Formality - Conformity
would be tempting to state that American culture encourages casualness,
whereas French culture promotes formality; in many respects, the opposite
is true, as Americans are more likely to follow the rules and laws that
exist in relatively small numbers, while the French, who face a plethora
of rules, tend to flout or ignore them— sometimes simply in order
to keep their existence at a manageable level of sanity or simplicity.
This is especially obvious when it comes to laws that are supposed to
frame daily collective life, largely unenforced and in many cases unenforceable.
On the other hand, many aspects of French
public life are characterized by formality, which could
be defined as strict adherence to (mostly unspoken) rules of behavior
in a wider range of social situations. If you want to blend in, earn
respect, or at least be taken seriously, you must do your best to figure
out and abide by these rules. They may be difficult to grasp, partly
because they are often implicit, but also because the French often claim
to be fiercely individualistic, when in fact, they tend to shy away
from expressing individuality and originality. Witness the availability
of clothes, which are often more fanciful in cut and color than what
one can find in American stores, yet remain within a very narrow range
of styles, so that everyone is wearing the same fashions and colors
at the same time, and it proves extremely difficult to break the mold.
In the U.S, clothes may be less stylish, but a broader choice is available
at all times and people (with the exception of hard-core fashionistas)
feel less compelled to wear something that is not "in" at
any given moment. Which brings us to...
Dress codes. From
a French perspective, Americans tend to dress excessively casually in
situations where no specific dress code is established (shopping, going
to a friend's place, to a college class), and excessively formally when
required to do so. The French are, in a way, less extreme in their approach
to formal dress, which is why you will see business people in the kind
of fanciful, colorful garb that would be unthinkable in an American
corporate setting; on the other hand, this is also and why few people
ever get to wear tuxedos and gowns, except those who attend state functions
or society balls (hence the absence in France of "formal wear"
rental stores so ubiquitous in the U.S.). On the other hand, French
people tend to dress relatively formally all the time; nothing amuses
(or horrifies) them more than the American habit of stepping out of
one's home in shorts, sneakers or sandals, and a wrinkled T-shirt. The
quintessential vision of American sloppiness in French eyes is a woman
going shopping in what looks like a house frock, with curlers in her
hair. Even among the relatively casual college student crowd, you will
notice very few T-shirts–jeans–and– sneakers outfits
on a university campus; and French people tend to wear age- and gender-distinctive
clothes and accessories in most circumstances. It is of course acceptable
to be dressed like a kid when you are 10, much less so after you start
becoming an adult (around 16), and definitely not thereafter when you
find yourself in an "adult" situation like work or higher
Read "Pourquoi les Américaines n'ont pas de look" <http://madame.lefigaro.fr/style/le-no-look-des-americaines-160115-93781>
an article in Le Figaro that will give you a sense of how the
French feel about the complete lack of fashion sense among Americans
(this piece is about women, but men are just as concerned).
n'ont pas peur d'arriver avec une robe de bal en soirée. Et
enfilent impunément leur jogging informe le week-end. Autant
dire que les Américaines nous laissent parfois perplexes quant
à leur conception du style. […] A-t-on le droit de dégainer
sa robe fourreau pour un simple afterwork ou, pire, de mettre des
Uggs sous prétexte que c’est dimanche? À l’aube
de la 72e Fashion Week de New York—et au péril de notre
vie—, on a décidé de poser tout haut la question
que tout le monde se pose tout bas (âmes sensibles s’abstenir):
peut-on raisonnablement respecter le style vestimentaire des Américaines?"
Posture. The French
body tends to be kept muscularly tense while walking, standing or even
sitting, which induces a sort of stiffness further reinforced by wearing
more formal attire (suit jackets, dress shoes, skirts and high heels).
This is why French people can often identify an American at a glance,
purely by his/her "relaxed" posture, which can easily be deemed
improperly casual and derided as "slouching."
Use of the language, orally
and in writing. The French—even those with limited education—are
quite proud of their language and treat it with a level of reverence
that often puzzles foreigners. Remember that there exists not one but
two official bodies that legislate on language, the Académie
française (whose role is largely symbolic), and the Ministry
of Education, which actually decides on what is correct usage, and what
can be tolerated without being fully condoned. Since the educational
system is highly centralized, the Ministry of Education's decrees are
immediately passed down to every classroom and become the rule of the
land. Passionate public debates have raged on TV, in newspapers, teachers'
lounges and cafés about reforms that would let people forgo the
use of diacriticals like the accent circonflexe in some words;
this is not surprising in a culture that still considers poor spelling
and faulty grammar as character flaws, and where a nationwide dictation
contest organized by a popular TV host (the Dictées de Pivot,
now called Les Dicos d'or) has become a major media event.
