simple silhouettes. Go for that quintessential French look– just forget the beret…

If you’re still struggling, here’s an article on WhoWhatWear on how to dress like a French girl.

Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder

Just like the way they dress, the French also have a simple and elegant outlook on beauty. Things like Mohawks and extreme hair color will get you some strange looks and not many friends. If you color your hair, bring it from home or be prepared to have to get it re-colored at a salon. It would be best to just not wear the Mohawk and get rid of the pink highlights for your time in France. Use Catherine Deneuve and Marion Cotillard as your beauty inspiration while you’re abroad.

The Art of Eating

The French dine, Americans eat. Americans are used to eating on the go and not sitting down to enjoy each meal. The French live for food (you will find out why- everything is so good!) and to fit in, don’t skip meals or skimp on enjoying your food. Sit down and enjoy!

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Photo sources: Pixabay, Jessica Dante, Jessica Dante, Fashionology


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Andrea was a French major at Rutgers University from where she graduated in 2009. She studied at the Université de Paris IV, Paris- Sorbonne from 2007-2008. Andrea is also the author of E-book Twenty in Paris which details the experience of studying abroad in Paris, France from start to finish.


5 thoughts on “How to Fit in With the French Culture

  1. Rosemary

    Bon Jour, I studied abroad in Spain during college and speak Spanish. Now I travel to Paris for work and am studying French, but I end up spending my free day in Paris with colleagues who do not speak French and would prefer to immerse myself around French speakers to improve my language skills. Is there a one day activity or course you recommend? (I would be happy to blog how it goes…) Merci, Rosemary

    Reply
  2. Andrea Bouchaud

    Bonjour Rosemary,

    I’m so sorry for the late response- this response went into my spam box. First of all, congrats on your job in Paris! Improving your French skills will not only help you at work but will also help you to make friends and travel throughout the city. To improve your language, I recommend taking courses at Alliance Française, an organization where typically native Francophones teach non-native French speakers at all levels of French. There is one in Paris- here is their website http://www.alliancefr.org/en. In terms of activities, it depends on what your area of interest is- when I was in Paris I bought a book at the post office about every museum and park (small and large) in Paris. You could see if something like this is offered and look to visit museums that are of interest to you (ex: music or nature). Do you have a hobby (ex: running/ photography)? Try meeting with like minded Parisians by visiting this site http://paris.meetup.com/ – you should be able to find a group for a number of interests. Don’t see the one you like? Start one! These meetups are usually once a week or sometimes once a month so you can try to schedule around your work schedule. And don’t forget about your colleagues- invite them to an activity or a lunch (always a popular one) to try to get to know them better. Bonne chance!

    Reply
  3. Di

    Thank you for taking the time out to put this piece together. My daughter and I are unsuccessfully trying to learn French before our trip this summer. I have purchased numerous books and audio guides, but it’s a very difficult language to learn. I currently and fluent/conversational in 4 languages, but cannot wrap my head around french. If you have a list of common key phrases I could learn and build conversation off of, I would greatly appreciate it. PS- Wish I had read this earlier, we used to live right around the corner from Rutgers!

    Reply
  4. Agathe

    That’s true! No French speaks English! And I am serious! Aha

    I am French and I was curious to know how american see us…I am now living in NYC so …

    That’s really cool that you like our culture !

    Oh and btw we are not well dressed everday 😉

    Reply

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