How to Avoid Cultural Misunderstandings in Conversations

Oh la la, Tuesday’s lesson on “How to learn a second language as an adult” changed students’ lives! I feel SO proud when French learners tell me about their huge aha moments.

As this topic had such a big impact, I thought I’d give you more! So here’s a lesson specifically on French conversation rules.

You will learn:

  1. How communication habits evolve over time (it’s very specific to French).
  2. The biggest cultural misunderstanding about French conversation.
  3. How to avoid the 6 worst communication breakdowns that can happen between French and Americans.

At the end, I’ll show you 2 examples of French conversations and you’ll test yourself on what makes them “sound French”. We’ll go deep into the specific differences.

Et toi ?

What’s your new aha moment? 🙂
Let me know in the comments below in english or “en français”!

Bonne journée,

Join the conversation!

  • Super vidéo! Dans mon boulot j’accompagne des familles qui débarquent en France et cette vidéo va les aider énormément! J’ajouterai pour vous ou d’autres qui suivent ces commentaires, que le livre “La Carte des Différences Culturelles” de Erin Meyer est top pour expliquer ces différences culturelles dans 8 domaines (communication, la prise de décisions, la confiance, l’autorité, etc) . Elle est américaine mais habite (ou habitait?) en France, donc elle a une bonne compréhension de ces deux cultures entre autres. Elle parle des pèches et des noix de coco dans un de ces chapitres. Merci!

    • C’est encore moi — j’ai une question. Avec toutes ces règles qui gouvernent les conversations . . . comment ça change et quelles sont les règles pour les français dans les réseaux sociaux? Je n’ai pas énormément bcp d’amis français sur FB par exemple, mais ils semblent être aussi virulents sur certains sujets que les américains. Est-ce que j’ai des amis bizarres ou est-ce que les règles d’engagement sont différentes dans les réseaux sociaux?

      J’ai remarqué pour les américains que, alors que face-à-face on n’aime pas se contrarier (donner un avis qui oppose l’avis qu’un ami vient d’exprimer), on le fait facilement sur FB. Les gens ont tendance à être assez “rentre-dedans” (voire violent) avec leur propos, des choses qu’ils ne diraient jamais en conversation car ce serait très mal vu, très impoli. Peut-être que pour les français les règles changent aussi et les choses que l’on ne dirait jamais à un inconnu ou à une simple connaissance, on peut quand même exprimer facilement sur FB pour tout le monde?? Ça m’intéresse de voir si ce phénomène va changer nos cultures respectives, si les règles des réseaux sociaux vont peu à peu envahir la conversation courante.

  • You have so accurately described the extrovert-oriented US culture! I am an American introvert, and I find all the talking from strangers overwhelming too! I also hate superficial chit-chat, with no depth. Probably that’s why I love being in France.

    Another difference I have observed comes from the languages themselves. In English, we use tone of voice and and emphasis to express our feelings. In French, words are more important. An American says a friendly hello to a stranger with a smile; a French person uses Madame/Monsieur and polite words.

  • The lack of “Madame” when talking to a merchant (and the merchant addressing the customer) makes this sound less authentic to me. Every time I enter a business and have a conversation of any length, there are invariably many, many uses of Madame/Monsieur. However, the rest is a great example of authentique use according to my experience. Merci!

  • Bonjour Géraldine. ☺Ça va?
    Merci beaucoup pour les leçons récentes. I really enjoyed and learned a lot from the video and will continue to observe the customs and traditions when we go to Bergerac in September. Being from the north-east of England (we are called Geordies ) we are very friendly and smile when talking to strangers, and will talk to each other at a bus stop, in a shopping queue or anywhere else. Like the Americans it must be in our DNA!
    However, I respect other cultures and on previous holidays in France have always found the French people very helpful,polite and friendly, even when I speak French! Maybe it’s the smile after all.
    Bonne journèe!

  • The points you illustrated were very helpful. I see now why I have received a “cold shoulder” sometimes n France. It would help if you showed the 2nd conversation in print like the first one. You spoke too fast for me to understand it all.

  • The thing is, a truly American chart would have the “how much you talk” plummet to zero at “family” 😂

  • Je vous remercie pour cette leçon. Comme professeur de français au lyçée j’essayais toujours d’expliquer les différences entre la culture française et celle des Etats Unis. Je combattais les stereotypes!

