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  • Writer's pictureFrancis Merson

5 Things the French do Maddeningly Differently, and How to Handle Them

France might be a paradise for visitors, but there are many aspects of its culture that are challenging for newcomers. Here's our guide for how to handle them – and stay in love with France....


Moving to France isn't just about swapping fast food for foie gras, it’s entering a culture that can be profoundly, and often confusingly, different. And sometimes the very aspects that make this country enchanting – the quaint traditions, the passionate Frenchness, the deep respect for culture – can become sources of unexpected stress for newcomers. Here are five of the main differences about French culture that English-speakers often struggle with, and some psychology-based tips on how to handle them...


In France, the customer is not always right

Throughout the English-speaking world, businesses generally attempt to pamper the customer in order to ensure their satisfaction and get return business. But if you've ever got your order wrong in a French café, or returned an item in a Parisian boutique, you might have noticed a stark difference. In France, there's a strong emphasis on mutual respect between the client and the merchant. Service professionals take pride in their work, and regard themselves as no less worthy of gratification and appeasement than you are.


Navigating this difference requires a slight shift in mindset. Rather than going in with the expectation of being catered to, approach the situation as though it were a meeting among equals. If you feel a twinge of frustration or a clash of expectations, remember it’s a dance of two cultures meeting. A little patience, a polite smile, and a genuine "merci" can go a long way in fostering understanding and building bridges.


French people show their emotions. A lot.

The French are known for their passionate expressiveness, which infuses their relationships with a certain fervency – which can be mistaken for volatility by outsiders. Conversations are often emotionally intense, and anger and frustration are expressed openly, without the lingering resentment commonly seen in other cultures. Fierce arguments between French friends can swiftly transition to shared laughter and wine.


Foreigners or expats might initially find these emotional oscillations jarring, until they learn that they just reflect the genuine ebb and flow of feelings in France. Instead of holding onto intense emotions, they're voiced and then released, much like steam from a pressure cooker. For those adapting to French culture, it's essential to understand the fleeting nature of such emotional outpourings. With time, one might even value the lucidity it offers, creating bonds where feelings aren't buried, but voiced and addressed.


And if you find yourself in a passionate discussion and the heat gets too much, it's perfectly okay to bow out gracefully. A simple acknowledgment, such as "That's an interesting perspective," can be a neutral way to appreciate the dialogue without fully immersing yourself in the debate. Embrace the richness of the conversation, even if it's just as a listener, and you might walk away with a deeper understanding of the French passion for discourse.


A passion for rights – and being right

France’s revolutionary history, epitomized by the 1789 Revolution, underscores the value the French place on individual rights. The country is particularly proud to its commitment to secularity, human rights – liberté, fraternité, egalité and so forth. These principles are often seen as crucial to Frenchness and generally non-negotiable. The upshot of this is if a French person perceives their rights are being violated, they can become, well, a bit tetchy. If you’ve ridden your bicycle in front of a pedestrian across a zebra crossing, where they have the right to walk unimpeded, you can expect an outburst of righteous fury.


This also often extends to a general rigidity about the correct way of doing things, and a tendency to criticise the wrongdoer. Woe betide anyone who cuts the point off a wedge of brie, or who merely smiles at a shopkeeper without saying ‘Bonjour’. The perceived infractions, in the eyes of many French, aren't just a matter of breaking unspoken rules. They're an affront to the sense of order, respect, and tradition deeply ingrained in the culture.


If uncertain about a particular custom or etiquette, instead of making assumptions, it's always prudent to ask a local. They often appreciate the effort made to respect their customs, and this approach reduces chances of misunderstandings. Mistakes do happen, and when they do, approaching the situation with humility can be beneficial. A sincere apology or a humble "Excusez-moi" can help diffuse any tension.


Rudeness, arrogance and “Paris Syndrome”

Ah, the infamous Paris Syndrome… This is the name for the culture shock tourists face when their romanticized image of Paris clashes with the reality. You excitedly approach a waiter in English, expecting the warm welcome due to any traveller from a faraway land. Instead, you're met with a curt reply or, worse, a roll of the eyes. Or you're shopping along the Rue Saint-Honoré and the shop assistant feigns to ignore your existence unless you show serious intent to purchase. Then there's the Paris Metro, where locals zip past you, unsmiling, focused, making you feel almost invisible. For many, these experiences can feel like outright rudeness or arrogance.


But what may come off as aloofness is often just efficiency. That waiter has probably served hundreds of tourists today, and that hurriedness is his way of managing the cafe's rush. The shop assistant's demeanor? It's often a reflection of respecting the customer's space, allowing them to shop without the pressure of a hovering salesperson. The metro's hustle? It's just the daily grind in a city where everyone's on the move.


To handle this psychologically, it's crucial to shift one's perspective from personalization to observation. Recognize that these behaviours aren't directed at you personally, but are manifestations of cultural norms. Instead of perceiving interactions as rejections, view them as learning opportunities on your journey of cultural discovery. Every moment of surprise or confusion is an invitation to delve deeper, understand better, and enrich your knowledge of where you are.


The art of direct feedback

The French have a reputation for their forthright opinions and a notable focus on negative feedback. This trait has its roots in the nation’s education system, where students are accustomed to a meticulous analysis of their work, with emphasis laid on identifying errors, rather than encouraging strengths.


If you’re presenting a proposal at a Parisian corporate meeting, you might suddenly find yourself fielding a barrage of pointed questions and candid critiques. Or, in a French academic context, showcasing a research project could invite a detailed dissection of every conceivable flaw. Such unembellished directness might seem harsh to the unaccustomed, and can often be seen as undue criticism or negativity.


It's important to remember that the French value intellectual engagement and see criticism as a tool for improvement, not a personal attack. It's about honing ideas to their highest potential, ensuring excellence in every field. The key to navigating this lies in viewing such feedback as an opportunity for growth and refinement rather than a personal affront. Engage with the feedback, contribute to the dialogue, and embrace the chance for improvement.


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For the uninitiated, navigating the intricacies of French culture can be a serious challenge. But understanding its differences is a first step towards genuine integration and feeling at home in France. The key lies in approaching each situation with an open mind and a willingness to learn. And of course, if you're really struggling , it can also be useful to talk to a qualified therapist who has experience in problems of cultural adaptation. But over time, these initial hurdles can provide the basis for valuable insights and foster a deeper appreciation for this extraordinary (and sometimes maddening) country.

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