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Living Abroad in France
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Dos and Don'ts in France

Living Abroad Requires Tact and Cultural Insight

Street scene in Nice. Living in France. A typical street scene in the "old town" of Nice in September.

"When in Rome, do as the Romans do." You've heard it so often that you may no longer pay attention to what it means. Yet in this age of globalization it's as true as ever. Conversing with people from other countries over the Internet is one thing; living overseas requires tact and cultural insight. The following dos and don'ts will help you avoid some of the more common faux pas, but keeping your eyes open and observing local manners and traditions is the only way to avoid gaffes.

Don't begin a conversation with a Frenchman in English, no matter how rusty your French is. It's the best way to assure that he'll make no attempt to reply in English, even if he knows some. The French take pride in their language, and the best way to show your respect is to do your best to speak French—even if it's just a few, badly pronounced words. What matters is that you've shown yourself as polite. Many a Frenchman will then come to your rescue in English. If you work in a French company, do make an effort to gradually improve your French. English is still seen as a rival language that threatens the position of French as a world language (some still have the illusion) and undermines the purity of French by sneaking in words like ferry-boat, hamburger, and meeting.

Don't start your day in a French office by walking in, maybe saying "Hi" to everybody, and then heading straight for your desk. Do walk along to the colleagues you work closest with, including the manager if you pass his office, shake their hands and say, "bonjour Jean-Pierre," or whatever the name is (there is a high statistical probability that you will find at least one Jean-something at work). While this may seem strange to you, it's normal for the French, and it's rude not to do it. Throughout the day, when you meet someone you know reasonably well in a corridor the first time, repeat the bonjour-handshake ritual, but never say bonjour to the same person more than once on the same day. It's sometimes difficult to remember exactly with whom you've already shaken hands and you can sometimes find people exchanging opinions on whether or not they've already said bonjour. I've watched this become an agitated discussion that lasted five minutes!

Don't shake hands if you should have exchanged la bise, the kiss on the cheek, instead. If at least one of the persons greeted is a woman, a handshake may be a faux pas. While it is rude to reject la bise, it can be intimidating to suggest it if you don't know the woman well enough. In offices, the main rule is that it's practiced between people who know each other reasonably well. In private, it's used between friends and family, but there can be exceptions. If you're unsure and the Frenchman is a woman, let her decide; watch whether she prepares to shake hands or faire la bise. If you're the woman, use the above guidelines and supplement them with experience from local practice

La bise starts by bringing one cheek close to the other's cheek and simulating a kiss on the cheek. Some start with the right cheek, some with the left. Like a goalkeeper predicting the direction of the ball, try to determine which of your cheeks the other is aiming for so an embarrassing collision is avoided. Some make a kiss-simulating noise with their mouth, such as phwouiik, mmmm, or phhlschlp. Remaining silent is perfectly all right. After the first kiss on the cheek, the maneuver is repeated at least once on the opposite cheeks. The total number of kisses depends on the region, the person, and many other things. Even the French are confused. Left? Right? Two, Three, Four? Kiss? Handshake? Don't take it seriously, and laugh at it if it goes wrong. Oh, and be careful using the word baiser! In classic literature, it means "kiss." But today, it also means the same as a certain English 4-letter word.

Don't address anyone using tu if you should have used vous. This is as much of a minefield as la bise. If in doubt, use vous, but beware that if you keep saying vous when the other has suggested tu, it can be seen as a bit arrogant. It is now common in emails between even very recent business partners to use first names. Don't fall into the trap of using tu in that case! The classic rules for using tu still apply, and you should continue using vous, even together with first names.

To illustrate how confusing this is, my wife and I socialized with a French neighboring couple when we lived in Lille. After some months, they started using tu to my wife, but they kept saying vous to me. After some more months, he started saying tu to me, but his wife continued saying vous. "Out of respect" was the answer when my wife asked her. However, once I had him on the phone, he fell back to vous. Confused? We were.

Don't communicate across hierarchy lines at work unless you're certain that it's accepted. In the Anglo-Saxon world, hopping across hierarchy lines is no big deal. In France, respecting the significance of hierarchy and managers is important. In many work situations you will naturally need to talk to people in other groups as a part of your job. That is perfectly acceptable, and you will quickly find out what constitutes business as usual and when you should go through line management. Even if you're an external contractor, you should act as if you were an employee.

For example, before starting an IT contract as an external consultant for a French company I was asked to get in touch with their purchasing department to sort out the contract formalities. Towards the end of the contract I again contacted the purchase department to ask how they interpreted a particular contract clause. They answered me, and they copied the local director on the site where I worked. Later, the group manager told me that I should have asked the question through site management. In France, how you work may be as important as reaching your goals.

Don't think you can do all your shopping, banking, and administration during your lunch break. Except in major urban zones, everything is closed during the lunch hours, which can last anywhere between one and three hours. Most supermarkets remain open everywhere, though, sans interruption, while banks close even in Paris. As a general rule, you won't be able to get anything done between noon and 2 p.m. but don't call anyone at 11:55 either, as he or she would already be closing down for lunch. In France, closing time means the time by which you must have finished all your matters and left; not the latest time you can begin something. In shops the personnel will round up remaining customers 10 to15 minutes before closing time and chase them to the checkout. The French will not accept your trying to push work into their lunch break, which is sacred.

Do take your regular lunch and coffee breaks, even if you're busy and working on something important. Working your butt off is not seen as an ideal in France, and you might be considered a bit weird if you do.

Do take the holidays and vacations you're entitled to. Everybody else does. The lunch break can be an occasion to build up your network that you should not waste. Needless to say, "brown bag" lunches are unknown in France.

Don't try to impress others with how much wealth you have. It would be seen as bad taste, and it's not an accepted measure for social status. How highly you're considered is based on your position, which university you went to, your diplomas, and who you socialize with. Typical discussion subjects are culture, food, vacation, politics, family, office gossip, etc. Not money!

Don't be disappointed it you're not invited to a barbecue straightaway. The French take their time before they decide whom they want to socialize with. They could find it embarrassing if you invite them to your home too soon in what you would find a friendly gesture. Social relations are much more at a one-to-one level than the American "let's have a barbecue everybody." Building up a network therefore takes time and is generally more difficult than in the U.S.

Don't be frightened by all the rules. The French will help you along to adapt, so long as you show a minimum of tact and respect, but they may be too polite to tell you directly if you goofed. Look out for subtle hints and unspoken words. Absence of approval or polite phrases may be meant as disapproval. The French are less direct than Americans. But in the end, be yourself, let yourself flow along with the French way of life, and you will have a marvelous experience in France.

Further Reading

France: A Cultural Primer is an excellent article by Guy Spielmann providing further understanding on how to behave in France.

Intercultural Differences is a very interesting juxtaposition of how the French see the Americans and vice versa, and much more...

Features a "Culture Quiz" from Cultural Awareness.

 More Articles on France by Finn Skovgaard
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