The French culture shocks you should be prepared for

The Local France
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The French culture shocks you should be prepared for
Denni Jarvis/Flickr

Foreigners in France often find the French culture can be tough to navigate at first. It can even shock you at times, in both good ways and bad, but it's always fascinating, explains Rosie McCarthy, the creator of Youtube Channel "Not Even French".


Nowadays, thanks to the interweb, preparing psychologically for a move to France involves simply typing "French culture shock" into Google and bingeing away.

Of course, the results bring up countless mentions of the French administration, "la bise", the smoking and the shops being closed on Sundays... But the more seasoned of us know these culture shocks are child’s play. It’s time for some real talk.

Here we explore just a handful of the less conventional French culture shocks.

1. No matter how cool you are, you’ll find it hard to make friends

As explained rather thoroughly in this video, French people, in general, are coconuts. Yep, coconuts. Relationship wise, it takes a long time and a lot of repeated attempts to crack through the tough surface and reach that soft, inner coconut flesh.

What this means is that conversations stay surface level for a long time, even amongst peers. Let’s put it this way: if you had one euro for every time you found yourself explaining where you live and which mode of transport you take, you wouldn’t need to worry about that permis de travail.

Another classic is explaining the travel options you have to get back to your home country, how often you go back and how much that all costs, so be prepared to have that speech nailed in French.

At times it feels like an endless loop of fact-based exchanges until you can get into those really deep and meaningful conversations with the French, with true friendships taking sometimes a year or more to form.

Additionally, French people tend to keep their friends close throughout their schooling years, all the way from l’école maternelle to la fac. What this means is that there are usually strongly established friendship circles by the time you arrive on the scene. It may hurt at first to realize that they don’t need you as a friend as much as you need them. But don't let it put you off.

2. Business meetings may seem chaotic at first (or always)

Did anyone ever tell you that running effective meetings in France was a little like herding cats? No? Well, now you know.

With France being a time-flexible culture, be prepared for meetings to start 10-15 minutes late and run over by at least as much. Perhaps you expect meetings to serve as a forum to talk to specific, pre-defined points on an agenda in order to reach a firm decision or agree on a clear plan of action. You’re going to leave those expectations at the door – they don’t belong here!

What you’re likely to experience is that wonderful French passion for debate, discussion and intellectual challenge. The meeting agenda, if it even exists, can (and will) get hijacked at any moment. And boy can that discussion heat up.  

Students in the French school system are taught to disagree openly (thèse, anti-thèse, synthèse) and hence French business people intuitively follow a similar pattern in meetings. Conflict and confrontation are seen as a way to deconstruct an idea, challenge it to the maximum to see how robust it really is (bringing any risks and contradictions to the forefront), ultimately resulting in an even better idea. If it’s your idea in the firing line, remember: it is not YOU who is being attacked, it is the IDEA, so don’t take it personally.

Bear in mind the meeting may end with a simple “et voilà.” No action points. No next steps. No recap of the key decisions taken. Just like that, meeting participants are meant to have understood all of this implicitly.

Also bear in mind that any decision taken in the meeting can change depending on who the boss meets in the corridor afterwards or during their next pause-café. At the end of the day, it’s the boss who decides, and they may be inclined to pursue their own personal goals after meetings. Voilà, c’est comme ça.

3. Be prepared to get popping (the pills, I mean)

A small warning in case you are yet to see the doctor in France: you WILL walk out of that office with a prescription as long as your arm and enough drugs to start your own business as a micro-entrepreneur cooking meth. And that’s just to treat the common cold.

France has long been known as having a high prescription drug use rate – numerous studies have put France among the world’s top consumers of antidepressants, for example. You may find that a combination of generous healthcare funding and over-zealous doctors see you taking home more pill packets than you can fit into your 22 square-meter apartment. In short, be prepared to take home at least one packet of Doliprane for each and every twinge.   

But how will you know when you’ve truly become Frenchified?

  1. You join the ranks of the average French citizen who takes home 47 boxes of medicine for their cupboard every year.

  2. You deem the insane number of pharmacies on your street to be completely reasonable and a positive sign of a healthy public health system. Yep.

  3. You remember to take your cash and/or checkbook religiously to every doctor’s appointment. You’re not foolish enough to think that maybe, just maybe, payment methods have advanced since the 1980s (Although card machines are thankfully more and more common in doctor's surgeries)

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4. Life can be "so exhausting"

I think we can all agree that sleep is life and that there’s no place like bed. But, if you’re moving to France, be prepared to speak about being fatigué pretty much all the time. In the morning and after lunch are key moments to express your tiredness, but towards the end of the day you can really start ramping it up.

In fact, if you truly want to assimilate, you’re going to have to provide updates on your levels of fatigue at least 5 times per day. Be prepared to describe almost all of life’s activities as “un peu fatiguant.”

Actually, while we’re at it, you can brush up on all your physiological updates in French – you will also need to start announcing your hunger levels, as well as how warm or cold you find it to be in any given moment. People will constantly inform you of things like “j’ai faim…j’ai chaud là...mais comme il fait froid!” so you’ll need to be prepared to return the favour.

5. Pack your emotional armour, you’ll need it

According to INSEAD Professor Erin Meyer’s book, ‘The Culture Map’, the French are way up there with the Israelis, Russians and Dutch for being the most direct when it comes to giving negative feedback. Believe us, you’ll feel the burn.

In the working world, you may find that your quick wins, big successes and a job well done go seemingly unnoticed, yet if there’s a mistake or improvement to make, you’ll hear about it faster than the time it takes you to inhale an almond croissant. The most wonderful presentation you’ve ever delivered will just be ‘pas mal’ (translation = excellent) so you should be prepared to feel like it’s never quite good enough at all times.

And in terms of friends and family, well… prepare to have anything from your weight to your parenting style to your dress sense scrutinized and commented on. Actually, you don’t even need to know the person, you’ll get comments from strangers too. Hey, it's all in the name of continuous improvement, right?

6. Patience is NOT a virtue

Impatient locals can be found everywhere, but especially in Paris. Have you ever been made to feel a right hassle? Like you’re unintentionally annoying someone, even if you don’t mean to? You’ll feel that way whenever you use the pedestrian crossing here. Crossing at a designated pedestrian crossing?! How dare thee? Those car and motorbike engines will be revving like thunder and the second you’re out of the way just enough for them not to kill you, they’ll be zooming on past (if they even stop to wait for you at all). You can almost smell their frustration in the burning rubber of their tyres.

It doesn’t stop there. Be prepared to hear all the huff, puffs and indignant “oh la la’s” you can imagine whenever there is a 5-10 minute queue at the bank or at the ticket booth down in the Metro.

There’s nothing quite like it, except maybe when that iconic SNCF music chimes and they announce that the TGV is running 15 minutes late – it’s like an orchestral piece of melodic, long exhales, sharp inhales and curses, aptly named ‘Le sigh.’

And while we’re speaking of queues – be prepared for them to take on more of a mosh-pit formation and to be pushed and pulled by those who are in far more of a rush than you are. It’s kind of like Black Friday madness, except it happens every day and there are no half-price Jimmy Choos waiting on the other side.

So fellow foreigners in France, what about you? What do you wish you had known before moving to this wonderful, complex, country? Join the debate on our Facebook page.

Rosie McCarthy is originally from New Zealand and has been living in France for more than four years. She works full-time for a French multinational in Human Resources but loves to create videos on the side for her Youtube channel Not Even French, documenting her take on expat life in France.


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