— See the Web page of the Académie
française on the French language
— See the Web page of the Les
Moreover, written French is a markedly different language than its spoken
counterpart, not merely a transcription of it:"Il écrit
comme il parle" ("S/he writes like s/he talks") is
a derogatory statement. Even native speakers have a hard time mastering
the intricacies of writing, which thus serve as a powerful vector for
social distinction and discrimination. "Good writing" means
a lot more than correct grammar and spelling, as it involves rhetorical
strategies that can only be learned through years of schooling and extensive
reading of "great books."
Although ever-present official regulations and myriad laws seem to be
routinely ignored or circumvented, French society imposes a considerable
amount of implicit conformity in all domains, from meal
hours to the color of clothes you can('t) wear. The restaurant provides
an apt metaphor: in the U.S., menus easily run over five or six pages,
with an often mind-boggling array of options, and, except in the fancier
establishments, you can order just about anything you want, prepared
any way you want, as long as the kitchen can produce it and you are
willing to pay for it. A server won't flinch when customers ask that
salad dressing be put on the side, and a baked potato substituted for
fries. In France, there is a choice of dishes, but generally few or
no options within each choice: if you ask for substitutions, the server
may look at you as if you were making a wildly excentric request, and
although there may be no technical reason why substitutions
cannot be managed, the server (and the chef) tend to regard the given
rule of order as immutable, as if it were sacred. In other words, if
the menu lists salmon with rice and sirloin with fries, and you ask
for sirloin with rice, you may be flatly told that your request cannot
be accomodated. No other explanation will be offered other than "Ça
ne va pas être possible" or "Ça ne se fait pas".
ne se fait pas!" Sometimes, you will be told that something
"just cannot be done" (ça ne se fait pas), without
any justification, and even though you have reason to believe that it
can indeed be done. Do not be surprised, however, if your attempts
at negotiating or solving the problem are met with stubborn refusal,
even when you go as far as proposing a possible and completely workable
solution. The impersonal pronoun ça—as opposed
to Je ne veux pas le faire or some other subjective construction—provides
a clue as to the "objective" nature that such interdictions
seem to possess, which makes them impervious to human agency. In fact,
feasability is not at issue: the overwhelming concern is what people
will think or say if you do something differently than in the expected
The situation outlined above, however, points
to a more subtle process, since there can hardly be anything scandalous
about asking the server to substitute rice for fries: the French mind
is used to things existing and happening in a certain, predictable way,
no matter how impractical or unpleasant, and change is initially perceived
as a disturbance of this order—even though it may demonstrably
bring about improvement. If the benefits of change are not sizeable
and immediately obvious, the status quo will nearly always be deemed
In other words, by asking the server to substitute
rice for fries, you are disturbing the order of things for no good reason
other than your own whimsy. A French person faced with the same predicament
will likely not even entertain the thought of asking for a substitution:
s/he will order the sirloin and not eat the fries, without harboring
any resentment towards the server or the chef. A "pragmatic"
reason for resigning oneself would be that such a request is probably
futile; but the most likely reason is that the French person has internalized
the "prevailing order of things" to such a degree that s/he
feels intensely uncomfortable at the idea of challenging it, so that
settling for a less-than-desirable solution seems preferable.
In many aspects of life, you may
be presented with rules and procedures which seem unnecessarily rigid,
or even absurd—to you as well as to French people in some cases—but
that no one seems willing to change or even challenge; however, you
will find the French quite willing and eager to bend, disregard or flout
certain rules, which leads the outsider to wonder why such
rules are not abolished altogether. Rather than face the ordeal of initiating
change, the French much prefer devising off-the book, seat-of-the-pants
schemes and alternative ways of getting things done, which are collectively
"D" stands for débrouille (or démerde)—inventive
resourcefulness in the face of technical difficulties or impossibly
stringent regulations—which is considered quintessentially French.
To master it, one must possess a mixture of problem-solving skills,
contempt towards established authority and a healthy dose of chutzpah.
