Six culture clashes foreigners should prepare for when visiting French families

Family life is central to French culture, but as a foreigner you are likely to find it different to what you are used to. Whether you're visiting for dinner or preparing for a long stay as an Au Pair or exchange student, here are some things to expect.

Six culture clashes foreigners should prepare for when visiting French families
Is this the breakfast of your dreams or worst nightmare? Photo: AFP

1. The sugar-high after breakfast

What you heard about the French is true: they go crazy over their Nutella (literally).

The sweet, chocolate-hazelnut spread, which consists of 55 percent sugar, is a French breakfast classic.

Even as the French have become more concerned about eating healthily and lowering their sugar intake, many parents still let their children slather thick layers of Nutella on their tartines (slices of bread) before leaving for school.

REVEALED: This is how popular Nutella is in France

Some French families don't have a lot of different options on the breakfast table, except Nutella, jam and butter. 

That means Germans, Scandinavians and others who are used to piling egg, cheese and ham onto their bread in the morning, could be disappointed when moving in with a French family.

French people do eat a lot of cheese, but never for breakfast. And as for bacon and egg? Forget it.

READ ALSO 18 ways your eating and drinking habits change when you move to France


A French family on their way to school. Illustration photo: AFP

2. The sanctity of mealtimes 

In many countries it is not uncommon for family members to eat a meals at staggered times with parents returning from work late and the kids passing in and out of the house for their various activities. In France, on the other hand, eating is closer to a sacred ritual.

READ ALSO: Burning question: Do the French really hate all spices?

Every night (and even some lunchtimes), French families sit down at the table to eat a two or three-course meal together. Some families practice a strict no-phone policy at dinner, which means they communicate and have proper discussions, with no one hastily rushing off to their extra-curricular activities.

A normal family dinner in France can last around an hour, and much longer on special occasions like Christmas and Easter.

READ ALSO: How to snack (or not) like a French person


Nutella and fruit juice on the breakfast table of a French family. Illustration photo: ADP

3) The never-ending kissing 

Traditionally in France, people greet each other with la bise, a kiss on each cheek (sometimes more).

READ ALSO: French kissing: Where does the custom of 'la bise' come from

Kissing someone that you have never met before might seem strange, but it is a normal social practice in France. La bise isn’t just something you do the first time you meet someone, it’s a never ending social custom that is repeated every time you meet someone for the first time that day.

Families are no exception, and some children are taught to do la bise before heading off to bed at night.

However, just because la bise is normal, it doesn't mean that the French are particularly 'touchy feely' and hugging is a lot less common than it is in other countries.

In the context of the current pandemic, however, la bise has become a thing of the past, which means there is one less culture clash to brace yourself for.

4) The military-style homework recitals

Education is highly valued in France and, depending on where you come from in the world, you may find that schools here have a more authoritarian teaching style than in your home country.

French children are taught early to recite things by heart perfectly – not necessarily understanding what they're saying. During the homework evening recital, French parents are often severe judges. 

Don't be shocked if parents bark at their six-year-old for having forgotten a line in their poetry lesson. It seems harsh, but keep in mind that the reality back at the school is likely even harsher.

READ ALSO: The French culture shocks you should be prepared for

French school girls carrying briefcases back in 1967. Illustration photo: AFP

5) If the weather is bad, children stay inside

French children might get tough treatment when practicing their homework, but most of them are cushioned when it comes to the weather.

If you are from a country where you were forced to play outside – sun, rain, snow, storm, whatever – you might find French children a bit wimpish.

It's not uncommon that things stop working in France as soon as there is the slightest bit of snow, and most French children grow up under the impression that rain means indoor playtime, so as to avoid their getting clothes wet and muddy.

6) Their extreme bluntness

French people are generally quite open and free-speaking compared to those in some countries. Few topics are off limits in France.

While British parents tend to teach their children at an early age that some things are not appropriate at the dinner table French parents are generally quite open with their children and will talk about pretty much anything, even at the dinner table. 

These differences in table manners reflect a deeper culture difference; while Brits are well-known for being too polite and saying sorry for everything to the point of them being prudish and even closed-off, French people are very to-the-point and will mostly let you know exactly what they think. 

They rarely use euphemisms or beat around the bush – something you should bear in mind before asking a French person whether your new, radical haircut really suits you.

Have you experienced culture shocks when moving it with a French family? Tell us at [email protected]


Member comments

  1. The French attitude to food is great, and the reverence to meal times could show us all how to improve the quality of our lives. BUT they have no idea about breakfast, at all! Watery coffee and dry bread or if you’re lucky a croissant of some description. It is by far the most important meal of the day and the French version is miserable. Is this why the French seem to be so miserable about everything, I wonder? A good breakfast sets a person up for the day and could change France for the better.

