The Cultural Differences Between the French and the Americans
Many Americans live under the assumption that the French are fundamentally rude and don’t like us as tourists. In fact, this perception is not at all accurate. On a recent trip to Paris, I paid close attention to some basic cultural differences between our two countries which frequently are at the genesis of this misconception.
BEING POLITE SCORES POINTS
One easy example comes to mind. In France one is expected to say “hello” and “goodbye” when entering and leaving a store. It is merely a question of being polite for the locals. When you don’t, you offend the merchant and are perceived of as being rude. In response, the French often react in an offended and haughty manner. A simple “Bonjour Madame” and then, “Au revoir, et merci, Madame,”(or Monsieur!) is all it takes to produce a smile on the merchant’s face.
HOW THE FRENCH LOVE THEIR DOGS
There are many other striking differences which might account for our misjudging the French. Take, for instance, how the French treat their dogs. The French love their dogs and take them everywhere---on the Metro, to the boulangerie and even to fine restaurants which many Americans find appalling. Ironically, French dogs are often better behaved than many of our children in restaurants and thus, rarely cause any issues with other diners.
Equally perplexing, Americans cannot accept why the French don’t pick up after their dogs. Previously, French dog owners believed that this was the job of the men in wintergreen jumpsuits who clean the sidewalks weekly with their florescent green plastic brooms. However, recently the City of Paris introduced what the French consider a revolutionary concept: A regulation requiring Parisians to maneuver a pooper scooper. There is even a 400 Euro fine for violating this law! This has made for a surprisingly cleaner city. But, beware. The Parisians are still in a learning mode. So, it is too soon to explore the city with your head held high.
FUMER TUE (SMOKING KILLS)
Many Americans remark about how much the French smoke. They start this habit in their early teens trying to look adult and sophisticated, not dissimilar to what we see with our own youth. Smoking is considered a social activity in France. Several years ago, the government enacted a law prohibiting smoking in public buildings and restaurants. Surprisingly, the French religiously abide by this ruling. However, this also forces them on the streets where they quickly drag on their cigarettes during periodic smoke breaks.
As smoking is prohibited in eating establishments, people gravitate to the terrace where it is legal to enjoy their vice. Don’t even think about giving someone a dirty look if they are blowing smoke your way as you tuck into your Salade Niçoise on that picturesque café terrace overlooking the Seine River. If the Fumer Tue warning—which takes up a full side of a packet of French cigarettes— has no impact, neither will your disapproving frown. And, if truth be told the numbers show that the French do not smoke that much more than Americans. According to Wikipedia’s 2016 list (I apologize for the source!) of countries by annual per capita consumption of tobacco, France consumed 1087.9 cigarettes vs the US at 1016.6, in fact, not that great a difference.
JOIE DE VIVRE
In France, the pace of life is different from ours. They are less frenetic and seem to live more in the moment enjoying friends and family to the fullest. My trainer, Jennifer Spina, ran the Paris Marathon last year and when she returned remarked about the locals’ relaxed lifestyle and how they appeared to enjoy face to face contact more than we. “They love sitting at cafés leisurely sipping their coffee or glass of wine (and often smoking!) and chatting away with their friends. We, on the other hand, tethered to our smart phones, race into Starbucks to grab our pre-order iced caramel macchiato and dash out the door with as little human interaction as possible.”
Whenever food is involved in France, the notion of time evaporates. Unless you are a serious foodie, many Americans bemoan having to sit through hours of multi-courses at restaurants in France. Conversely, the French relish every moment and every morsel. They also love spending time merely discussing where they want to dine and what seasonal ingredients might be featured by the chef and how he/she might prepare it.
And, if you ever ask a food purveyor in France for a recommendation, you’ll be amazed at what can happen. Several years ago, I was shopping at Richard Lenoir—one of Paris’ largest outdoor markets—and needed to purchase potatoes to make a Gratin Dauphinois. Being unfamiliar with the different varieties of potatoes in France, I merely asked which one the vendor would suggest. He confidently selected one for me then explained in detail why it was better than the others he sold. Continuing our discussion, he asked what my recipe was. I responded as briefly as I could, being aware of the growing line of customers behind me. He shook his head in disagreement saying his recipe was far superior to the one I had planned to use. To my amazement, he recounted in detail how he made his gratin, step by step. The people queuing up behind me didn’t seem to mind in the least. A Parisian friend later explained why. When it was the next person’s time to be waited on, they expected the same attention and expert advice—as well as patient courtesy from the people in line— that I had been granted.