Obtaining bootleg copies of a professor's class notes (so you don't
have to show up for lectures at all), jerry-rigging your moped to make
it exceed its legal engine power, hitch-hiking (or roller-blading) across
town when your city is paralyzed by a mass tyransit strike, or having
a friend of a friend who is a police officer cancel your traffic tickets
are common examples of Système D.
Again, you may wonder why it is not simpler
to seek systemic solutions to all these issues; in addition to the phobia
of change mentioned earlier, the answer possibly lies in a deep-rooted
sense of achievement and giddy pleasure that the French derive from
getting something done against all odds, and especially when mockery
of authority is involved.
in social encounters
When asked about social relationships,
French people who have lived in the U.S. inevitably remark that, although
Americans are wonderfully open and accessible to instant acquaintance,
they turn out to be frustratingly elusive and shallow as long-term friends.
In other words, relationships gel very quickly, but remain at a superficial
level thereafter. The immediate congeniality that Americans project
thus comes to be seen by the French as phony, even hypocritical. Conversely,
Americans settling in France may have the impression that making acquaintances,
let alone making true friends, involves an impossibly long and protracted
effort, with weeks or months of exchanging banalities and calling one
another Monsieur or Madame before the ice melts—if
it ever does.
This initial aloofness, combined with
manners that can be perceived as rather brusque (for all their formal
polish), has led some to believe that many French people hate or resent
Americans, whereas in fact everyone gets treated this way.
French socializing strategy involves a certain amount of distance for
what can be regarded as a trial period, after which closer relationships
may be allowed to blossom; someone lacking the time to go through this
trial period may feel unwelcome and excluded. On a more positive note,
it must be said that American social exuberance can hasten the process
among receptive French people who find it refreshing and sympathique—a
judgment which may imply amused condescension, although that too can
be eventually overcome...
it is allowed to happen, socializing is a serious business, with rules
of its own:
Modes of address. Always
be very careful to use Monsieur and Madame with greeting/parting
formulas when addressing people with whom you are not in intimate terms—do
not however, use last names with Monsieur and Madame in
greetings, which is considered folksy and gauche. Avoid first names,
unless specifically instructed to the contrary by your French acquaintance;
only propose to use first names to people of your own age (or younger)
and equivalent socio-economic status (e.g., students in their twenties).
The use of tu or vous is of course an enduring conundrum,
which defies easy systemization. The rules of thumb are to always use
vous as a default, except for addressing pre-teen children—better
to sound pompous than risk offending someone (and thus lose face!).
The older and/or hierarchically superior person should always be the
one to initiate the switch to tu, should s/he deem it appropriate
and comfortable (which may occur within minutes of your meeting, after
several years, or never at all); among students, however, the tu
is prevalent and can be initiated by whomever feels more comfortable
Foreigners are usually granted some leeway,
but, unless your interlocutor has explicitly stated that s/he would
like to be using tu, remain aware of people's reaction: if
you have switched to tu but your interlocutor continues using
vous, it is a subtle but clear sign that you should retreat
to using vous as well. A common error is to confuse the use
of tu/vous, with that of first or last names and of kissing,
which, although they all represent forms of familiarity, are not automatically
associated in French culture. For example, people may call one another
by their first name, exchange bises (see below), and yet retain
the vous. It is no longer unusual, when introduced by a third
party, to kiss people whom you are meeting for the very first time,
and use first names right away, but the vous may endure much
longer, sometimes for years. Interestingly, tu has become ever
more common as a standard in French-speaking communities outside France
(especially in Québec and Africa)—but not France.
Greetings. Most social
and professional encounters require specific greeting and parting phrases.
When using merci, s'il vous plait, pardon, etc.,
tag on Monsieur or Madame, but not the person's last name.
Expect to greet people with a handshake or a kiss, upon first daily
contact and when parting (even if the encounter is very
brief). The number of bises (kisses on the cheeks) exchanged
varies from two to four, depending on the region you hail from; in cross-regional
encounters, whoever gives the most bises prevails. Although the
intensity of kissing varies from an actual, lip-smacking smooch to the
"air kiss," it is more a matter of style than an indicator
of how much one person cares about the other. Kissing among male friends
is relatively rare in the northern half of France, but less so in the
Mediterranean area (male relatives and very close friends normally do
exchange kisses in every region).
Handshakes tend to be very firm, with
a single, upward-and-downward motion; the term of serrer la main—i.e.,
"squeeze the hand"—often turns out to be painfully descriptive
of what happens, as people convey frankness and earnestness in the intensity
with which hands are squeezed: a limp hand often inspires instant suspicion.
