French Culture: Meeting New People (French vs. American)

Salut!

So I wanted to share with you a personal story. It’s une anecdote, a short anecdote that happened to me recently. And it made me think about cultural differences in an everyday setting: meeting new people.

Let’s dive in.

1. The story: at the theater

A few weeks ago I was in Japan, and I went to see a play au théâtre, at the theater.

A Canadian couple was sitting behind me. Then an American couple arrived to seat next to them, and I could overhear their conversation. Ils se sont présentés, they presented themselves to each other.

Canadian woman: “Hi, my name is Kathy! I’m from Ontario, I’ve been in Japan for a while. How are you doing? Yeah, you can sit here.”

American couple: “Hi! We’re Bob and Nikkey. We’re from Mississippi, how are you? It’s our first time in Japan.”

They immediately share things that would be considered quite personal in France: where they’re from, their lives back home, their travels… 

My French brain thought: “Oh my God, they’re talking too much!

Not because they were bothering anyone (they weren’t), but because that was clashing with what French people would expect from the situation.

A few minutes later, the theater was packed. A French couple went to sit next to me (I quickly realized they were French, we may have a built-in “Frenchdar”). 

As there was no seat left, so they decided to sit on the floor.  This minor breaking of rules didn’t bother anyone (and nobody complained), but it was still breaking local expectations of the Japanese culture.

So we made a few jokes together about how French people break the rules abroad. It was light-hearted but short: we exchanged a few words for less than a minute. We did not share names, or our plans for the day after, or stories… Nothing.

At the end of the play, we said “Bonne soirée”, goodbye, and left.

Check out these related episodes:
– Making Presentations in French
– Bonjour, Bonsoir ou Bonne nuit ?

2. Analysis

I feel like these two contrasting interactions sum up one difference between French culture and American culture.

Do I think one way is better than the other? No!
Do I think it always apply to everyone in a given country? No!
Do I think it’s useful for you to know about these differences? Yes!

We have des attentes différentes (= different expectations), when meeting a new person.

In my story, everyone reacted the way their culture expect them too.

In France, we won’t normally share personal informations, like where we’re from, or even our names. It’s considered too personal (and/or boring) for a first meeting.

For instance, in my building, I’ve regularly made small talk with my neighbour for seven years, and we still didn’t share our names. French culture don’t expect it!

We can still make light jokes about things we know we share. Abroad, with other French people, it can often be self-deprecating jokes about us, for example.

This difference is at the heart of the metaphor of peaches/coconuts.

It also links back to our earlier episode about different gradual ways (and words) to become a friend, in France.

Basically: in French culture, conversations grow as we get to know each other.

This means:
1 – Our “default mode” is Silence. 
On a bus, on a theater, in a queue… we rarely talk to other people we don’t know. Because it might be bothering them. Silence is seen as respectful.

2 – Sharing too much too soon is frightening.
As the relationship, you can share more. The topics you can bring up, the things you can say, the vocabulary you can use…

There’s an important between the way we talk to someone we just met, and a long-time acquaintance, or a close friends. That’s something I really wanted to stress out with our course Subtle French for Fitting In!

We put a lot of work into this, to make you see how French vocabulary evolves with a relationship.

3. Beyond the analysis: how can you use it?

WELL, YOU CAN USE THIS SUBTLE FRENCH TO… BETTER FIT IN.

If you barge in with personal questions, you might get strange looks, and people will try to keep their distances even more! Then you might experience French people as “standoffish”.

And on the other hand, you can also adapt your expectations: French people probably won’t share much with you from the get go.

Of course, you’ll always find une exceptionan exception.

  • Many French people are still very friendly from the start. They’ll be happy to find their match!
  • A more interesting, personal conversation can be worth breaking a few rules and getting a few looks.

Just be careful, some people might find an immediate personal conversation a bit emotionally draining.

After all, there’s no better view here. They’re just different!

ET TOI ?

What massive cultural difference do you feel with French culture?

Tell me in the comments section on the blog, I’d love to hear from you.

You can also give me your ideas for future videos, for topics you’d want me to cover!

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Join the conversation!

  • Hello, I agree completely with your presentation of cultural differences regarding privacy. I was told that often in Paris, a nice car is garaged and only used incognito in order not to reveal financial status. However, out of frustration I have learned an introduction that seems to work. “Bonjour, je m’appelle Christopher Martinez de San Francisco”. From experience I found that San Francisco is an ice breaker. For obvious reasons, San Francisco is regarded as “hip” and “super cool”. My first trip to France in 1973, I rented a car and stayed in camp grounds in a tent with a guitar in hand. “Bonjour, je m’appelle Christopher Martinez de San Francisco. Tu aimes le rock ?” worked like a charm. To this day, I’ve rarely been unable to disarm the French, especially the little old ladies I love to charm. Anyway, it’s true, the French can be very tight lipped but they’re like oysters waiting to be opened.

