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How to Screw Up in Paris: What Nobody Bothered to Tell Me About Living Abroad Posted by 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.DSC00522c

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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  1. Mark M:

    My experience is with Iceland and Icelandic, which I am now nearly three years into studying. In Iceland, where nearly everyone under 70 speaks excellent English, it is common for Icelanders to switch to English when confronted with an obvious Icelandic novice. My instructor says it is a politeness thing–that the Icelanders want you to feel comfortable. I think it is more that they want to move the transaction/conversation forward more quickly and don’t necessarily want to wait around for you to try to conjugate, and poorly, your way through the topic. I’ve taken the tack of speaking only in Icelandic to Icelanders and when they reply in English, coming right back in Icelandic. I’ve also said that I’d prefer to speak Icelandic because I’m learning and want to practice. With this, I am usually met with a smile and an appreciation for my effort. It is a very hard language, and when they realize that you’re not trying to say things out of a phrase book to be culturally polite, the Icelanders seem generally appreciative that you’ve taken time to learn their challenging and from an actual communications perspective, unnecessary, language. I’ve regularly had them ask me, now in Icelandic, why would I ever decide to learn Icelandic. It’s a fun conversation from there!

  2. Lorene Wedeking:

    I have lived in Poland in six weeks chunks like you have lived in France. Yes, one greets when entering a shop and also says good bye and/or thank you when leaving.

    Yes, forget the American smiling. You said it right; it’s not that people are unhappy, it’s simply a different culture.

    Americans need to learn to speak more quietly as well. We speak quite loudly compared with others.

    If in a tricky situation where I need to know what is happening/going on, I ask, “May I speak English?” rather than “Do you speak English?” This puts the burden on my knowledge rather than someone else.

    Yes, and the air kiss is tricky. I’ve been back and forth sometimes between Poland and Hungary in the same week, and it’s done differently in the two countries, and I have to think hard how to do it where I am.

    And Americans need to recognize “That the way we do things is only one way to do things.” We don’t have a hold on the truth or the absolutely right way of doing anything.

  3. Croissants:


    Very interesting and fun to read!!
    I am French and just reading what you wrote is kind of refreshing.

    I don’t fit in with French people because of my behavior (I am more Asian than French in how I act).

    One thing is sure, when eating at someone house you can go to the toilets! Just start with a “I’m really sorry but…” or something like this. Don’t ask “where are the toilets?” but “May I go to the toilets ?’.

  4. Alice Fournier:

    Hi! As a French person (from Bordeaux, south west), I can tell you good manners are really important in France, as a sign of respect (we abuse all “formules de politesse”, such as please or thank you, that we can repeat 100 times a day), but not everywhere! The North is very welcoming while forgetting about those little words quite often, Paris can be full of arogant and horrible people, and the South East is a place sometimes extremely welcoming and sometimes you can hit a wall when asking for a bit of hospitality. It’s really not the same for the entire country! But otherwise I’m afraid you got it right about my people…

  5. Lou Ann Keiser:

    I live in Spain, where it’s always polite to say hello and good-bye–in any shop, store, waiting room–anywhere. What you do between hello and good-bye is not as prescribed. Spanish people are friendly, talkative, curious, and loud. They make it easy for anyone to get along, unless the person is very shy.

    I’m told that in France it’s bad manners to ask someone their name. You can volunteer your own, but you NEVER ask their name. If they volunteer to tell you, it’s a sign of real friendship.

    And, yes, invitations to people’s homes, probably anywhere in Europe, are something to cherish. I know we do!

  6. Marie:


    Very nice introduction to such a very complexe subject.

    Being French myself, I’ll give a more advanced advice on the “Air Kiss”, because I had a few American friends in France who still do this really cute thing that looks like they’re kissing the air:
    of course, you don’t actually kiss the cheek (meaning put your lips on the cheek), but both cheeks (yours and the other person’s) have to touch or at least to brush past one another…

    Thnaks for sharing you experience!

  7. J Wilson:

    Thanks for this. Yes my brother lived in France for a while and told me the importance of the Bonjour when going into a shop. It definitely is a good idea. Not sure I have learned any more, but there is quite a funny film on the North/South France divide “Bienvenue chez les cht’tis” although to watch it, we did it in my French class and that helped to have a native French speaker explain, but it is about a guy moving from South of France to work in the North East of France, and all the differences he finds in language etc.

  8. priscilla:

    Funny, in the Dutch culture it’s also an honor to get an invitation for a dinner.. so a very European, I guess.

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