  • I totally get it. I’m an extrovert, and I’ve my share of confusing french people I’m sure. But in the end I still think we each have a connection with each others culture because we see something we like.

  • I love the video but I like when you speak French… Not English.
    I live in France and it’s a bit difficult for me to understand those cultural differences. I am from south America and we are warm, smiley with everyone and it’s quite different here.

  • Merci Géraldine,
    Enseigner le bon comportement aux gens est une tâche belle et digne! J’apprécie beaucoup vos efforts dans ce domaine.
    Dites-moi, n’y a-t-il pas de phrases de courtoisie pour le boulanger …?:)
    Un bon exemple est le meilleur professeur …
    J’adore vos vidéos.


  • Bonsoir, my computer is anti-french so I’ll get straight to the point. My prof de francais dans les annees d’antain told us always use title – comme Bonjour Madame ou M’sieur. her mother would correct her with Bonjour qui… mon chat. Am I too old fashioned… it is 50yrs ago I realize.

  • Bonjour Géraldine, I appreciate your video so much! Thank you for sharing the cultural differences for meeting and developing relationships, including our perceptions of each other. We are a melting pot in the US and many people move around more than before (I’ve lived in four different areas so far, presently in the Seattle area). I’ve always thought that some people were more sociable than others, but I understand now that there may be a cultural component as well.

    Years ago, my family was traveling in France and, one night, had dinner in Colmar. As we were sitting down, I happened to make eye contact with someone in the French family seated next to us, and I said “Bonsoir!”. They were a family just like us, two parents and two kids. We talked throughout dinner, enjoying every moment. While watching your video I sort of chuckled thinking “oh no, I intruded”. We were happy to be on vacation, in France, and it seemed natural to say hello. Fast-forwarding, after writing letters and using email for five years, their daughter asked us if she could come live with us for six weeks during the summer. “Yes!!!” was our answer. I can still hear Amélie teaching un, deux, trois to my younger daughters, momentarily losing patience to say “un, deux, trrrois, not toi!”. To this day, we are friends, and we visit each other and stay over a few nights before traveling around. It’s their turn, although we don’t really take turns. We send each other quick postcards when we travel and we cherish our friendship.

    Thanks again for all you do, Géraldine!

    • Bonjour Marilyn,
      What a lovely story. Well done, you!
      If you’re still friends, you were not intruding. 🙂

      Here I see 2 elements that change the situation compared to what I talked about in the lesson:
      – They might have been on holiday too. And behaviours often change when we’re not home. We can be more social.
      – Children are a FANTASTIC social lubricant (dogs too). Many parents in new cities make friends via their children so I suspect that this common point helped them get out of their comfort zone too.

  • Bonjour Geraldine – c’est vrai que les Europeans sont un peu plus réservés et les Nord Ameriques sont ce que je decries comme ‘informel’ avec des étrangers. Je suis Irelandaise et j’ai passé beaucoup des anneés au Canada. On doit être comme une pêche quand on y vit. Maintenant nous avons demenagés en France et on doit re-apprendre d’être comme un coconut – encore. Oh la la !! – mais la leçon est trés importante pour comprendre comment on doit integrerer en France. Merci.

    • Bonjour Eileen,
      Quel parcours formidable ! En effet, quand on change de pays, il faut se réhabituer aux coutumes. 🙂
      Les Français adorent les Irlandais alors tu n’auras aucun souci.
      Comme ça va te servir souvent, je me permets de te corriger : on dit “je suis irlandaise” (sans le “e” et sans majuscule quand c’est un adjectif).
      Je te souhaite tout le meilleur pour ta nouvelle vie en France.

  • Bonjour, Geraldine! Ça fait une dizaine d’années que j’ai visité en France. Puisque je suis une femme d’un certain âge, j’ai appris et j’ai utilisé Madame/Monsieur/Mademoiselle quand j’ai parlé avec la boulangère, etc. Est-ce que cette politesse n’est plus au courant? Par example, on disait toujours, “Bonjour, madame”, et non “Bonjour.”

