French Culture: 5 Things that Scare Foreigners

Salut !

A few weeks back, we looked at how to scare the hell out of a French person, remember? What kinds of things can be overwhelming for us. You know, stuff like “a hug” or being over friendly. All that might frigthen us without your even being aware of it.

This week, you’ll see the other side of this topic: what habits WE have that might unsettle you. See what I mean?

Click to watch « Cultural Differences: 5 Scary French Things for Foreigners »:

Links to the videos : Kiss or Shake Hands How to Say « That » in French Politely Decline Foie Gras

Et toi ?
I really understand how scary cultural differences can be and I’d love to hear from you:

What cultural difference were you scared of in France?
Can you share 1 thing you’ve overcome and 1 thing you’re still not ready to experience again?

Bisous bisous,


Join the conversation!

  • It was not my experience when last in Normandie that the locals did not smile or greet, we exchanged many a bonjour and nods and smiles with people everywhere. I found the locals very warm and friendly.

  • My French is quite good after 5 years in Paris, although I still have my ‘petit accent américain’. But I speak a perfectly competent French first, and then a salesperson responds to me in English (at a local shop, not at some touristy place), or when someone at my sports club does it, or a friend’s friend at a party, I feel so disappointed: do they not consider how hard it is to live permanently in a country and have strangers remind you, with the first words they address to you, that you are an outsider (“you’re not one of us; your French is not good enough for us to continue in French, etc.”)? If the French are so civil and non-invasive in other circumstances, why here do they feel free to do something so intimate and personal like responding to me in my language, when I have addressed them in theirs? Friends often tell me, as you say here, that those people are just trying to be polite and helpful, but it doesn’t usually feel like that to me — it feels quite the opposite, that they are being dismissive of my attempts to integrate into French society, and that they are (by not responding in French) even actively undermining my attempts to just go about living my life, un-noticed, like any other local.

  • I love French food. I started in 1964 by ordering one thing and by accident I was presented with “fruits de mer” . I was horrified as I had never eaten anything with a shell before. My husband whispered, “You’ve got to eat it – we’ll have to pay for it”. So I tried it all and have never looked back. I do have reservations about fois gras and Rocquefort cheese production, but I love both.

  • When I lived in France (1966-67) I was uncomfortable with long meals, as a special guest. I have a small appetite and there would be too much food, too much wine, and my rear would be tired of sitting down.

  • I think your voice is fine. Its a little hard to understand because we are just learning. I am sure we would not sound totally clear to a French person.

  • Bonjour a tout!
    Je suis trés desolée mais je parle trés mal en Français. Alors, je vais ércire en Anglais. Et… merci beaucoup pour la video!

    Now that I have watched the video one situation I witnessed in France makes more sense to me. When I (Lithuanian) was camping with my Estonian friends in France, we heard what we thought to be a big row just a few steps from our tent. We were told that the people involved were arguing because one person slept in her car when somebody else wanted her to move the car to another place. Estonians usually don’t mind too much what other people are doing and how they are behaving and I did not mind it too much either, but it looked funny to us that the people were screaming at each other for no big reason (our point of view)… Actually it was the only French quarrel/discussion that I heard over the five days I spent in France. I thought the people were a bit too cranky, a bit crazy… After finishing quareling they came up to us and said sorry and I was really suprised that they did so, I didn’t feel like people should say sorry in this situation, as I said, we didn’t mind them having a loud quarrel, it was just strange to us how people can be shouting so much over a small thing. 🙂 Cultural differences. 🙂

    • This thing not a French thing!! U will see it in everywhere and every country!! Im asian and moved to many countries and i saw that not in france only!

  • Great video! These things were all true, (especially pour faire les bises!) when I first arrived in France. One other thing that scared me for a long time was to argue back when an official says “non”. I’ve now learnt over the years that when they say “non”, it doesn’t actually mean no at all. It means “convince me that your point of view is right”. 🙂 After 10 years, I’ve now worked up the courage not to take no for an answer and get what I want, just like a french person does!