NEVER ARRIVE ON TIME
Other cultural differences which separate “them” from “us” can be painfully apparent if you are ever invited to someone’s home for dinner. American Jane Bertch, who organizes food tours and cooking classes at www.LaCuisineParis.com, talks about her first experience. ”It is your inaugural invitation to a French dinner party, and you cannot wait. The dinner invitation is for an 8 pm start. Needless to say, you plan to arrive at 8 pm, much to the shock and dismay of your host/hostess who is likely to be in the shower still preparing! While in the US it is seen as inconsiderate to be more than 5 minutes late, in France, being smack dab on the hour is paramount to being rude - 15 minutes past the stated hour is more the standard.” Jane also pointed out that you should be prepared for the sacred apéro (our cocktail hour) to last quite a while as dinner is frequently not served before 10pm.
A DIFFERENCE OF ATTITUDE
Stacy Ballis—a food writer I met on a recent trip to Paris—shared with me what she describes as the country’s famous nonchalance, something the French have cultivated over the centuries, which baffles many American visitors. Stacy recounts a story of visiting Rungis (Paris’ city-sized wholesale food market 40 minutes from the center of town.) “Once you arrive for your tour, the pavilions are so spread out that you take a bus to get from one to another. When we began our journey we were 22 people, including a young man of about 25 in chunky, black rimmed glasses with a small tidy goatee. He was with us in the fish pavilion, snapping photos of the mackerel, and then again in the fruit and vegetable pavilion, communing with the eggplants. But when we re-boarded our bus to head for the flower pavilion, our tour guide did a head count and we were suddenly 21. The young man in the glasses was not amongst us. She counted again. She asked the bus driver who merely shrugged. And then she said “Bof. Allez, vingt et un.” No one went to look for him or seemed to care that he had disappeared into thin air. He never rejoined our tour. I assume he lives at Rungis Market now.”
THE IMPORTANCE OF FIRST IMPRESSIONS
The French generally assign more importance to appearance and first impressions than we do. Consider for a moment the difference between the way travelers are greeted at Charles de Gaule versus what they encounter landing at JFK. In Paris, smartly attired young men and women, looking as if they just left the fashion runway, greet you with a smile and “Welcome to Paris,” in English, no less. They point you in the direction of customs where you are met with a courteous “Bonjour,” and a visual once-over to verify your passport photo. With the “wonk” of the entry stamp, you are sent your merry way to find your bags and free luggage cart. Conversely, when foreign visitors land in New York City, they are subjected to an hour-long wait in cattle-call lines directed by shabbily dressed—and frequently over-weight—customs officials. For the 50 plus years I’ve been traveling, I’ve never encountered an agent who did not speak English with a heavy, sometimes unintelligible accent. We won’t even discuss the cost for a luggage trolley at JFK today!
DO THEY LOVE OR HATE US?
If asked whether or not the French really like Americans, I would say “Without a doubt.” The French love our action movies, blue jeans, jazz and hamburgers—one of the latest food trends in Paris. While they may snicker at our informality and sometimes lack of sophistication, there is much they admire and even envy about us. In particular, they respect our entrepreneurial spirit, something which is relatively rare in their country. On the flip side, Americans are obsessed with sexy French women and their effortless style. We admire France’s savoir faire on all things cultural. We consider their wines the benchmark of quality. We wish we could care the same way as they do about food, family and life, the things that really matter.
There is lots to say about cultural differences between our two countries which can sometimes cause frustration and misunderstandings. But, by and large, there is and always will be a strong bond between our two countries. They helped us win our war for independence from the British and we helped save them during both World Wars. That long standing history and mutual admiration is not about to disappear. So, through the lens of someone who truly loves both countries, I say to you, Viva La France! and Long Live America! May our respective differences not get in the way of our enjoying each other’s countries to their fullest.