More than ever before, people are traveling outside of their native country to live and work. Some cities are known for attracting an international population, but even small towns are now seeing a significant influx of foreigners. This phenomenon is happening all over Western Europe, as many Europeans look for better opportunities elsewhere, or simply enjoy traveling. And, in some university towns and certain regions where a lot of high tech research is done, there can be a surprising mix of nationalities coming and going with the cycle of the school year.
When I moved to France over ten years ago, and began the incredible process of acquiring the French language, mastering the administrative system and building a life, everything seemed new and sometimes strange to me. From tasting French cuisine and wine to discovering French music and films, there was a big learning curve when it came to feeling “normal” in my everyday life. But over time, the things that once seemed strange eventually became commonplace. After a few years, I have even forgotten how different things seemed when I first arrived.
But despite having integrated into the culture as best I can, including becoming fluent in the language and being able to make a decent Boeuf Bourguignon, there are still a few “strange” things that linger. Things that I fear I will never be able to get past, no matter how many times people explain them to me, or how patient I try to be in each situation. These are the kinds of things that are so engrained in our subconscious, that even though we may be able to have a conversation in the local language, when something challenges us, we still find ourselves like a deer in the headlights trying to act normal. What is it that I am referring to?
Cultural and social etiquette.
In France there are a lot of social protocols—I mean A LOT. From the kissing on the cheeks of total strangers to not touching your food until everyone has been served, there are many things to keep in mind when trying to blend into French culture and earn the trust and friendship of others. But the issue I have with etiquette isn’t about my own adaptability to all these social rules, it’s about my inability to forget about my own culture’s rules when someone accidentally offends me. How does this happen?
I call it “The Interview”.
It’s normal that French people wouldn’t know about the social etiquette of the United States, my native country. What’s more, they may even be under the impression that we don’t have any social etiquette to speak of, along with no history and no culture (according to many French people I’ve met!). So when I meet a new French person, I have learned to brace myself and remain patient for the impending “interview” which is sure to ensue. This is the part where I submissively answer a flurry of questions about my personal life so that the person can get to know me.
From what I have been explained hundreds of times, when a French person asks you questions about yourself, it is a sign that they are interested in you, and it is therefore considered polite. The problem is, asking questions like this of someone you’ve known for less than 5 minutes is extremely rude in American culture!
Have a look at the questions I am most often asked in social situations in France, often all of them within a 5-minute conversation:
- Where are you from?
- How long have you been in France?
- Why did you come to France?
- Do you like living in France?
- How often to do return to your country?
- How old are you?
- Do you have children? (Why not?)
- What part of town do you live in?
- What do you do for a living?
Would these questions be rude to ask a stranger in your country?
Answering these kinds of questions politely and without being offended, especially when I have never met the person before, has been a real challenge for me in France! Why?
Because even though these questions are considered polite in France, they are considered extremely impolite in American culture, especially from someone you’ve just met—and especially when they ask the questions one after the other, without offering the same information about themselves. It seems to be disrespectful from my point of view.
When I am asked these questions in my everyday life, and it does happen very frequently, I often reply vaguely, which can sometimes offend the other person as well! For example, I often reply that the reason I came to France involves a long, personal story that I don’t want to explain in a noisy restaurant or bar. I generally don’t mind speaking about my work now that I have a job, but it was a sensitive question when I was out of work. Having a family is important to me, but the reason I don’t yet have children is also a personal one, information I feel is too personal to share with a stranger. But the real icing on the cake for me, the biggest cultural difference, is the age question: in North American culture, it is VERY impolite to ask a woman her age, the only exception being if she is just a child!
On the other hand, Americans are famous for openly sharing very personal information with total strangers, speaking a lot about themselves and in a loud voice. So why would these questions offend me? It seems like a paradox, doesn’t it?
I think it has to do with the difference of being asked the questions directly, in an interview style, as opposed to being given the chance to make my own decision about what I would like to share and at my own pace: we see that as being respectful. Once a rapport has been established, only then is it acceptable to ask questions, and even then, it isn’t common. In the American culture, we tend to wait for the other person to offer information about themselves…even if we don’t generally have to wait too long to hear it!
“But how can you get to know someone if you don’t ask them these questions?” my French friends ask me in desperation, after I’ve once again refused to recount an abridged version my life story to another new acquaintance. They are just as bewildered by my reaction as I am by their questions.
And the hard part is that these kinds of differences don’t improve just by learning the local language—because even if I were speaking English with someone, the same thing would happen. In this way we can see how, while culture and language are intertwined, they each have their own difficulties.
So where does that leave me? Somewhere between the apéritif and the digéstif, looking for a clever compromise so that I don’t offend, and I also don’t get offended!
Here is one video blogger’s advice on how I could deal with such a situation…maybe I will try it, and you could too!:
Have you experienced issues with local etiquette going against your native culture?
Did you feel uncomfortable? How did you react?
Please share your story in our comments section below!