Top Ten: Differences Between France and America THAT NO ONE TELLS YOU ABOUT

I pride myself on being observant. Am I observant to the level of Shawn Spencer on Psych, or Patrick Jane on The Mentalist? Goodness, no. I’m observant enough to pick up on little things, minute details that prove useful later on, like remembering exactly how we found the pub that played American music in the Latin Quarter… guess who found it again the next night? No one’s ever going to hire me to solve criminal cases, but I’ve managed to pick up on a few little details regarding how the French live that slightly differ from the way Americans do, then figure out exactly WHY they do what they do… and I’ve never seen exactly what I’ve picked up on in any other concise listing. Sure, you can ask a dunderhead “what do French people do that American’s don’t?” and they’ll tell you “they speak French” or “they eat cheese as a course” or “they drink wine at lunch and dinner and no one calls them alcoholics.” Perhaps a more observant dunderhead that’s actually been to France will tell you “they have vanilla and strawberry in their soft-serve ice cream machines instead of vanilla and chocolate.” Lucky for you, I’ve managed to get a bit more cerebral, and dive into France and the lovely people that call it home to bring you my latest Top Ten. Are you ready for my Top Ten Differences Between France and America that NO ONE TELLS YOU ABOUT… until now…

10. Your Dog Really IS Your Best Friend!
I’ve seen dogs of all shapes and sizes all over France since I’ve been here, and I’m loving it. Dogs on the metro was one thing, but I’ve seen dogs coming out of laundromats, stores, pharmacies (to be expected, you buy your pet’s medication the same place you buy your own), all sorts of places. Dogs are allowed almost everywhere in France, and they get to do as they please for the most part (thus my endless complaining about the dog poop on the ground in Tours). Where you can take your dog is pretty restricted in America, the only places you can really take them are the vet’s office, a pet shop, or a dog park. The parks in the city where I attend university have laws that say you can’t even have your dog on a leash on the sidewalks of the parks. Every once in a while, you’ll find a café that has an outdoor area that’s okay with you having your dog with you while you eat, but those are few and far between. In France, your dog gets to go with you almost everywhere, the usual “no dogs please” store is your grocery store, and maybe your doctor’s office, but that’s common sense. Why the difference? Dogs in France are remarkably well-behaved, certainly better trained than their American counterparts (from what I can tell). Even the homeless people that have begged with their dogs on the metro have managed to train them pretty well. Would it be silly for me to want to move to France and state “giving my dog a better life” as my chief reason? I think not… I know I’ll certainly be saving him from being attacked by anymore ill-trained (or should I say “untrained”) pit bulls… In France, Fido gets to run most of your errands with you, but that’s assuming you’ve trained him well enough to obey you while you’re out and about… but if you’re French, this is probably the case.

9. The Kitchen and The Dining Room (usually) AREN’T The Same Thing!
French kitchens are notoriously small. If you’ve ever watched House Hunters: International, and you’ve seen an episode where the potential buyer is in France, the chief complaint is that the kitchen is too small, and there’s no room for a dining table. The typical French house is set up so that the kitchen and the dining area are two separate rooms. However, the “American Style Kitchen” (meaning a larger kitchen that can accommodate a full sized table and chairs and doubles as a dining room) is becoming more popular in newer buildings. Mme. Remion’s house in Tours was set up in the typical French fashion. Her kitchen was on one side of the house, and when she’d made a dish, she had to walk through the foyer to bring it to the table. Mme. De LaPisse’s (host mom in Paris) kitchen is American Style, though it’s still tiny. We can seat five at her table (uncomfortably), but we have to serve ourselves, and put the serving plates back on the kitchen counter, which is right behind us. Frankly, I prefer the French style kitchen/dining set up. I think the idea behind the American Style Kitchen has something to do with allowing the hostess to be part of the festivities while she’s cooking, but with the French Style, the “hostess’ magic” is kept secret. If you’re going to purchase a home in France, be willing to loosen your grip on how badly you want that American Style Kitchen!

