Many people often tell me how surprised they are when they move to France and find the culture so… different. Expats can find themselves at a disadvantage trying to understand how to live and work with the French, and the quiproquos can multiply if you don’t speak the language. The French are not as complicated as you think, especially if someone helps you understand them!
As a bicultural coach in Paris who has lived as a French expat in the US, I’ve experienced firsthand how daunting life-changing situations can be and how important it is to understand the world you’re stepping into.
Don’t like being scolded in public? Eager to make a French acquaintance? Feel as if you are second-guessing the intentions of your French colleague?
I found as an expat, born and raised in France, that I was somewhat “exotic” when I moved to the US. Relationships would tend to get lost in a flow of questions about where I came from and how and why I got there that it sometimes became difficult to fit in as one of the group.
As you try harder, the challenge is to keep from losing yourself! Your differences are assets and strengths once you understand the other culture and know how to communicate. It’s like finding the right frequency on a radio or the right pitch to sing a song with a band — that, I tell you as a musician. So communicating intelligently is key.
My role is to help you create a space so you can find your way, facilitate your decision-making process in accordance with your objectives and give you keys to understanding cultural differences. You can develop meaningful professional and personal relationships with the French; it’s all part of the challenging and exciting adventure of being an expat… and being yourself!
Here are a few tips on French culture and behavior to help you learn how to live and work more easily with the French.
The French are not usually as emotional as one thinks, at least not openly. Our education via family and the school system is cartésienne, meaning rational and analytical, and rather strict. However, our heritage as a Latin country makes some of us a bit hot-headed and proud of our culture to the point of being intellectually intolerant. On some subjects, one can react with an emotional fit which, like a storm, will not last very long and will be quickly forgotten.
The French culture is knitted with interesting oppositions: clear and lucid reason with strong sensitivity, education, and sophistication with an irrational nature, open-mindedness with surges of pride. And all the nuances in between!
Our education has programmed us to think using an analytical approach – whereas the Anglophones use a systemic approach – which is fairly rigid. It looks at every angle, thinks of all possible scenarios, and focuses on potential problems.
French culture does not look kindly upon failure, hence our decision-making is quite long, filled with precautions and anxiety. For Anglophones, especially Americans using the “try and fail system”, where the experience of failure is positive, it looks completely counter-productive!
The French are open when it comes to relationships. Few people get married, especially in a church, which is why they invented the PACS in 1999, providing the advantages of marriage without the commitment. People often have several relationships in a lifetime, separation and recomposed families are common. They usually maintain a good relationship with their exes. Culturally, you are entitled to a fulfilling, happy romantic life, and mediocrity in love is not an option.
Friendship is for life! A French friend is sincere, close, truthful, loyal but hard to get. It takes time to get to know people, they are shy at first, tend to be secretive and restricted to the friends they already have, hence the difficulties expats encounter making French friends.
5. Behavior in public
I have countless times heard tourists talk about public transportation as depressing: everyone looks serious, avoiding eye contact and being silent, and non-French people will extrapolate we are unhappy, even snobbish. It is actually rarely true. The French are quite shy and reserved and will not look at other people because it is impolite. Also, they usually speak in a low voice to respect others. But if you ask for it, they will go out of their way to help you!
Keeping in mind these cultural differences will help smooth the way at work as well as in life. As an example, I have worked with several expats in a large French bank and the most common problem is respecting a strong hierarchy while seeing little action after countless meetings where no decision seems to be made. Managers are still kind of “old school” and will not appreciate if you do not respect their decision (or non-decision!). However, if you are persistent, yet diplomatic, and continue presenting your arguments and points of view without undermining their way of doing things, you’ll be appreciated for your fresh perspective. In addition, you’ll earn the trust of your boss who will then give you more freedom and delegate more responsibilities to you. The boss is often quite lonely and if you can persuade her/him that you are on their side, and not after their job, you will become powerful allies.
Read more about Isabelle Risacher and how she survived a terrorist train attack with her courageous husband.
You shouldn’t have to second guess your new French relationships. Don’t hesitate to reach out for help to understand how to live and work in France to get the best from your life abroad.