Adjusting to the French culture
Beyond the useful pointers on what to keep in mind when moving abroad, it is helpful to have some knowledge of the new culture, language, forms of communication and customs. The following explanation of French values and customs will therefore help you better understand their culture.
Tips on understanding French culture from our international students and scholars
Greeting French people in France is a complicated matter. When you meet someone, you have three options: shake hands, faire la bise (kiss on the cheek), or simply say Bonjour. If you are staying in France for a longer period of time, you will most likely end up having to faire la bise. Cheek kissing is a very common ritual to say hello or goodbye in France, between men and women, between women, and occasionally between men. The most common practice is two kisses, one on each cheek, but the region will determine how many kisses to administer. It is done to show affection, friendship or even respect. However, please note that the way the French greet each other changes according to the context: if you are a man or a woman, if the person is a co-worker or a manager, if you are at work or at a friend’s house... In France, people have the tendency to shake hands in a formal context, such as at the office, whereas it’s more common to faire la bise upon greeting acquaintances and strangers in an informal setting. And remember that hugging is only an option with very close friends and family: most people will feel uncomfortable if you try to hug them. It’s considered too intimate.
Say pardon if you bump into someone, use the conditional in French “je voudrais” (I would like) instead of “je veux” (I want), avoid touching the person you are talking to, don’t talk too loud, don’t ask someone their age, open a present in front of the giver, say merci (thank you), say comment instead of quoi when you don’t understand what has been said to you, etc. The French believe that politeness is one of the most important values that needs to be maintained. The word Bonjour is the keystone to politeness in France. In saying it you are acknowledging the other person as an equal, a person deserving of respect. For example, entering a shop and not saying Bonjour is seen as ill-mannered.
French communication style can be very direct, honest, and frank because people are not afraid to share their opinions. They value wit and provocative humour, which can be misunderstood by foreigners. However, the French communication style can simultaneously be very indirect, implicit and difficult to interpret, leading to ambiguity. Reading between the lines is often necessary to find the full message. The lack of clarity can confuse foreigners, especially in a work environment, as they experience it as a lack of concrete information. Moreover, the French favour a neutral, serious and guarded behaviour in a formal setting and disregard unpredictable and reckless behaviour.
In France both business and political life are characterised by a fairly strong hierarchical structure compared to fellow European countries and the Anglo-Saxon world. Remember that these are generalisations, sometimes this will be relevant, and sometimes it will not. However, it will help you better understand that French culture has a strong inherent sense of hierarchy. This influences social relations, the relationship between managers and subordinates and the use of vous. Try to observe people’s behaviour to find the appropriate conduct.
The words tu and vous both mean you. In French, which word you is used depends on the person being spoken or written to. The words tu and vous determine how interpersonal relationships are constructed in France: tu expresses familiarity and solidarity, and can be used between teen agers and colleagues of the same hierarchical level. Similarly, vous is a pronoun of politeness and formality that expresses social distance and respect, and it may also be used to express superiority. It can be difficult even to the French to determine which form of address should be used. Start by using vous to avoid being seen as ill-mannered. Changing from vous to tu is considered as a transition to a whole new relationship. The Los Angeles times published an amusing chart explaining the use of vous and tu.
In France, talking about your earnings and money is taboo, and is even considered as improper. It is considered rude to ask someone’s salary. Moreover, the French disapprove visible symbols of wealth, high class people will more likely talk about their culture and their higher education diplomas instead.
In France, debating and talking about ideas is considered as a way of life. The French are ready to debate about any topic, such as current affairs, society and politics. A meeting, including at work, is held to debate and discuss issues, not to make decisions. The French will prefer the ability to demonstrate their intellectual faculties and this will mean discussing polar views, convincing, explaining and justifying ideas.
The French are very rigorous with their orthographe (spelling), considered as part of their cultural identity. Try to speak French when you meet people and learn some important French words that would come useful during your stay in France. Moreover, good spelling is a key factor in selection.
Liberté, égalité, fraternité (French for "liberty, equality, fraternity") is the national motto of France and a heritage of the Enlightenment. It is the pillar of the French Republic. The motto finds its origins in the French Revolution of 1789 and is incorporated into the 1958 French constitution.
The value of liberty covers many areas, such as freedom of speech and freedom of thought. Equality is defined in terms of judicial equality, where all citizens are equal in the eyes of law. Furthermore, it is guaranteed by universal suffrage. Fraternity implies solidarity between citizens.
The French constitution’s first article defines France as an indivisible, secular, democratic and social Republic. These essential principles of the French Republic are the basis of the French current values and society.
The following National symbols of France have historic roots in the French Revolution:
These symbols are used during official ceremonies or sport events. You can see them on the façade of many government buildings to remind people of the French Republican values and principles.
France Terre d’asile has created a free training program (MOOC) for foreigners to understand the French Republic and its values. Click here to access the training program.
Expatriation and moving abroad is a valuable and rewarding experience. However, adjusting to a new culture can cause stress and be more challenging than expected. Culture shock is described as a set of emotions, such as anxiety and confusion, felt when people have to operate within an entirely different cultural environment. It can be triggered by the loss of stable landmarks and familiar symbols when engaging in new social interactions. Preparation is key, regardless of your country of origin.
The phases of culture shock
There are usually three phases in a culture shock:
Phase 1 - The Honeymoon: During this initial period you may feel excited and exhilarated. It’s an overwhelmingly positive stage.
Phase 2 - The Rejection: The novelty of the initial period wears off after a couple of weeks or months. You start noticing the differences between your home and host culture: language, behaviour, ideologies, attitudes… You may start feeling the symptoms of culture shock: frustration, anger, anxiety… You may start feeling highly critical of the life in France.
Phase 3 - The Recovery: If you get over the crisis phase and as time passes, you will be able to enjoy your new surroundings and culture, especially by making new friends, making local customs part of your daily life and accepting cultural differences. You may regain your self-confidence.
Prevent culture shock
There are ways to diminish feelings of culture shock and to fully enjoy your experience.
1. Learn as much as you can about France before your departure, from its daily life, traditions, customs, protocol, manners to climate/temperature, political system, values and religion. The more you know, the faster you’ll adjust.
2. Prepare mentally. Try to understand what is happening and realize that these reactions are very common: everyone experiences fatigue, stress and anxiety differently. These symptoms can be associated to a vast array of other unclear reactions. Recognising these symptoms may help you alleviate stress, give yourself time and work out a strategy for the upcoming months. Try to cultivate cultural empathy and an open mind and imagine how your life in France will be. You can also analyse your own home culture in order to have a more objective outlook when dealing with new situations.
Deal with culture shock
Your reaction to culture shock will depend on the success of your integration. Try to avoid criticising and try to keep an open mind. Reach out to friends and others instead of withdrawing without retreating into a “clique”, take your time to observe, listen and ask questions from your surroundings. Accept the differences and misunderstandings: it is natural to have preconceived ideas and beliefs that come into question while abroad. Get out and discover the French culture and attractions: watching French films and taking part in cultural events (museums, galleries) may also be helpful.
Sooner or later you will notice a sense of personal growth for having overcome culture shock: this will lead to greater self-awareness and understanding of your own culture. The adjustment is a constructive reaction to change and will help you develop cultural intelligence, a term used to describe the ability to function more effectively in different cultural contexts.