  • Hi everyone,
    Pardon my english, I haven’t spoken this language for ages.

    I think this video is very interesting and really accurate. I just wanna say that if you’re interested in understanding how French people can argue, debate or verbally fight and remaining friends at the same time, I advice you to watch the French movie called “Le prénom”. It’s a great movie and it gives you a pretty good example of our love of debating.

    Géraldine, merci pour ces vidéos. Je suis prof de FLE et c’est une ressource très intéressante à utiliser en classe.

  • I went on a study abroad to Paris in 1998 and I still remember women having a heated discussion in church! I was horrified! After all these years, it finally makes sense!

    I have a question though: Do French people have trouble being direct? It seems you say it’s uncomfortable for you to talk about some of these things so directly and honestly. If so, how does that work when people are so eager to debate?

    • Hi Kristie,

      WOW. What a precise and very interesting question, Kristie.

      People will argue on topics they’re ok to talk about. That’s the rule.

      So. If you’re not comfortable about talking about your income, you won’t debate on this. Or any other taboo.
      BUT. If you’re very open about your views on politics or any other topic, then the debate can start.
      As you understood, it is not related to remaining friends or not, it’s often “just a game”.

      About being direct, yes. Definitely. We often need 10 words to mean 1. This is why ads in English that require 3 words, need 20 in French when they’re translated. 🙂

  • Bonjour Geraldine. Je vs félicite d’avoir créer ce site. Je suis complètement bilingue après plus que 10 ans en France mais afin de respecter les autre je vais poser ma question en anglais. Why do we find streets are often cleaner in France, as a whole, than the sidewalks often found with dog poop, spit or cigarettes? My wife who is French finds it funny I walk in the street when we shop and she is on the sidewalk with the kids. When the small one steps into something who laughs then? I would love to see you take on the topic of dealing with French Administration. Brave enough? ;). Again, love the site and so many things I have seen you cover which relates to something I often wondered over the years, coming from the states, and happily have overcome as I call France my home.

  • I had a food experience — as a student in France I visited a French friend’s home where fish was the main course. The whole fish, including bones, mouth, eyes, etc., which we’re not used to in the US. I was staring at the eyes rather dubiously when my friend reached over and plucked one eye out with her fingers and ate, just to see the horrified look on my face! We all laughed about it, but I politely declined to eat the other eye.

  • Bonjour,

    I am currently living in France but am originally from Finland, so what I experience as scary is a little different from those who come from English speaking cultures.
    For example, I have yet to master the art of small talk. Small talk is just something that does not happen often in Finland and makes me very uncomfortable. For example, contrary to a previous commentor’s opinion, I think people greet each other a lot, at least in the countryside where I live, and those random ‘bonjours’ still take me by surprise. In Finland this would be considered very awkward and as an attempt to strike up a conversation, but each culture has their own little traits I guess.
    One thing I’ve gotten used to are the kisses. In Finland people mostly just say ‘hi’ when they meet or maybe shake hands, though women might sometimes hug each other. I’ve gotten so used to the kisses that now going back to Finland feels odd every time, since now when meeting people I feel awkward just standing and not going in for the kisses – but Finnish people are known to be awkward, so that’s just one other thing to add to the list 🙂

  • Bon soir, Geraldine

    Merci beaucoup pour cette page, it´s very helpfull!

    As for this topic – I have only positive experience (maybe because my own culture is closer to the french than to the anglophonic one) and I actually love les debats :). Had a great french boss in the past and what I liked about him best was that he was always willing to discuss and explain. He never took offence when I disagreed with him or “challenged” his instructions… he seemed happy to debate and convince me. Sometimes we would “quarrel” for hours, but our arguments were always constructive and I learned a lot from him. Used to think it was a personal trait of his, but now I am learning it might have been his being french? In that case I should get myself a french boss again I guess 🙂

    PS: If anyone thinks the french are loud – it´s just because they haven´t lived in Cyprus 😛
    PPS: I hear and understand both your french and english very well in the videos (using headphones), although neither is my native tongue.