    • Bonjour Carolyn,
      “Bonjour, Madame” est toujours un peu plus élégant.
      Mais avec un simple “Bonjour”, tu ne choqueras personne.
      Sur ce point précis, fais ce qu’il te plait. Un peu plus de politesse n’est jamais une mauvaise idée. 🙂
      J’ai tendance à l’utiliser de plus en plus souvent aussi.

  • Bonjour Géraldine,
    Votre vidéo m’a plu beaucoup. J’ai bien aimé les deux conversations dans la boulangerie. This summer I was standing in a long line waiting to enter la Sainte-Chappele. We had to place our bags on a scanner and the tourists put their bags in the bins without acknowledging the French workers who were helping with the scanner. When my turn came, I said, “Bonjour.” And the man at the scanner smiled and gave a thumbs-up, as if to say, “Finalmente, la politesse!” And, about the bakery, it is so helpful to have a script. It is easy to think we are being polite, and to focus on the grammatical without really getting it right. Thank you! J’aime ça! Cheryl

  • I was in the military and I’ve had people ask “friends” questions like “He laughs with you?” after I walk out of a room. Apparently because of my rampant indifference towards the people I was not “friends” with.

    I’m from Acadiana. Maybe there’s something residual, but there is a limit to “openness” there. Small talk with strangers is largely superficial, intentionally, and meant to show respect and acknowledgement.

    Ignoring the greeting of anyone in America is considered rude – extremely. You mind as well should have just turned and cussed at them. Even toddlers will consider you mean if you don’t greet them back. We tend to learn this very early.

    The small talk is easy to bail on. Just say you’re late for something. A white lie never hurt anyone. We do it all the time between each other. It’s just a mechanic we use as a failsafe to avoid overtly brushing off the other person.

    But if someone says Hi, even if you’re just walking down the street… Just say Hi back.

    You might trigger the wrong person if you offend them by being rude – even unintentionally.

    • I want to clarify that by “being rude” I mean the other person can assuming all sorts of reasons for your apparent “rudeness.”

      All the ‘isms and ‘phobias are on the table in those situations, for example.

      It literally can be a dangerous thing to do – but you’re fine if you stick to touristy areas in/around big cities, national parks, etc.

  • Very fun Geraldine! I’m Canadian , and here most of here us are really overly friendly. Is true. And i have been put in my place for being so . But that doesn’t stop me from approaching people to speak with. And being French Canadian i am on a path to dispel the stereotypes of the French being rude etc. For the most part though, people are usually receptive because i try to have their interest at hand. And i have taken your lesson to heart and will be aware of all those elements in a conversation.

  • I’ll echo your statement that it’s not a case of “the French are hard to make friends with” but rather it’s often hard to make friends in a new country because you don’t know how it’s done. For example, my wife and I live near San Francisco and are members of a cultural association made up almost entirely of French expats. They always complain about how hard it is to make friends with Americans. So to help them, my wife and I have created a “buddy” program, matching up French with Americans (typically those who speak some French) and it’s been a big success.

  • Bonjour, Géraldine. May I call you Géraldine? I am American, but after listening to your peaches vs. coconuts analogy, I feel that I can relate more to the coconut, than the peach. Your insight into your culture has made me feel better about being the reserved, quiet person that I am. The two conversations that you presented were also interesting because they offered specific examples of what might be said. I do hope you will follow up with more videos on this topic. Merci et bonne journée.

  • This is very interesting. I consider myself to be good in French (3 years in a French speaking school to age 7), but I know that, whilst I might be bilingual, I am not bi-cultural. This article addressed cultural matters which I have not considered before and has been most helpful. I was once told by a French colleague “vous êtes trop direct”. Now I understand what that was all about. I am English by the way. I think that we are a little more open than the French, but not nearly as much as the Americans. Merci beaucoup Géraldine.

  • That was very illuminating. I like the longer format and all the charts and analyses. Are there any introverts in France? Like me. Talking of boring, does anyone in France find the long mealtimes boring and hard on one’s tush? Like me. If a person prefers fewer discussions at the table, and more walks after dinner, are they deemed odd? What would be the French word for this?

