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,
Géraldine

Join the conversation!

  • 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 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.
    merci
    colette

  • 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.

  • 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,
    Judith

    • 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.

  • 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 https://francaisdenosregions.com/

  • 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.

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