Unwary Americans, including women, have been known to have their knuckles
crushed (or so it seems) by very well meaning French people. In any
case, some specific greeting and physical contact is expected; except
in the most casual of situations, an American-style wave-of-the-hand
or laconic verbal acknowledgement like bonjour or au revoir
may be received as a snub or an insult.
Be prepared for
intense discussion of political issues and current events in France
and the world, even in casual social encounters. Even relatively
uneducated French people like to discuss topics which, in American culture
would be considered weighty or specialized, such as agricultural subsidies
from the European Union, foreign policy towards African states, or the
platform of a political party.
Politics, religion and
other "controversial" domains are not only acceptable as discussion
topics, they are in fact preferred to amiable social banter; even
the discussion of sports and movies will be intellectualized to a level
not commonly sanctioned in American culture. Being unable or unwilling
to address such topics, or to reach the appropriate level of complexity
in discussing them, will provoke thinly veiled contempt from your interlocutors.
Two issues need to be taken into account: the amount of background knowledge
(culture générale) and the rhetorical skills necessary
to successfully engage in this kind of conversation; the latter includes
a great measure of self-control, and emotional detachment from your
point of view. Americans, when they do enter in a debate, tend to get
emotionally involved in the cause they are defending, which leads to
earnest, impassioned pleas for this or that principle. The French find
this attitude amusingly naive, and will often bait American into heated
discussions on controversial topics, only to make fun of them when they
take the game too seriously and lose all critical distance from their
own arguments. Such baiting often comes in the form of a scathing critique
of American crass consumerist culture, hawkish foreign interventionism
or persistance in applying the death penalty. Don't be taken in!
Expect a fair amount of
behaviors that you would consider "aggressive" in social and
professional interaction, and try to avoid taking what you perceive
to be criticism or aggression personally: it is just a social game.
The French love arguing so much that they will sometimes indulge in
it purely for fun, even though they do not harbor any strong feelings
towards one opinion or another. What really matters is out-arguing the
other—a social form of the rhetorical disputatio which
has also been kept alive in education.
To prepare for this kind of social interaction,
watch the news on TV, read a paper or a newsmagazine on a daily basis.
Be aware of what people are talking about, and try to gather enough
information so that you may at least voice an educated opinion about
it. Try not to argue "as an American," and to understand the
French logic in what gets said, decided and done—even if you disagree
with it. You also need to defer to the French sense of history and self-importance,
even when it is expressed in anti-American terms: remember that the
country's days of grandeur—«When France Dominated the World»,
as a magazine headline put it in december 2005, refering to the Age
of Louis XIV—are long gone, and that its citizens are eager to
keep this glorious past alive. Watching the evening news on TV remains
an important social ritual among people of all ages and socio-economic
groups; you will be able to relate to others much more easily if you
do so as well. Professing self-satisfied ignorance about history, geography
or politics will only bring you scorn, even from modestly-educated people.
— See Denis Meyer's page on Étiquette
(University of Hong Kong). Although this remarkably detailed document
is very accurate, many of the rules it exposes are respected
only in bourgeois, well-to-do urban circles, and of course in "high
society." A large segment of the French population does not abide
by such rules, either by choice or by ignorance, and follows a considerably
modified version of this traditional étiquette. However, the
general principles behind the rules are nearly universally valid,
regardless of the socio-economic context.
in an academic setting
the French university system is open to anyone with a Baccalauréat,
the absence of selection at the point of entry must be counterbalanced
by rather fierce process of elimination, either by attrition or mass
failing. The considerably more prestigious Grandes Ecoles rely
on elite "preparatory" classes and entrance exams which serve
a similar purpose: weed out the less deserving students, and focus on
training an elite. In any case, educational institutions consider themselves
endowed with a noble and sacred mission which must remain impervious
to market forces and students' opinions. As universities are severely
overcrowded, it is the interest of the faculty and administration to
fail and discourage as many people as possible, which explains in part
how the system functions. In the Grandes Ecoles, students
are expected to feel so privileged to have been admitted that they should
endure any hardship imposed on them. The result is a teaching style
characterized by aloofness, dogmatism, and a certain abruptness: direct
and scathing criticism from professors—in front of the entire
class—is the norm.