    • Bonjour Sue,
      It’s ok to be an introvert in France.
      Some people don’t like long meals either. However, they’re a big part of French social life so I wouldn’t recommend skipping them.
      However, we don’t always debate so no worries, we get tired too. 😉

  • I thought this was very helpful and I’d be interested in the continuum of along the friendship line, not in a commercial setting. For example, a fellow parent at a school or a co-worker.

  • Au revoir, Géraldine!

    I’ve found your videos and pdfs exceptionally useful and I wish you every success.

    You’re (sensibly) now targeting US customers. I love the US, but don’t wish to be addressed in American English. To me, American English is a distraction, like Québecquois or West African French.

    Thus of limited interest to this English English speaker… .

    • Hi Gerald,
      Thank you for your message but I’m not sure I understand what you mean.
      My English hasn’t changed/improved in 300+ episodes.
      I’d LOVE to have the ability to switch from one to another (If so, why stop at American and English? I’d love to learn Scottish, Irish, Welsh, Canadian, Australian, Kiwi, etc!) but can’t, yet.

      At last, all the versions of a language are equal. Québecois, Belgian, Swiss, Caribbean, Réunionais and all the other “dialectal forms” (hello Cajun!!) are as interesting as “French from France” (just like American, British, Australian, etc. are different but equally valid varieties of English). It’s racist to think that one type of language is superior to another. I speak the English I was taught (incl. 2 years in Yorkshire) and that my audience seems to understand so far.

      By definition, at Comme une Française, I proudly teach a form of “French from France” (with as much as possible its regional elements) but without ever dismissing any other kind of French.

      I always recommend students to learn the dialectal form of French they want and need. But I won’t support any kind of intolerance on this matter.

      • Merci bien Géraldine! Bien dit! C’est insupportable quand quelqu’un suppose que leur language est la meilleur que la language d’un autre anglophone ou francophone parce que l’accent ou la pronounciation est différent de la leur. Ce comportement est fier et diviseur.

      • Well said, Géraldine! I’m an American who loves the British, just as Gerald loves Americans. I, on the other hand, love the elegant “King’s English” and find it a little amusing – but also disappointing – that Gerald abhors American English. It does remind me, though, of my first visit to the Tower of London. We were organized into groups, and of course many countries were represented in each group, as the Tower of London is an iconic tourist destination. So our Beefeater guide started his tour with a question: “How many of you are from the United States?” A few of us proudly raised our hands. “Oh!” he said. “Are you here on holiday or did you come to learn the language?” Ha!

  • Thanks for this lesson, Geraldine. Very helpful! In a professional setting, do these same rules equally apply? Recently I sent a proposal to a non-profit organization and received a very cold, bureaucratic reply. Is there any way to recover so that a relationship can eventually be established?

    • Bonjour Barbara,
      Thank you for your question. It depends on the company.
      To students working in a French setting, I often recommend:
      – Smile less
      – Learn how to chit chat in French
      – Get up to date with French popular culture
      – Eat with your colleagues
      – Greet exactly like they do (Do they greet every colleague in the morning? If so do it too).

      About your proposal, I can’t say. I don’t have the context. It might have a been a standard reply.
      If you want to know more about it, I’d recommend you follow-up on the reply you got. 🙂
      That should clear the situation! Good luck!

  • i find it interesting regarding the graph for how french people might talk to strangers, compared with the number of french films i have seen where it appears that the french people will share lots with strangers on a bus or a train – it seems to all ‘come out’ whereas those things were not easily shared with friends of family – just sharing an observation really

  • Bonjour Géraldine,
    Wow, I can’t thank enough for all your generous information, enthusiasm and insight into your beautiful french language and culture. I moved to Paris from Santa Cruz, California in May 2017 and recently moved down here to Nice and find the people so friendly! I also found people easy to talk to in Paris, (I lived in Passy, 16th) but much more so here. My country is very diverse regarding social exchange. For example I worked most of my life in the L.A., Beverly Hills area and people are not at all friendly there! Very snobbish and self congratulatory. But if you go to where I was born, Atlanta, Georgia, you will find the people like your peach illustration. In fact, there is a term of endearment used if you are a woman from Georgia. You are called a “Georgia Peach!” The State Fruit is the peach because so many peaches are grown there.