    • Bonjour Christopher Martinez de San Francisco 🙂
      You are 100% right. French people are VERY interested in foreign countries, especially the USA.
      It’s a great ice breaker. Big cities they saw on TV make wonders to start a conversation.

  • J’ai de la famille en France car ma mère était française. J’ai découvert que même les membres de la famille ne partagent pas d’informations personnelles comme les Américains. J’essaie de suivre leur exemple dans des conversations qui peuvent être plus personnelles.

  • I am Japanese who have lived in Europe and US since I was 19 years old. My daughter is 10 years old, born and raised in the US. We took a trip to Paris for 10 days in March, and while we were there, my daughter noticed how Americans talking loud in cafe, on a bus etc about their personal problems. We love living in California, and we, especially my daughter who is an American, hadn’t even notice how loud Americans are. We never ever notice it while in different parts of the US. It was very interesting.

  • Vous avez raison. J’habite Paris depuis trois ans. Par nature je suis assez silencieuse, alors je n’ai pas fait peur aux Français et j’étais aussi tout à fait à l’aise. Heureusement, en France mes réticences ont été récompensées parce que maintenant j’ai une amie et aussi des copains/copines. Je ne connais pas le nom de mes voisins même s’ils ne sont pas du tout désagréables (de temps en temps un peu bruyants).

  • Merci Geraldine, J’apprends Le français, alors j’essaierai de répondre en français.
    Je vais aller en Français en septembre et cette vidéo a été très utile pour comprendre les coutumes. Je suis Australien. Bonne Journée Lynne

  • Nous sommes Americains dans la France profonde, et nous parlons avec les chauffeurs et travailleurs tous les jours chez nous. Ils n’ont jamais offert leurs noms. And it seems awkward to me when seeing each other after lunch – “bonjour” cannot be said twice in one day of course, and smiling would be weird. So it almost seems to this American that the afternoons resume with some resentment. I know it’s not, just seems that way. For me, I like to get people laughing, at myself if necessary. They must think I’m crazy, but I’ve found that one in five French people also like to laugh. So there.

  • Brilliant!!, I AM CANADIAN AND MY PARENTS ARE BRITISH AND VERY PRIVATE MY REACTION TO MEETING NEW PEOPLE IS ALWAYS RESEVED OR AT LEAST I THOUGHT IT WAS…IHOW KNEW REVEALING YOU NAME WAS BEING OVER ZEALOUS will be a little less
    Descrptive of exactly where I AM from AND NOT BE INTRUSIVE AND ASK WHERE
    PEOPLE ARE FROM THANK YOU FOR THE ADVICE. I MOST APPRECIATE YOUR EFFORTS A LA PROCHAINE ANONYMOUS

  • Particularly when abroad, Americans might be even more inclined to share personal information if they find themselves with someone else from their continent while in Japan. That would be an experience that would bring them together even more. But as a woman, when traveling abroad alone, I would not be as open because of safety issues, so it all depends on the situation. This is a very good topic and I too love these videos.

  • it is true; but the difference of each culture makes the world interesting. I enjoy this episode a lot, I want to know how french see and think in all the way. Merci Geraldine, j’adore tes videos

  • Je crois que le scénario fait une différence en ce cas. Les deux couples qui s’en rencontrent étaient en vacances et en Japon où l’anglais n’est pas souvent parlé. Donc ils seront heureux parler franchement l’un à l’autre.
    Peut-être?

  • Merci Geraldine. Tres interessant! Il y a peut-etre une difference a la campagne? Nous avons vecu en Ariege pendant 2 ans et les gens de la compagnie et surtout nos voisins (qui tous travaillaient pour la meme compagnie) nous ont accepte toute de suite. Ils etaient curieux, je crois, de rencontrer des Australiens. Je me demande si les pays ou il y a beaucoup de monde et pas beaucoup de place ont cette habitude de respect, tandis que les pays ou il y a beaucoup de place et moins de monde cherchent le contact. Qu’en pensez-vous? [Excusez-moi: Les accents sont en greve!]

  • People I know in the U.S. are reserved and do not talk a lot or give their names to strangers, just like the French people you describe. It is a matter of age and class.