8. Culture is Important, The Government Says So
American Government doesn’t appear to have a sector dedicated to preserving culture at all (Americans seem to like it this way, “the less the government touches our daily lives, the better”). The French like having their government handle as many things as possible, and culture is something that comes up on the government’s docket frequently. Take theatre, for example. Public theatres are funded by the government, so one can assume the government might have a little bit of “say” in what shows are produced. The shows at public theatres are usually classics, like Molière, Corneille, or other classic, important, good French writers. Private theatres aren’t funded by the government, and (according to Mme. Hersant), the shows aren’t nearly as good because they’re new and poorly written. Public theatres are also much more accessible because the ticket prices are much lower. Back to the government and culture, the French government dictates some cultural activities. They do it just enough to help enrich and preserve the French culture that we all know, love, and envy (just a little) as outsiders. In France, the government does more than govern “political” things. They help make sure that its citizens know, understand, and love the culture of their wonderful country.

7. Distance > Time
I figured this one out by making a bit of a “flub” or a faux pas, if you will. When I was talking to Mme. Remion about how far away my university is from my hometown, I told her that it was a six hour drive. Part of why I told her “it’s a six hour drive” was because time is a universal form of measurement, and I obviously didn’t know the conversion for miles/kilometers off of the top of my head. However, whenever I’m talking about going somewhere, I always say “it’s a _____ hour/minute drive/walk.” Madame told me a little later on that she believes Americans are wrapped up in time, and how long it takes to do something. Whenever she (and the French in general) talk about distance, it’s always in kilometers (or miles). The French are firm believers in “it’s not about how long it takes you to get there, but how.” If you’re talking about DISTANCE, you’ve got to actually speak in distance, not in time.

6. Brands Are Important… When You’re Showing Off
When I was back home collecting scarves to take to France to use as accessories, Target had a big sale of square scarves that I took serious advantage of. I bought a scarf that I found out later looked a LOT like a Hermès scarf… and I was advised to leave it home. Why? It obviously wasn’t a vrai Hermès and if I got “caught” wearing a knock off, it could be bad social news. This doesn’t just go for fashion, it goes for food. When we had our wine tasting back in Tours, we were told that knock off cheese exists! Sainte Maure de Touraine cheese will always have a single straw of wheat that’s been engraved through the center of it, and the knock off cheeses won’t. That knock off would be called Sainte Maure cheese. The French will tell you that the two cheeses don’t taste the same, and that the Sainte Maure de Touraine cheese tastes better. If you’re eating your cheese at home all by yourself, save some money and buy Sainte Maure, but if you’re having a party, you better buy Sainte Maure de Touraine and have that straw of wheat next to the cheese on the plate! Mme. DeLaPisse spotted Sheila’s jar of Carrefour brand Nutella in the breakfast area next to the jam, laughed and said it wasn’t the same taste as the real stuff. Had it been in an unmarked jar… no one would have been the wiser… If you’re going to be a Scrooge, hide your knock off brand …whatever any way possible!

5. Getting French People to Talk About Themselves = Pulling Teeth
I kind of knew this one to a certain extent before I came to France, so I’ve been skirting around details with my host mothers so that I wasn’t hitting hot-button issues. For example, both of my host mothers are widows. Regardless of where you are (America or France, in this case), it’s kind of insensitive to ask “what was your husband like?” much less “when/how did your husband pass on?” As much as I may like to know that kind of information, it’s not a good idea to ask it here. I learned when Mme. Remion’s husband passed away two days before I left for Paris, but she brought it up all on her own. I’d been living with her for 12 days, Anna (her other exchange student) had been with her for almost five months, and that was the first time she’d heard about it! When you’re dealing with an American (most of them, anyway), you can ask one a question about himself/herself, and they’ll answer it, along with three or four other questions that were remotely related to the question you asked. Some questions may be a bit more taboo, and some Americans may choose not to answer them. My personal policy is this: If you had the courage to ask me a question, I’ll answer that question. I’m not the American that answers five questions per question asked. I noticed that when I was talking to Jeffery in the Latin Quarter, he never really gave me much of an opportunity to ask him any questions about himself. Any information he divulged to me, he told me all on his own, as he wished. The French in general are incredibly private, and they like it that way. Shutters on doors, curtains closed, no one needs to know what they do. They don’t care what their politicians do in their private lives either. Take Clinton having a mistress for example: Americans went nuts. French reaction: “And?” If you want to learn anything about a French person’s personal life, you’ve got to let them tell you on his/her own accord.

