Sunday, April 24, 2005

It's Different Here

Americans residing in France sometimes have difficulty adapting to French manners and customs.

Good sense should prevail, of course. People living here – whether European, North American or South American or Central American, Asian, African, or whatever – are expected to conform to French tradition and, more appositely, to French law. A carefully practiced Bonjour, Madame ! or Merci bien, Monsieur ! can and will go a long way to establishing an atmosphere of cooperation. A smile never hurts, either, as long as it's placed at the right moment in the conversation. However, here one shouldn't expect the same things or assume the same reactions as in the USA. On that path lies trouble.

It's different here; not necessarily better, certainly, but different. If one is planning on living, working and procreating happily in France for any length of time, a bit of self-development is required. Asking oneself "Why did this go wrong ? What did I do ? What did I not do ? What do I have to do next time to obtain the desired result ?" after an unsuccessful – or frankly disastrous - encounter with the French is always a good idea. This introspection might require unaccustomed effort on the American's part, but it will be worth it in the end.

Divergences sometimes arise in the most unexpected places. Playing on the grass in a park, for example. Parking one's vehicle on the street. Facing the tracasseries of French administrative paperwork. Trying to shop at a small shop at lunchtime. Dealing with bank tellers or postoffice personnel.

One might hear French men and women say les américains sont de grands enfants when they are exasperated with Americans, who seem in French eyes to reason like children: impulsively, with immediate personal gratification required. Americans should understand that France is a country designed by adults for adults, not for children. Here, as an adult, it is one's responsibility to make oneself aware of the relevant law or custom before one acts, not afterwards. One shouldn't expect to be told how to act, either, unless one is under 13 or over 70, when "100% adult" behavior is not necessarily possible, desirable or expected. One shouldn't plan on finding a sign or a bulletin board briefing one about how to behave. This generally holds true throughout France.

Comprehending this definition of "adult" - and accepting it by putting it into practice on a daily basis - can significantly reduce the disheartenment felt when things seem to spiral out of control and even a simple task appears to take far too much time and energy. For foreigners in France for the long term - and especially for Americans - familiarization with the French concept of adulthood is the key to a happy, productive life.


Text © Copyright 2005 by L'Amerloque


Blogger PTA Mom said...

I've had no difficulty adapting to French customs or manners ;). Seriously, there are so many small differences between the cultures it's hard to be fully prepared or to get over the fact that they just don't make common sense.. but I agree, it's best to learn from errors and adjust behaviors because it will make living in your adopted country much easier.

12:42 AM  
Blogger L'Amerloque said...

Hi Auntie !

You're absolutely right: there are (many, many) differences between the two cultures. (smile) It's very difficult to adopt one's behavior. It can be – this sounds a bit trite, I know – a daily struggle.

The trick is knowing that one's behavior just might not be the appropriate one and asking oneself before and not after the fact.

The example on your blog of the American teenager using a flash in a French museum was edifying and summarized the overall problem in a nutshell. The person didn't see a sign prohibiting a flash, and went ahead and used it. She expected to see a sign saying "NO FLASH" (I'm not addressing the language problem. (smile)) She flashed, and the museum guard started shouting. (sigh) She was behaving as she would have in the USA. Hopefully, at any rate, she learned from her experience !


4:31 AM  
Blogger Frania W. said...

Bonjour Auntie!

An American may find difficult how to act the first time invited in a French house for dinner. First of all, one never rushes in asking to go to the bathroom, as is common when arriving in an American home. However, if the French hostess has any manners - and she usually does - she will show you where the bathroom is, particularly if you have driven for a long time to get to her home & have the children with you.

A common problem may arise when the food is served and a foreigner is faced with the dilemma of which fork or knife to use! There is absolutely no problem there because, no one should start eating before the hostess does. The task is thus simple: do as she does! And if the meal takes place in a restaurant & you are faced with same dilemma, wait for your French friends to start. And NEVER reach across to get the salt or pepper shaker: ASK the person beside you to get it for you.

Another French habit attached to certain ritual: hand-shaking. The one "superior" or older always extends his/her hand first, but a man, unless he is the President of the Republic (!) never extends his hand to a woman. She extends hers first, in which case she may also get her hand kissed - very rare but possible. When two women shake hands, the older should extend her hand first.

Another interesting French twist. You see someone you know walking in the street, either coming toward you or on the opposite sidewalk. That person is an acquaintance, not a dear friend. Let's say you are a woman & the person a man. The woman chooses to acknowledge she has seen the man by a slight motion of the head. If the man is accompanied by an unidentified lady, better to pretend not having seen them.

And there is the behavior of children! Not exactly "seen but not heard" as it used to be, but very well mannered, most of the times. Notice how little you hear them talk in public transportation. They are made to speak with lowered voice from very small age. Teenagers are not as polite as they used to be. 1968 inheritance.

As for walking on the grass, L'Amerloque explained it very well. French green spaces & parks are made for everyone to enjoy visually. There are special playing places for small children, usually in neighborhood "squares" & others for rougher sports of older kids who like to play soccer. But you cannot have it all mixed up because the soccer-playing kids would wreck havock. A little old lady sitting on a bench in a park or garden does not need to be hit on the head with a football. And the grass is the grass. I have discovered that in the past few years, many forbidden grassy places have been allowed to the public. A guard in Versailles (Trianon) told me that they had to because many foreigners sat on the grass & they could not afford battling tourists who could not understand French. I had tricked a guard a long time ago; when told to get off the grass, I looked very innocent & answered back, "Sorry, I don't speak French!"

When a foreigner living in France knows how to be gracious asking questions when in doubt, he or she does not have problems with the French, even at the post office.

Then when the foreigner has learned not to make a booboo in France, he/she better learn how to handle the French who do all their funny Frenchie things, like "resquiller" in a line!

Frania W.

12:11 AM  
Blogger amyalkon said...

We could use a few more adults in America. I was just in a bookstore, the kind where people sit quietly reading, and a man found this the perfect time to answer his cell phone and begin talking loudly into it about nothing very relevant sounding. I must admit, I succumbed to the temptation, after shssshing him to no avail, to say "Sadly, you're not interesting enough to be overheard.

2:00 AM  
Blogger amyalkon said...

'scuse me, left off the final "

2:01 AM  
Blogger John Chimpo said...

bravo...well said. Malheuresment, many Americans still and always will feel the sense of entitlement that assume comes with the Nationality.

9:42 AM  
Blogger PutYourFlareOn said...

I am learning by my mistakes and remembering the lessons.

Having lived in France while in college helped a lot to prepare me for my new life here with my French husband. Also, having him too is a good example. It takes seeing an American outside of the US to notice how different we really are. Though, I wouldn't say that I am typically American having grown up in a Korean/American house, I am still shock at how American act when they are in France.

2:57 AM  

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