  2. As a British family, meals are sacred in our house too. Often lasting an hour and definitely no phones at the table and permission to leave the table asked for. Homework for our children, and as teachers, is massively important.
    Whilst I live other values and traditions, please do not assume these are French only

  3. Not just the French, we are in Australia and as a child growing up we always ate at the table, as did my husbands family. We also carried this ritual across when bringing up our own family and the TV was never allowed on during these times. When our children had friends over for meals, they also had to sit at the table where we all ate together and many of their friends thought it was strange, as it was something many of them didn’t do in their own homes with family. One of our daughters friends, said she liked it so much, she asked her own parents if it was something they could as a family for evening meals. Our children who are now 25 and 27 year old’s and no longer live at home, say it was great sitting at the table each night and talking about their day while they were growing up and they both look forward to it weekly, when they come back home for dinner.

  4. I’ve assimilated to French mealtime. But lately I’m really missing American grab-and-go – especially on weekends when there is a lot to do. This might be due to homesickness caused by COVID. We are adding it back in our household, at least occasionally.

  5. Extreme bluntness: It always amuses me that when a French person starts a question with ‘Sans indiscretion …’ you know they are going to ask something terribly indiscreet, probably personal!

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How to make the most of France’s ‘night of museums’ this weekend

More than 3,000 French museums will stay open long past their bedtimes on Saturday May 14th for the 18th Long Night of Museums.

How to make the most of France's 'night of museums' this weekend

The annual event takes place on the third Saturday in May each year in towns and cities across the whole of Europe. There are temporary exhibitions, themed guided visits, musical entertainment, lectures, concerts, food tasting, historical reconstructions and re-enactments, and film projections. Best news of all, almost everything is free. 

Here’s The Local’s guide to getting the most out of the night:

Plan, plan, then throwaway the plan

Consult the online programme and map out your route. A little preparation will make the night much easier – 3,000 museums will be open long into the night in France, and you don’t want to waste hours standing on a bridge arguing about where to go next. 

The site has suggestions for major cities, including Lyon, Dijon, Bourges, Strasbourg, Lille, Rouen, Bordeaux, Toulouse, and Marseilles. And four museums that have been closed to the public for years – Musée de Cluny in Paris, the Musée de Valenciennes, the Forum antique de Bavay in Nord and the Musée départemental Albert-Khan in Boulogne-Billancourt – are reopening on the night.

So, decide where you’re going beforehand – then feel free to dump your carefully plotted plan in a bin when you overhear someone else talking about this extraordinary thing they have discovered and go with the flow.

Be patient

When you are consulting the official website, try not to scream. You have to navigate a map rather than a traditional programme format – though, at least, this year it’s broken down in to French regions, which is marginally less frustrating.

It is actually much easier if you know the specific museums you are interested in visiting, as they have individual programmes of events. But half the fun of a night like this is visiting somewhere you’ve never been before.

Wear comfortable shoes and travel light

Wear shoes for the long haul rather than the first impression. There will be distances to cover and you might even find yourself dancing in the middle of a museum. 

And blisters are never a good partner with great art. Leave your skateboard and shopping trolley at home, they will just prove a nuisance when you are going through security checks.

Come early – or late – to avoid endless queues

Arriving at the Louvre at 8pm is always going to mean a giant queue. And nothing ruins a night quicker than spending most of it standing in an unmoving line. Try to escape peak times at the major museums – but check they’re not doing something interesting that you don’t want to miss – hip hop dance classes in the Department of Oriental Antiquities, in the Louvre’s Richelieu wing, for example…

Go somewhere you’ve never been to before

Do a lucky dip. Pick somewhere you’ve never heard of and know nothing about. What about the Musée de Valenciennes, which reopens after years of being closed to the public, for example. Its giving visitors the chance to see its fine art under ultraviolet light – which will reveal things you wouldn’t normally see.

Or you could delve deep into the Aude Departmental Archives, in Carcassonne, and discover the amazing life stories of some of the region’s historical figures

Make it social

Gather the troops, this is a night for multi-generations of family and friends. Art, history and culture, is very much a shared experience and you can usually find something that everyone loves – or hates.

Plan a pitstop

You will always need refreshing and wouldn’t a night of culture be wonderfully enhanced by a delicious picnic on the banks of the Seine, if you’re in Paris. 

Your mind will need a little pause from all the intellectual overload. Find a spot, listen to the music (there’s always music from somewhere) and watch the Bateaux Mouches go by as you eat a baguette with some good local cheese and some saucisson.