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France and the French

Cultural Preconception

“If you reject the food, ignore the customs, fear the religion and avoid the people, you might better stay at home.”
– James A. Michener –

A lesson in Cartesian Logic

Cogito ergo sum, i.e., “I think, therefore I am”…French. Blame it on René Descartes and his philosophic treastise outlining what is known today as Cartesian Logic, but myths, urban legends and stereotypes about the French abound. Arrogant, rude, impatient, individualistic – four adjectives often used by other cultures to describe the French. As always, these kinds of judgements are a matter of opinion and filtered through one’s own views and preconceptions. Each one of these impressions can be traced to the behavioural psyche and history of this great people. For those people the French lump together and call Anglo-Saxons, it will help make your trip more enjoyable to understand these cultural taglines. Here we offer a personal American-British view for your review and links for those who want more information on the subject.

Relationships - Public vs. Private : Dogs vs. Cats

The French are private people and have different rules of behaviour for people within their social circle and those who are not, which are very different from Anglo-Saxon behaviour, in particular Americans. While the French are generally polite in all dealings, they tend to be extremely discrete with strangers as it is only with their close friends and family that the French are free to be themselves.

Anglo-Saxons and the French do not share the same concept of verbal exchange. When there is no relationship between others, the French “will recreate distance with silence, the American with conversation…” as one eminent source has explained. The reason for this is that the French perceive silence as neutral whereas most Anglo-Saxons perceive it as at best unpleasant and at worst intimidating. This simple fact sets the stage for huge cultural misunderstandings between the two.

An analogy I like to use is if you think of the French as being similar in temperment to cats and then Anglo-Saxons (except for the English) tend to be more like dogs.  Dogs are trusting and friendly until the other proves unworthy while cats are guarded and will only warm to the other when they feel like it and this may be never!

Arrogant or simply self-assured: For North Americans and indeed most Anglo-Saxons, acceptance and graciousness towards others is usually the first rule of the day. To the French, however knowledge is power and even if they don’t really know something, they will rarely admit it. This cultural trait translates into having an opinion about everything and no hesitation in pronouncing it or contradicting you. For Anglo-Saxons, this type of behaviour can be perceived as arrogant; however, don’t be offended, as it is just their desire to “create a discussion” with others. Sometimes, you will find French people passionately debating an opinion they do not believe in just to open a contradictory view to a conversation. This form of playful debate isn’t unheard of in the Anglo-Saxon world either and indeed both have a similar term for it. In France it is called “se faire l’avocat du diable”, i.e. “to make oneself the lawyer of devil, similar to the English phrase “to play the devil’s advocate”. Thanks to the intense cultural influence of the philosoper René Descartes, who promoted the systematic thesis and anti-thesis approaches for maintaining total objectivity on the path to scientific knowledge, the French are educated to reveal and amplify contradiction in anything and everything. So considering this as a simple rhetorical game will allow you to see it in context and you might even be able to enter the fray without getting bruised.

Rude or just direct: The French are among the friendliest and most helpful people and yet this trait is the most widely held one worldwide about them. Understanding where tactful diplomacy tends to be the first approach by an American or a Brit with most anyone, stereotypically for the French, American politeness or “niceness” is naïve or misplaced and British “diplomacy” translates to beating around the bush and obfuscation. They view themselves however as honest and frank. The only people who are rude for the French are paradoxically, Parisians. Do not be put off by the typical first response to your request, which is always – Non! French rudeness is like a game and Non is more of a rhetorical statement. View it as an opening foray meaning “convince me that you have a good reason for your request and I’ll consider it” and your life will become easier.

Impatient or merely intense: An extremely visible characteristic, the French can be quite abrupt and peremptory, cutting each other, and you, off if you are just a nanosecond too slow off the mark. Not unlike America, meetings take on Kafkaesque proportions as most often everyone talks at once and over each other. Understanding however that for the French, meetings are not meant for decision taking but making sure your opinion is voiced, even if it wasn’t heard, is key to stress reduction! Impatience is a general way of life, with once again, Parisians leading the pack. (An exception to this behaviour we can confirm, is anything having to do with eating, where most everyone’s patience abounds.) A word of caution here: beware of displaying your own impatience unless you have a very good command of the French language. Your moment of piqué will be at best spurned by indifference and at worst, be greeted with genuine hostile behaviour.