    So, I would say we can always generalize about how people are in specific countries but it is most certainly depending upon WHERE in each country. One last example, or maybe two! I lived in Sweden for six years in my forties, (I’m now sixty-five) and Swedish people have a reputation for being cold. They are not cold. they do have cold weather, hehe, but they have the warmest hospitality I’ve known. So my final example is my German boyfriend. He is from Munich and is not at all what many people would consider distant, cold or unfriendly. I am so in love with this guy because he is so sweet and considerate and ] in a blindfold test I would not in a million years guess he was what the stereotypical German is considered.

    Not to shatter your theory about Americans verses French, but I think that if we regard each region separately is the best way to characterize people.

    Keep up your great work Ma Belle and know you are giving the world so much love in what you do! I will write to you in French next time as right now I am concentrating more on learning the beautiful German language where you get to pronounce EVERY LETTER that is written!

    gros bisous,

    • Bonjour Judith,
      Thank you for your comment.
      No worries, it is not “my” theory. There are tons of books on the topic. 🙂
      I know there are differences between regions etc.
      The goal is to show you the main cultural trends.

      • Bonjour Géraldine, je suis entièrement d’accord avec votre leçon sur la pêche et la noix de coco. La dame a été super gentille mais n’a certainement pas eu assez d’expérience en France pour comprendre ce message. Moi je de Right on!


  • Salut Geraldine
    I can’t see a written lesson below this video.
    I really don’t accept things like “the French” do this, the French don’t do that” ! There are 60 million “French”
    There are big differences between city dwellers, Parisians and those who live in the South and the North East. Not to mention the different backgrounds, African, Arab etc
    Here in the country, we greet everybody with a Hello and a “have a good day”!

    • Bonjour Brian,
      Thank you for your comment.
      Teaching a topic often means making generalities first to help students understand the main points before heading, if necessary, into more and more details.
      Here, I made a 30-minute lesson on big cultural differences.
      Of course, not every French (and non-French) people does ALL of that. But most do and they will recognize it as a good estimate of what most of the population does.
      Recognizing patterns helps to “get” a topic.
      It wouldn’t make any sense to analyse each behaviour. And it would take 30 hours.

      Beyond that, I often discourage students to overlook patterns just because “my neighbour doesn’t do that”. It’s misleading to take 1 example as a general rule and it gets students blocked in their learning process.
      If you see other behaviours: great! Notice them, see how they differ from what you learned and enrich yourself from it. See if you see again, and why. This is a fantastic process.

      If you’re really interested in the richness of the language in details, check out the awesome work done at

  • Bonjour! J’adore ca! Meme si j’ai ammeillioré mon francais, ce sont les regles de conversations qui m’echape. Par exemple: moi, je n’utilise jamais “voila”. Ni ” bonne journée”(comme americaine qui était critique par les allemands pour cette phrase “insincere”, j’evite normalement).
    Merci Geraldine!

  • Nothing to do with the content of your presentation, (which was very good), but I noticed that you were wearing some rings on your left hand. Without being overly inquisitive, what did these rings signify, unless they were merely decorative?

  • Salut Geraldine! We met at the café when you came for ramit’s event in chicago. This is a wonderful video, and i wish language bloggers and teachers would focus a lot more on these issues. So if you’re wondering whether people want more, the answer is YES! 🙂
    By the way, this is the branch of linguistics called pragmatics, in case you feel like searching for more information on it. It’s kind of the 4th leg of the language table and gets the least attention because it’s so hard to codify (the others are grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation).
    If you haven’t read it already i also recommend the excellent book “évidences invisibles”. It compares cultural practices between the French and Americans.
    Thanks again for the detailed breakdown of these short conversations. That, plus the cultural background, are so important to getting along with people in another language.

  • Great presentation. It reminds me, in general terms, of how introverts and extroverts approach conversation, with extroverts being a much more “American” style. Introverts misunderstand the friendliness and talkativeness of extroverts all the time in a very same way.

      • Merci Géraldine,
        Enseigner le bon comportement aux gens est une tâche belle et digne! J’apprécie beaucoup vos efforts dans ce domaine.
        Dites-moi, n’y a-t-il pas de phrases de courtoisie pour le boulanger …?:)
        Un bon exemple est le meilleur professeur …
        J’adore vos vidéos.


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