In addition, the French educational system is
only meant to provide instruction, not extracurricular activities or
student support services. Self-reliance is therefore an essential virtue
in many domains of university life: going through administrative procedures,
finding information about courses, locating assigned books or completing
assignments usually require a certain amount of ingenuity, cunning,
sometimes trickery—Système D again. This is deemed
part of your education in a kind of Darwinian system where, in theory,
only the fittest—academically, but also in terms of overall resourcefulness—make
it through. In fact, social background plays an crucial role in overcoming
these hurdles: the further your parents went, the further you are likely
to go. Not coincidentally, fully half of the students in the elite Grandes
Ecoles have one or two parents who is a teacher, and thus who
knows the system from the inside. Although French social selection is
not your concern, in practical terms, this means that...
You are on your own:
you cannot expect anyone—especially professors!—to provide
detailed instructions on how to deal with the various aspects of academic
life. You must gather information yourself inductively, or by asking
classmates who somehow know more than you do. There are few incentives
for professors to help you out: not only are they not paid to do so,
but they often have no office and huge classloads. Moreover, they are
not accountable for their students' success, nor are they evaluated
You must set your own
pace of study: professors usually hand out a reading list at the
beginning of class, but remain very vague about what you should be doing
and when. Unfortunately, American students often interpret this attitude
to mean that there is not much to do, and suffer the consequences later
in the year, at exam time (it is not unusual that one's grade for an
entire semester should hinge on a single final exam).
You are wholly responsible
for your work. In many university courses, you may never have to
actually show up for class, if you can somehow get reliable notes and
if evaluation consists in a final exam only (or a mid-term—examen
partiel—and a final). In any case, you decide on when, how,
and how much to work. Before skipping classes, however, remember that
you are not a native speaker of French, and that the linguistic benefits
of listening to lectures and taking notes are invaluable.
You are responsible for
finding out what is going on at all times, and ignorance is no excuse.
Most of the time, you must actively seek even basic information, such
as the time and date of exams, or the grade you received, by looking
at postings on the department's bulletin board. Don't expect university
staff to send you reminders or keep track of your work.
is essential. Professors expect their students to have taken extensive
notes and memorized much of them by exam time (in some cases, memorization
and recall is all that is required to pass).
You must learn how to
write appropriately. French students are expected to be versed in
the various forms of writing that they had to master in order to pass
the Bac: explication de texte, commentaire composé
and dissertation (or essai littéraire). These are
not simply various ways of formatting a paper; they embody different
approaches to discussing and analyzing ideas and issues. In all disciplines,
the drafting of a solid plan is paramount, as the structure of
a paper is considered more important than its actual contents and its
style; in some cases, you are not even required to write out the paper
but must supply a plan détaillé instead (a common
practice at Science Po, for instance). You can best learn about writing
forms by reading how-to books published for a native audience (which
include strategies as well as sample papers), but also by asking tips
from your classmates—who have had almost ten years of practice.
For a crash-course on writing forms, see Les
Pratiques textuelles on this site.
Be careful about voicing
your opinion. Although French education does not entirely advocate
conformity at the expense of creativity, originality is only allowed
inasmuch as students can prove that they have mastered a substantial
amount of pre-determined content and form. For all intents and purposes,
this is not normally believed to have happened until the Second Cycle
(Master's and Doctorate level). As a result, you are rarely supposed
to give your own opinion, and even less express your feelings about
a particular issue, but should rather present arguments which can be
supported by evidence—from the text you are explicating, or from
recognized authorities you can cite.
You must develop your
proficiency in Culture générale. University-level
work is very specialized because students are assumed to have received
a solid general education before the Bac at a level comparable
to that of the first two years of college in the U.S. You are therefore
supposed to possess and make use of a significant amount of culture
générale, a knowledge and understanding of various
basic issues and concepts in literature, philosophy, history, geography,
science, math, etc., deemed indispensable to the educated person. Beware!
This may include material that may seem fairly "specialized"
As a rule, American college students are
deemed to be severely lacking in culture générale
as understood in France. Some books (see below) can provide a jump-start,
but the best policy is to follow a daily regimen of reading newspapers
(Le Monde) and magazines (L'Express, Le Nouvel Observateur,
Le Point.)—or their on-line versions, watching TV news, and
systematically looking up unfamiliar words, names and notions you encounter.
Your level of knowledge about places, people, events or notions that
are being routinely discussed in a generalist paper like Le Monde
can serve as a good indicator of your competency in culture générale.
— See the Web sites of major French media