  • Bonjour, Géraldine —
    I visited France for three weeks a couple of years ago and loved the experience. I can tell you one thing that shocked me on a number of occasions. Walking into what I thought was the ladies room, I found it was actually an anteroom where men and women would wash up at sinks after using the toilet. That’s unusual enough for an American. However, urinals were placed in corners and were being used by the men right in front of those washing up! Quelle horreur! I also witnessed men urinating in public along the Seine. Maybe this behavior is more European than just French, but it’s certainly different from home.

    P.S.: I just discovered your site through a classmate’s recommendation and I love it! Merci!

  • I got over being afraid of the bis a while ago, but the French love of yelling/arguing still terrifies me. I still feel a bit ill thinking of the time I asked my French host mom a question about the ironing. She proceeded to scream at me for half an hour. Completely inappropriate. There’s a reason French women have a reputation for being absolutely crazy.

    • Bonjour Joy,
      Please don’t make one example a generality.
      This person maybe was a bit angry or had a bad day.

  • I agree about the difficulty of hearing Geraldine clearly! Geraldine, it would be helpful to record using as good equipment and the best settings as possible, because you are teaching about language orally, and we are listening on computer speakers of varying quality. This is much harder than hearing someone in person. Also, when you combine listening to someone speak with an accent plus less-than-ideal sound quality (for example, over the phone or with background noise), it gets very difficult! Consonants get masked by background noise and they are the first thing to get dropped in recordings because they are softer and higher pitched. And with a foreign accent, the vowels and inflections sound different. So that’s why recording quality really makes a difference. Thanks so much! I’ve learned a lot from you!

    • I think those corresponds directly with foreigners in another country, specifically those visiting France. Instead of expecting others do all they can so you understand them, perhaps you need to do something! I listen on headphones and have no problem understanding Geraldine. So, perhaps if you did something, you too could understand better. Voila!

    • Bonjour Lori,
      Thanks for your concern.
      Please take in account that I do all this by myself with no professional team/equipment/experience.
      This sound issue will be improved ASAP.
      At the moment, maybe trying to use headphones might help. 🙂

  • I find it sometimes difficult to hear and understand you in your new setting. Is it possible that you could wear a microphone? The echo in the room makes it difficult for me to hear clearly. Am I the only one? I really don’t want to miss a word!

    • D’accord, Carla! Geraldine, your voice is so beautiful to listen to, but we do have to strain sometimes…

    • Carla,
      I had more difficulty with the sound on this particular video than the others. However, when I put on a headset, it was just fine. If you continue to have problems, you might consider that option. I was surprised at the difference.

  • I disagree with your recommendation for foreigners to try to speak French even though they may not be very good at it. I am certain that my French is bit better than a typical American because I taught French to high school teachers. Yet, every time I addressed a salesperson, cashier or waiter in French, he or she would invariably answer me in English. I stopped trying to use the language after this happened repeatedly and felt rather insulted.

    • Bonjour Susan,
      Don´t feel insulted. In my experience both parties practice their skills in respectively french and english and it works well because both are imperfect and insecure. I rather enjoy that little game. 🙂

    • Bonjour Susan,
      Please don’t feel insulted. This is not the intention at all.
      French people who answer in English validate the fact that you speak a little French (which is great) and then want to make you feel comfortable by making an effort to speak YOUR language. They want to be polite and be helpful.
      I know very well the game of French people willing to practice their English on Anglophones willing to practice their French.
      Don’t stop speaking French if you want to practice it. 🙂

  • The most difficult thing for me is that French people do not greet or smile at strangers in passing. When I do smile and nod at men they seem to think I’m interested in something more and immediately start telling me how beautiful I am (I’m not, I’m just ordinary) or asking me out. It’s unfotunate that it is difficult to be friendly or have a casual chat without further expectations, but I don’t let that stop me 🙂

  • i moved to paris for 2 years in the early 90s. i was ecstatic and thrilled and also a bit nervous, but that’s to be expected, d’ac ? alors: i was on the Metro for the first time. i came to my stop, stood in front tof the doors waiting for them to open as they do in Manhattan. nothing. i began to hear some talk , which got louder and louder & more angry in tone . i realized something was horribly wrong with the train! we were stuck !! when suddenly a huge hairy arm snaked its way over my shoulder and lifted the magic little lever on the doors ….and they flew open, like magic. people pushed past me glaring and grumbling & cursing at the stupid American…and i learned very quickly & efficiently how one exits the train in france. VOILÀ !!!