Individualism: Here you will observe a major difference between Anglo-Saxon and French cultural behaviour. In general for North Americans, the British, Australians and New Zealanders, teamwork is not only a skill but an innate way of behaving with others. For the French, individualism is far more important. Of the three guiding principles of France: liberté, égalité, fraternité, liberté is by far the most important. To the Anglo-Saxon, this is perceived as a general disrespect for authority, which can and does degenerate into total anarchy (experience une grève to see this at its best). It can be best summed up in the statement ‘rules are for everyone else’ and is known as the famous ‘exception française’. Unfortunately, even though customers provide one with one’s livelihood, in general they are perceived as a form of authority, and as such, treated like all other things that infringe on ones freedom (see Rudeness).

Personal Interaction

To Speak or not to Speak: When visiting rural areas or smaller cities, speaking basic French is crucial. Few people in the country speak English and consider it as discourteous to be addressed in English, so if you do not speak French, apologizing for your lack of knowledge will smooth communication. A simple phrase such as: Je suis désole, je ne parle pas français. (pronounced ZHUH zwee DAY soulay, ZJUH nuh pahrl PAS fronsay) or Bonjour! Parlez-vous anglais? (pronounced bon-jouh, pah-lay VOOZ ahn-GLAY) will generally assist in win paving a way to communication.

Be sensitive to the volume of your voice. Americans generally have much louder voices and strident laughter, which is noticeable and perceived as rude in both France and the United Kingdom.

The Art of Conversation: The French value the art of conversation and often protest that North Americans lecture rather than converse. They will seem very direct and brusque in the way in which they speak. Yet while the French value their privacy and their belief that they can converse on any topic, they routinely ask seemingly personal questions or make generalized unworldly comments.

Since the culture is a combination of the logical North and the passionate South, they are often able to process and explain their points quite logically, however when an issue arises of which they are passionate about, they can be highly dramatic. Argument and debate, as we have already noted, are seen as a form of entertainment, as well as a proof of conviction, so do not be surprised when you see them frequently interrupt each other (a similarity to North Americans, but conversely not to the British), nor when things heat up and appear to be boiling over.

Good topics of discussion are seemingly quite opposite those of most Anglo-Saxon countries, with politics, issues of controversy and anything that results in a good debate being foremost; however, current events, sports, the arts and food are always acceptable and less threatening. Bad topics of discussion would be the common American question of “what do you do?” which is considered rude and too personal and commenting on specific “French” things unless you are an expert on the topic.

The French as a rule prefer intelligent and satirical wit. Funny stories of real life situations are appreciated.

Body Language

The French tend to be very direct in the way that they speak. They have relatively little reserve in showing emotion, and will often articulate and accompany their speech with large gesticulations. In some cases, especially when engaged in discussion or debate, this spirited emotiveness may come across as insistent or slightly aggressive, but usually is not meant as such at all.

Eye contact is important and is frequent and intense, which can often be intimidating to North Americans; however try and maintain it when in a conversation or being introduced to a French person as it is polite and shows you are interested in the person.

Smiling is not the default behaviour in France as it is in most Anglo-Saxon cultures. Until you are formally introduced, you remain an unknown. “To the French, indiscriminate smiling at people…is the worst sort of hypocrisy” per Donald Carroll, so do not expect this form of “tail wagging” as you will generally encounter the impassive stare.

Meeting Etiquette

In general when meeting someone new, the French prefer to be introduced to strangers, particularly by someone they know. You are expected to say bonjour or bonsoir (good morning and good evening) with the honorific title Monsieur or Madame when entering a shop and au revoir (good-bye) when leaving.

First names are reserved for family and close friends. Wait until invited before using someone’s first name. The handshake is a common form of greeting. As to kissing or faire le bise, friends may greet each other by lightly kissing on the cheeks, once on the left cheek and once on the right cheek. Following the lead of the other person to avoid embarrassing situations is always best but it doesn’t always eliminate them.

Waiting in Lines/Queues

In general the French are not known for observing the Anglo-Saxon custom of waiting their turn in a line/queue. Line jumping is an art form they have perfected. However, if someone complains, they generally will refrain from insisting on doing it.

Reading and links for more information: