French culture, like American culture, is often times misunderstood and stereotyped.
Mainstream French culture boasts of classic/chic fashion, intricate cuisines, historically grand palaces and museums, and more.
France has all of these things, but just like any other country, you can still find horrible food, rude people, and hyped – up tourist attractions!
It’s hard to learn about France before you go, regardless of the countless “Places To Go In Paris” or “What To Wear In France/Europe” articles online.
Take my experience, for example. Although I’d learned about French imperialism, racism, and even fashion, the cultural differences didn’t hit me until I studied abroad for a semester. I saw some of the good and bad sides of France, and it was shocking, comforting, and overwhelming all at once.
I want to share 10 things that I learned about French culture with you.
10 Things I learned About French Culture
Tip 1: Don’t Hug Your French Friend
I’m not much of a hugger, but I was surprised to learn that the French don’t hug unless they’re romantically interested in you.
When you think about it, then it makes more sense because of the invasion of personal space.
Instead of hugging their friends the French will “faire la bise”, or a series of kisses on the cheek with their friends, family and (sometimes) colleagues.
Tip 2: Don’t Stare Into Their Eyes – Unless You’re Interested
Another cultural difference for the French is their view of eye contact as a sign of romantic interest rather than as a sign of respect.
(When I tell you that it took so long to figure out why I kept getting weird expressions from people…!)
It took a few weeks until my French professor went off on a tangent and told us about differences between American and French culture.
Very quickly, I learned to just stare out of the metro window or look down at the floor to avoid more catcalls…
Tip 3: Parisian Fashion – Classic Red Lip, Booties and Black Clothes
Ah, the booties, the sleek black leather jackets and skinny jeans even in the snow, and of course the famous red lip.
When I tell you that I saw this look every day, I’m not lying. Did it ever get old? No, not really!
Why? Because it’s classic fashion.
Think the little black dress. Chanel No. 5. French women embody the tousled hair, red lips, sleek jeans and minimal make up look almost perfectly. I will admit that I missed seeing different hair, lipstick, and clothing colors, though…
Anyways, if you want to know what to wear in Paris, then just grab the cutest black booties you have, Ruby Woo from MAC, black skinny jeans, and you’ll be all set.
You don’t even need a barrette hat!
Tip 4: (For Students) Don’t Leave the Class Without Permission
Another tip that my professor so kindly decided to share with us!
I think this tip might be more obvious for k-12 students in the states, but we don’t consider it as much in college and beyond. In France, they take this one more seriously because it is a sign of disrespect to leave the classroom for any reason.
Even to go to the bathroom.
Tip 5: Always Eat At The Kitchen Table
Similar to Tip #3 about walking out of the classroom, this one is more so about respect.
For the French, eating at the dinner table as a family is a way to come together after a long day at work and school. It’s the same for many American families too, but it’s not normal for a French person to spend the night eating food in their room rather than with family.
Centuries-old French eating traditions are still relevant in standard french households, and so that means multiple stages of eating. It’s not uncommon to have regular dinner with dessert, then bread and cheese (with wine, of course), all while discussing politics for hours. I’ve had this experience, so I would know!
Note: If you’re looking to learn french and/or you’re staying with a French family, then eating with them is a great way to practice speaking and listening.
Tip 6: Waiters Won’t Pander To You
We’re so spoiled in the US when we go out to eat because waiters have to provide excellent service and hope to get a good tip.
In France…not so much. At all.
French waiters will not pander to you. They will come and take your order when you successfully grab their attention and, even then, you might be waiting a few more minutes.
Also, they won’t constantly check on you to make sure that “everything’s alright” the way that waiters do in the states.
Lastly, once you’re done, you have to get their attention. Otherwise, they will not come to your table because the French won’t rush out of restaurants like Americans. It’s not uncommon to stay in a restaurant or cafe for over 2 hours even on a busy night. They won’t rush you to leave.
This can be great, but it’s also very awkward for people visiting France for the first time!