    • Ha! I had that very same experience. Unfortunately, no one in my car was getting out at my stop and I missed the stop totally. Had to turn around at the next one.

      Geraldine, you hit the nail on the head with the arguments. I witnessed two heated debates between a mover and the homeowner. At the end of the move, though, they were having a beer together. I also had a French couple staying with me, and oh my, the squabbling right in front of me! They even tried to bring me into the argument and take sides. They laughed at how diplomatic I was, and how I tried to remove myself from the area. At least they could see I was uncomfortable and they had pity!

      • Bonjour JB,

        Thanks! However, even for me, it’s VERY uncomfortable to witness arguments where I’m not sure what the issue is. 😉

    • What a story, Lucy! 😀
      I LOVE how Metro doors open. It’s so much nicer than the plain buttons we see in RERs.

  • Chaque annee, nous restonspour un mois ou deux dans la region Herault Lanquedoc. La bise dans le sud semble toujours etre trois baisers, est-ce le cas?

  • Salut Géraldine 🙂
    For me it was driving on French roads – In Australia we drive on the left, and it took a few days to get used to how the traffic flows and to keep my courage on narrow roads when trucks or cars came speeding the other way without any sign of slowing. I think French drivers respect those who hold their ground 🙂

    I would love you to do a video on driving in France 🙂

    Au revoir – Jerry

    • Great idea Jerry, haven’t thought about this! Every time we go to Great Britain, we need a few hours too. 🙂

  • Taxi drivers that think you don’t know your way around Paris because you speak english. Subways in Paris that don’t post closing times.

  • Definitely the argument….. it is so hard to follow the language when everyone talks at the same time.

  • I think you could go even further to describe the argument issue. Why do the French all insist on speaking at the same time? I cannot attend a professional meeting without feeling like I am swimming in a shouting match. Watch any round-table discussion on the television and you will see what I mean. No one waits their turn to speak. And, journalists are notorious for asking a question, then interrupting the interviewee while they are answering. For a foreigner, it seems to be a blatant lack of disrespect for their interlocutor.

    • Bonjour Judy,
      I think it’s a bit like an over-enthusiasm to speak.
      When you’re with friends, it’s like a game where the ball passes from one person to the other.
      In political deabate, I feel like they want to be the loudest to impose their ideas.

  • My husband had emergency surgery. It has been very scarey. He has been in hospital for 1 week 1 day and will remain more days

  • I have had the problem with arguments. I had our neighbours round for a apéro and our mayor arrived to chat to my hubby (he is also his boss). My neighbour who dislikes his policies started a very heated argument with him, they were shouting at each other – in our house!. Then our neighbours son joined in. We tried to calm things down but they ignored us and carried on. Some of our other neighbours actually left and we walked into the garden and left them to it. This didn’t seem to phase them at all and they continued. How do you think we should of handled it? It would of been very hard to tell the boss/mayor to shut up.

    • Bonjour Donna,
      ahah, I imagine this situation pretty well.
      It’s hard to calm this kind of people down. You have to be firm.
      Phrases like : “Messieurs, je vous propose de passer à autre chose.” or “Pourriez-vous continuer votre discussion dans le jardin ?”.
      Yes, it’s hard to tell your boss to shut up.

      • Thanks Geraldine,

        Hopefully we won’t have this problem again. We have been here longer now and are a bit more confident in situations like this.

  • Get My Weekly Lessons

    In Your Inbox

    Join the 30,000+ French learners who get my premium spoken French lessons for free every week!

    Share this post!


    Download this lesson as a PDF!

    Please enter your name and email address to get the lesson as a free PDF!