Countless movies and media impressions may have allowed France and its storied capital city to feel somewhat familiar, but expats are nonetheless likely to experience some culture shock in France. Most notably, making a home in France comes with the challenges of learning the language and assimilating into a culture steeped in nuanced social conventions.
The first and most critical step for overcoming culture shock and dissolving any misunderstanding about the French and their cultural norms is to learn the language. Expats should also mind their manners, keep an open mind and maintain an eagerness to learn.
Language barrier in France
French is the official language of France, but expats living in the South of France may encounter some regional Occitan dialects that sound surprisingly different to what is spoken in Paris
That said, getting by in France as an English speaker is far easier today than it was 10 years ago. In tourist areas, in particular, every other person most likely speaks English. Not to mention, as Europe has opened under the Eurozone, the French have also become more accepting of other languages.
This fact should not detract from visitors’ or expats’ attempts to at least initiate a conversation or request in French with a 'bonjour' (good day) or 'parlez-vous Anglais?' (Do you speak English?).
Various language schools offer French language classes and French civilisation courses to foreign-language speakers. They all cater to various levels of proficiency and need. Even for the more fluent speaker, there are conversation classes that offer an opportunity to speak to French speakers who are learning English.
Etiquette in France
Etiquette is extremely important to French people and it's not unusual to see people being subtly disregarded by salespeople, waiters or others in the service industry for not minding their manners.
At any service counter, even if in a rush, the most observed form of etiquette is greeting. Rushing in to make demands or a request without a brief 'bonjour' can earn one a frosty response of, 'Bonjour Madame/Monsieur”, often delivered with a purposeful look that says, “first and foremost, we greet”.
'Excusez-moi' or 'pardon' are common courtesies, and 'bon journée' or 'bon après-midi' (good day and good afternoon, respectively) equally so. 'Merci' (thank you) goes without saying.
There are instances, of course, when it seems that these simple etiquette rules are not observed, especially the greetings. Note that, even if not necessarily verbalised, a subtle nod is enough of an acknowledgement. Naturally, there are cases where this simple social norm is not adhered to and expats have complained of the 'rudeness of the French'. Admittedly, one will encounter this at some point during a stay in France, but expats should try not to draw generalisations.
The bisous (kissing on both cheeks) is reserved for people one is familiar with and, even then, locals will always be first to initiate. This can appear over-familiar to some expats, but it's a common greeting in France.
Time in France
The issue of time in social situations perplexes many expats that are used to the notion of being on time. In French society, being invited for a meal at someone’s house prescribes that one does not arrive à l’heure (on time). It is best to err on the side of fashionably late and arrive 15 to 20 minutes after the set time. That said, if invited to a restaurant or a business function, it's acceptable to arrive at the specified time.
Dining etiquette in France
As a rule, the French don't have much tolerance for picky eaters. While it's fairly common to customise an order of food according to one’s preferences in foreign restaurants, this behaviour isn't acceptable in most French establishments or at someone’s home.
Once the usual questions around food allergies have been addressed, the host/hostess expects guests to finish what they're served. It is frowned upon to leave food on a plate, especially as servings aren't typically large and food preparation, particularly in someone’s home, is a labour of love that can only be reciprocated through appreciation and enjoyment of the meal.
The same appreciation for good food extends to office canteens and school lunches. Many French schools offer school lunches in the form of three-course meals from entrée to cheese or dessert after the meal. This is also the case in office canteens.
Cultural nuances in France
The French aren't very gregarious and open, and restraint and reserve play a big role in interactions. Overt friendliness is not something one encounters overnight, so expats should prepare to be patient when it comes to fostering connections with locals.
The mixing of professional and private lives, like socialising with colleagues outside of working hours, may be a normal Anglo-Saxon habit, but is seldom done in French companies.
Speaking too loudly or laughing too raucously in public places can earn sideway glances that scream ‘on ne fait pas ca’ (we don’t do that). Discretion is key in all situations.
The French can be very direct, which can be misconstrued as rude, especially if one is not used to such forthrightness. Expats should learn to take this brutal honesty as just that, honesty; it is rarely anything personal.
Small inconveniences in France
One of the most common complaints cited by expats moving to France from the UK and the US is the somewhat mysterious French shop hours. On Sundays, nearly everything is closed, with the exception of cafés. While this may seem like an irritation, follow the lead of the French flanneurs
(loungers) and take advantage of Sundays to relax and unwind.
Additionally, many stores will close for two to three hours (most close between 12pm and 2pm) over lunch throughout the week, but this is more common outside of metropolitan centres.
On a side note, the roadways in France
can be a hazard and, while illegal, many French residents simply park where they can, often driving cars up onto the pavement.