How to Screw Up in Paris: What Nobody Bothered to Tell Me About Living Abroad Posted by Transparent Language on Jan 15, 2014 in Archived Posts
If you’ve read my other blogs you know that I am an old guy who is trying to learn – really, really learn – a language other than my mother tongue. It’s been an embarrassingly large number of years (yes, years) since I stuck that first tentative toe in the water of “French 101” at the Harvard Extension School.
Since then, I have spent a total of nearly a year living in France (almost all in Paris), in annual six-week chunks, throughout the past eight years. I have tried hard not to be a tourist or a visitor, but have done my best just to become a local, living like the locals live – and always in the local language.
But it turns out one needs more than the language to get along as more than a tourist. Tourists are tolerated. They are expected to be ignorant of the niceties of social intercourse in the places they visit, but they are not admired for that lack.
In a place like Paris – as with many places in the world – if an American walked into a shop and opened with a courteous “I’d like to buy a scarf, please,” the salesperson probably wouldn’t even blink. She/he would respond politely, most often in serviceable, if not excellent, English, and get on with selling you a very nice scarf. But as the customer passed out of the store, the salesperson would likely be feeling something between annoyance and disdain for pathetic Americans, who not only are stubbornly monolingual, but who also don’t even know the first elements of proper behavior.
“La politesse” (good manners, politeness) is really important in France, and no less so in public places and among strangers than among people who are acquainted. In French culture, there are a number of – often minor, but surprisingly important – cultural nuances that an avid French learner should be made aware of. For example:
- Bonjour, monsieur/madame: Our scarf purchaser, above, should have entered the shop, headed for the salesperson while nodding a “Bonjour, madame” or “Bonjour, monsieur” to any other shoppers encountered along the way. Then, being sure to open with the magic (and mandatory!) “Bonjour, madame/monsieur”*, he/she could launch into business.
*Helpful Hint: “Bonjour” spoken alone can sound a bit curt, so it’s “Bonjour” plus a name, if you have one, or if not, then “Bonjour madame” or “Bonjour monsieur.”
- Smiling: Americans have to watch out in France: the French just smile less than we do, and a smile in the wrong place can be misinterpreted. It has nothing to do with their state of happiness, or their friendliness, or anything. It’s just in the culture. In that scarf-buying transaction, I’m sure the purchaser was wearing the standard American I-smile-at-strangers smile, and I am equally sure that the salesperson was wondering why.
- Air kissing: In France the “air kiss” comes to mind – that left-then-right peck not quite on both cheeks. But watch it, because next door in Belgium it can be left-then-right-then-left-again, and in the south of France it’s often four times! Best advice: don’t be first; check out the local “kiss count” before it’s your turn. And if you’re a hugger, don’t try that in France; it will not be understood!
- Invitations to dinner: Invitations into French homes are less common than in the USA, so if you receive one, it’s kind of a big deal. For a start, be sure you are on time – but “on time” in France is really a thoughtful 15 or so minutes later than the agreed hour. Bring something, but not wine – wine in France is a complicated business, and it’s best for non-natives to stay clear of it. Candy is OK, and so are flowers, except for chrysanthemums, a no-no. You don’t offer to “help in the kitchen.” In fact, you don’t offer to do anything – set the table, or clear away – really, nothing. Seated at the table, you must keep your forearms on or above the table – no hands out of sight in lap! And once seated, you may only get up at the end of the meal, when the hostess does. Need the bathroom? Forget it; you’re going to have to just sit there and suffer – and French meals can take forever!
As you can see, the list could go on and on. So though you may know enough of the language to get by, you may still lack the knowledge of the norms of social behavior required to use it properly. To learn a language – “really, really learn” it –vocabulary, grammar, and structure is not enough. There are other things, loosely grouped together under the label “culture,” that must also be learned.
The “When in Rome . . .” approach is the one I have chosen, and it works for me. A little challenging, yes, but it’s also very satisfying to appreciate the local culture, to adopt its norms, and to savor its nuances. So I speak only from my own experience and my personal point of view, of course, but here is my advice: learn the language, yes, but remember to savor the culture, too! You just miss too much if you don’t do both.
How about you? What cultural nuances have you picked up during your own experiences abroad? Had you learned about them beforehand, or did you, like me, get your beginning culture lessons “in actual combat,” so to speak?
– Richard Mills
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