Tip 7: The French Don’t Like Political Correctness
The French’s disdain for American political correctness is both worrisome and refreshing.
Refreshing because I love bluntness and hate when people sugarcoat stuff. It’s nice to know where people stand on an issue upfront.
Worrisome because the French don’t follow the same boundaries as Americans when talking about race, religion, gender, politics, etc.
What an American would view as prejudice or worse, racism, the French view as freedom of speech and expression. They like to make satires and pick at those sensitive points to strike up a controversy. The idea is to push everyone to talk freely without being offended.
That might work in a perfect world. But this world is far from it.
Tip 8: Apparently, The French Are “Color-Blind”
I haven’t been to France since the world exploded in protest against police brutality and racial issues in 2020. That being said, social awareness in France may have improved; therefore, this is a general view of racism in France. Also, a few protests aren’t nearly enough to change centuries of racism.
Experiencing French society’s “color-blindness” was the straw that broke the camel’s back for me.
During my semester abroad, I realized that France’s racism is so deeply ingrained that you almost miss it if you don’t know where to look. Or, if you’re like me, just going about your day and it slaps you in the face.
The realization came when I visited an anti-racism organization, hoping to contribute to the cause, and was told that American racism is worse than French racism because French BIPOC women don’t have to worry about racism like American BIPOC women in the states…
The conversation was strange since I’d just seen a movie during Black History Month, called Ouvrir La Voix or Speak Up: Make Your Way. Ouvrir La Voix is a documentary about Black women’s experiences in France hailing from the African Diaspora. They openly talk about the racism and prejudice that they’ve experienced in France, how they’re mistreated and degraded in the workplace and public spaces, and more.
This documentary came out a few years ago by now, but it’s still very relevant to the Black experience in France. It’s comforting, enlightening, enraging, and too familiar all at once.
I highly recommend it!
Tip 9: Racism Against Arabs and Muslims
Above, I stated that the French are “color-blind” towards black people. However, it wouldn’t be right if I didn’t explain their bloody past with Muslims and Arabs.
The French have a long history with the continent of Africa, mostly West African and North African countries. For the history buffs, France first colonized Algeria in 1830 (although France had already colonized multiple West African countries centuries before).
France did what most colonizers do: destabilize the country and then capitalize on that destabilization. For centuries.
Of course, the French built cities and a government that benefited the Pieds-Noirs (people of French and other European origin born and raised in Algeria). The French-Algerian society came to an end when Algeria finally gained independence in 1962 after the Algerian War. If this interests you, then learn more from the award-winning retelling, The Battle of Algiers.
Since independence, the Pieds-Noirs, some Harkis (Algerian soldiers loyal to France), and other refugees from the war have fled and made lives in mainland France.
Now, French news, politics, and culture show the ongoing tensions stemming from France and Algeria’s colonial past.
There’s a lot more to this history so feel free to research it more.
Tip 10: You’re Either French or You’re Not
When immigrants arrive in France, they’re expected to “become French” and reject their culture for mainstream French culture. This might offend some French people out there, but it’s a problem that shouldn’t be ignored.
The same thing happens in the US, so it’s not just France. This happens to immigrants and minorities all over the world. In America and in France, people have to show two, three, four, etc. different versions of themselves to achieve “success” in the workplace, school, with new friends, etc.
The main problem that comes from this is the idea that if you don’t “succeed”, then you just didn’t “work hard enough”, didn’t meet the “right” people, didn’t blah, blah, blah…right?
You see the problem.
We’ve talked about the good (and not so good) parts of French culture. I wanted to share what I’ve learned and experienced in France because I’m a firm believer that travel should be as authentic as possible.
Remember that no country is perfect, but every place has something amazing to offer. France has its problems for sure, but I still highly recommend traveling there to explore and learn. This is not an all-inclusive list of things that make France different. Honestly, the country is much more complex than a simple list can explain.
I encourage you to travel there with most of your tourist blinders off to get the most out of your experience.
If this resonated with you or you have a tip to share with others, then comment down below!
Thanks for reading,
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