  • Bonjour Geraldine, how informative. My husband and I will be travelling to France for the first time this year. We are from Australia where the culture is very laid back and it is common to hear strangers discuss all things from where they come from to how many kids they have, their names etc. It will be a totally different mindset for us. In saying that 40 years ago when I was a child we would not share too personal stuff and I am horrified at what my children will share nowadays. Thanks again

  • Bonjour Geraldine-When I met my french friend here in the USA- I just really liked her so much that I probably was too friendly at first- but she has been here for about 5 years, so I don’t think she was offended although I will say sometimes she was quiet when trying to probably understand me!

  • Merci Geraldine. C’est très intéressant . On est souvent comme ci en angleterre aussi. Actuellement, on est comme les Americaines et Canadiennes de plus en plus. Mais il y a toujours “the English reserve“.

  • This was very helpful. It is easy to feel offended by someone from another culture when we don’t understand the different expectations. I live in the us but spend time in France regularly and this is a big adjustment for me so I’m always trying to be more aware. Thank you for this. Merci.

  • I think this is one of the reasons I like France so much. I am American, but I’d rather not tell my life story to a total stranger, either. 🙂

  • I live part of the year in France and have a wide circle of French friends there. I also work with French people in California, helping them adapt to American culture. I agree with you that how you approach new people in the two countries is quite different. Having said that, I too-often see people let those differences become a barrier to making new friends. As a result, the English-speakers in France keep among themselves, as do the French in America. My advice is always to understand the local etiquette and then go for it! Make an effort to meet new people, recognizing that sometimes you will fail. But the rewards of succeeding are enormous!

    • I agree with Keith. It’s good to be aware of cultural differences and make an effort to follow the locals’ customs. At the same time, the real point is to connect with people and the only way to do that is to, as Keith says, “go for it”. If it goes nowhere, it’s still good practice, and you may end up making treasured, long-time friend.

    • Keith and Alicia, too,
      I have to agree with you. Know the local culture. For example, I am Deaf and almost all of my friends in France are also Deaf. They act vastly different from the hearing people in France. So for me, it is knowing 2 sets of culture while in France or among their people!

  • Bonjour Geraldine,
    Merci, ceci est une petite anecdote intéressante et m’a fait réfléchir sur les attitudes au Royaume-Uni. Il n’y a pas vraiment une culture, c’est différent dans différentes parties. Je crois que vous avez vécu dans le Yorkshire. Là, peut-être quelqu’un vous a-t-il appelé “amour”, ce qui est commun dans le nord parmi la famille ou les personnes âgées parlant aux plus jeunes. Je pense que c’est un signe de bonne volonté. (I don’t think I can explain this well in french but it has nothing to do with “amour”) Je ne pense pas que les Français comprendraient cela.
    J’ai fait l’expérience d’une générosité très chaleureuse de la part des Américains, qui, d’après mon expérience, peuvent être très ouverts à l’idée de parler à des étrangers. Mais peut-être qu’il y a maintenant une attitude plus hostile envers les étrangers, je ne sais pas.
    Quand j’étais un enfant, tout le monde connaissait toutes les familles qui vivaient dans leur rue et connaissaient généralement leurs prénoms. Pas maintenant et dans les grandes villes comme Londres les gens souvent ne connaissent pas leurs voisins.
    Cordialement
    (Apologies if my french is rubbish!)

    • This is a very interesting insight into English Culture and I think you have done very well to explain the Yorkshire use of the word “love”. I’m sure that it would be very difficult for a French person to understand the nuances. This really highlights the cultural differences.

  • Merci, Geraldine !

    How does this cultural norm apply when an American expat in rural France meets his only French neighbor for the first time?

  • Super interesting (and amusing!). I had no idea that names are that personal. Why is “what is your name?” “my name is ________” the first thing my children and I learned when beginning to study French?!?!?

    • I would suggest that part of this standard beginner-level conversation is intended for schoolchildren who would, in fact, introduce themselves by name.

  • Hi Geraldine,
    That is such a good example of this cultural difference! Always better to start slowly in conversation and see where it goes. Many times I’ve had French women who note my American accent ask about my trip which leads to interesting conversation about travels in France and the US. Still not too personal but fun!

  • Just in time! My colleague’s son will be visiting us here in Chicago from Paris for three weeks this summer. I’ll know NOT to ask him a lot of questions until he is comfortable. If you have any other ideas on what to expect or things we should do/avoid, would love to hear it!

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