Art & Culture

Published on September 14th, 2014 | by Rebekka Laird

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Some Culture Differences Between France and the United States

Americans: whether you have yet to visit France or consider yourself an honorary citizen, there is a time of cultural adaptation for everyone. I am an American who first came to Paris over a year ago and continued to be surprised by differences in the way things work. While the following list may include culture “shocks” or simply pleasant discoveries to you, there is sure to be something familiar.

La bise en France. Photo by Alliance Française de Washington DC.

1. Prepare to Pucker Up: Kissing in France is such a cliché that Americans don’t even consider it to be that outrageous anymore, except when it is in practice. There is definitely potential for a cultural faux pas possible with la bise. Depending on the region, you should kiss friends and family members on the cheek maybe two, three, or even four times! Americans may be happy with a simple handshake or hug, but when visiting friends, the former is too stiff, the latter too friendly. More kisses equals more friendly. A personal example: I had a terribly tough time when I first arrived in Paris, I came right off the plane to a party with maybe ten friends my age. Since I am female, it’s customary to greet everyone with kisses, so it was polite to introduce myself to complete strangers, by putting my face right up next to theirs. Men wait until they are close friends to greet one another with kisses. When it’s time to go, it’s another loop around the room kissing goodbye.

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Café gourmand. Photo by heirloom philosophy.

2. Dessert? Bien sûr!: One of my favorite things about living in France is that eating dessert is almost mandatory. I have become accustomed now to something sweet following a delicious French meal, and coffee too! This is just one example of the many ways the French enjoy their meals, taking time to enjoy, and almost never ordering something “to-go!”
Bonus: If you’ve never been to France and don’t know what to order for dessert, my go-to is the ubiquitous Café or Thé Gourmand. It is a dessert dish including coffee or tea, and a few (typically three) tiny versions of the main desserts. You could expect a mini version of macaron, panna cotta, crème brûlée, tiramisu, or many others.

 

3. Things are closed on weekends: As many European countries, France too respects Sunday as a day of rest, a time to spend with family, possibly outdoors, or at museums. This is probably this biggest culture shock I, and other Americans, have experienced. I’m still frustrated that shops are not only closed on Sundays, they’re also shut earlier than ones in the United-States. I know, I’m spoiled by the 24-hour Wal-Marts of the Unites-States, and their workers deserve days off with their families too, but sometimes I forget to buy butter before going on a baking spree on Saturday nights. This is one aspect of the American culture that I will probably always miss. Luckily, restaurants are still open on Sundays, and I can indulge my sweet tooth whenever necessary.

4. Vacation days are real: In this article by Forbes, it is revealed (perhaps unsurprisingly to many) that the United States is the only advanced country in the world that does not require employers to offer paid vacation time to their employees. In contrast, French companies must offer thirty days per year, two and a half days accrued for every four weeks of work. This accounts for a completely different cultural perspectives while on vacation. Americans typically bring work with them on trips (and sick days, maternity leave, and even when they leave work for the day). The French, however, treat vacations as a human right, and can truly relax compared to their American peers.

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Photo by Manger et Bouger le Mag’

5. A family that eats together stays together: Mealtime is family time in the French culture, especially those with young children. I’ve discussed the quality of food that goes on the table, but it’s also important to notice who is around it. According to a recent study by the International Social Survey Program (link: http://worldfamilymap.org/2013/articles/world-family-indicators/family-processes), over 90 perfect of 15 year olds eat with their family several times a week. While America’s number may be increasing in recent years, is still closer to 70 percent. Studies show that eating together lessens the risk of substance abuse, and increased commitment to learning.
That’s not all. Many French families bring their children to restaurants to teach them to respect their food and how to act in public. In my observation, there are a lot less crying, whining children in French restaurants than across the Atlantic. French kid’s meals aren’t always chicken nuggets and macaroni and cheese either, typically they are just smaller versions of adult meals. The French are known worldwide for their palettes, and in my opinion, it’s because they aren’t allowed to be picky in their youth.

6. Fresh is best. I promised myself I wouldn’t make this article strictly about food (there is more than an ocean separating the US and France in that regard!), but this must be mentioned. French people eat fresher food than Americans, period. Yes, there are many Americans who spend a lot of time and money keeping their diets limited to fresh fruits and vegetables, homemade dishes, and banning preservatives altogether, but that is not the norm. Americans are known to favor quick meals- especially if you have young kids, in my observation. Every home has a microwave and many have second freezers. In France, it’s very different. Again, there are those in France who eat frozen pizzas and drink sodas at every meal, but most don’t. Cooking takes more time and patience than in the US, so fresh ingredients are the best and typically least expensive option.

The biggest culture shock that you need to make note of here: Fresh food expires much faster in France than in the US. Meat especially gets me every time because I am used to keeping it for a long time like I do in America. Nope, not in France. If you buy beef or chicken and put it in the fridge, you had better eat it within three days or it will go bad, and you will lose money. I believe this is why the French (and most Europeans) go to the grocery store much more frequently and buy smaller amounts. Another note: baguettes and other fresh bread, unless being frozen, should be eaten immediately. A day old baguette just isn’t that great. Shop accordingly.

7. Parlez-vous anglais? Americans visiting France may expect snooty reception to our accents (especially in restaurants in Paris), based on decades of stereotypes. These clichés have come from movies, books, and personal stories, but this may be changing. Across Europe, the younger generations are more exposed than ever to English – well known for being one of the more useful international languages. While the older generations hold very tightly to their traditions, young people are more liberal and friendly to outsiders than ever before. It is important to learn a few phrases in French before visiting to show respect for the culture, but there’s no need to panic anymore if you can’t communicate perfectly. That being said, it is important to try.

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About the Author

Rebekka is 23 years old from Washington, DC and has lived in Paris and Vienna for the past year. She speaks English and German, and is slowly but surely learning French in Paris. Before that, she studied International Affairs and Political Science at James Madison University, and hopes to get her Master's in European Studies in the next few years. She enjoys travelling, reading, and cooking with her partner and French tutor, Loïc.



2 Responses to Some Culture Differences Between France and the United States

  1. Antraniz Ezell says:

    Seems like you know a lot, but could you tell me more about how the French and American are different?

  2. Bernard says:

    Ne vous limitez pas à Paris. Prenez le temps de visiter d’autres régions, d’autres grandes villes, ou des moins grandes, n’hésitez pas non plus à sortir des villes, sans oublier bien sûr les pays frontaliers de la France: Belgique, Luxembourg, Confédération Helvétique (Suisse), Italie, Espagne et Portugal, Royaume Uni… Je vous souhaite un bon séjour et de riches expériences.

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