4. Buy Less for More > Buy More for Less
This goes hand in hand with #6, the French place a lot of value on high quality items. You’ll see a lot of Longchamp bags on the streets because they hold up well, and you’ll have them forever. The most inexpensive (notice how I said “inexpensive” and not “cheap”) bag that Longchamp sells is around 50 euro. The giant bag I carry all my things in for the day (with more pockets, but that’s my preference) probably costs half of what a Longchamp bag costs when you factor in currency conversion rates, but my bag will not last nearly as long as a Longchamp bag will. This is also part of the reason why you’ll see French people wearing the same outfit (more or less) multiple times in a week. They have fewer items in their wardrobes because most (if not all) of their clothing items are high quality, and will last longer. It makes much more sense to a French person to have THREE Hermès scarves and wear them all the time than it does to have NINE scarves that may not be a brand name for the same price, and only wear half of them frequently. Americans also have a somewhat unhealthy obsession with “that’s on sale, I must have it.” I’m kind of sick with myself over how many times I’ve allowed that impulse to make me buy something. Part of my “buying strategy” for things that aren’t meals here is to refuse to buy something unless I actually NEED something. I came across a really adorable pair of flats the other day that were only 15 euro, but I decided to pass them up because all of the shoes I had were still wearable. I’m waiting until there’s another irreparable hole in a shoe before I get another pair. Believe it or not, I bet if you do the math, spending more on a small, but high quality wardrobe will probably cost less in the long run. To a French person, less is always more, even if it sometimes costs more to get less, because you’ll get more use out of it.

3. PDA = AOK
For anyone not up on their acronyms (which French people love a little too much, by the way), PDA means Public Display of Affection. In America, you’ll see people holding hands, guys with arms around their girls, it’s cute. You see people full on making out… and your first reaction is to think “I want to tell these nasty people to go get a room.” Sometimes you say it… and then they show you that they aren’t married… no wait, that’s the wrong finger, isn’t it? In France, the idea surrounding PDA is completely different. It’s NORMAL. People holding hands, child’s play. Seeing people making out, G-rated. Seeing people starting to get frisky on the metro, too common. Catching people “in the act” in a Parisian park… sadly documented. Considering the French idea about sex and sexuality is different as well, this isn’t all that surprising. I’m not saying that the French are over-sexed, but they’ve completely removed the taboo and stigma attached to nudity and sex that you see in America. There are some people that are confused (and perhaps offended) by some clothing shops in America whose advertisements feature nude or nearly-nude models that are cleverly covered, which is ironic, because the store sells clothes. In France, there are ads that feature women nude from the waist up. What are they selling? YOGURT. Sex isn’t necessarily something special between two people anymore, it’s just another part of a relationship. Everyone’s taught about contraceptives, and how to be safe when (not if) sex happens. Furthermore, the idea of relationships and marriage is a little different. Ever heard “just because there’s a goalie doesn’t mean I can’t score?” Some French people take that to heart. Having a significant other doesn’t mean much, especially when that significant other is extremely far away for whatever reason. The fact that I know (let alone have had to use) more than five translations of “I have a boyfriend back home, and I have no desire to break up with/cheat on him” upsets me. Many more couples are living together long term (vivre en union libre) instead of getting married, even having children in the relationship. Why? Marriages are expensive, and so are divorces. The French have a very liberal attitude toward PDA, sex, marriage, relationships and nudity, and none of it’s taboo to the scale that it is in America.

2. Your Bad = Hilarious. My Bad = N’existe pas.
Back when I used to play tennis, I called “out” on myself all the time. My coach was watching me play a ranking match one day, I served, and the ball didn’t hit the service court, so I called it out of bounds (a service fault), and set up to serve again. The coach was in shock for a few moments, then stopped me. “Why’d you call your serve out of bounds?” “Because it was.” “No! No! NO! You keep your mouth shut and hope your opponent didn’t see it, and you play off of it if they do. Call your opponent’s hits out, not your own.” “…but that’s dishonest.” “That’s tennis.” I ended up getting the “Calling ALL of the Shots” award at our banquet that year… Back to France. If you’ve ever seen the movie Ridicule, you know how important a sense of wit is to the French, and it still is, but maybe not on that scale in today’s day and age. There’s one key thing in that movie that still rings true, however: you NEVER pick on yourself, only on other people. French humor is all about pointing out other people’s mistakes, and ignoring (or downplaying if someone’s trying to pick on you) your own. I actually enjoying picking on myself (I’ll do it to make other people feel better if they’re being picked on, the opposite of what happens here), so this is definitely something I need to keep an eye on. It’s like playing tennis, you point out your opponent’s mistakes, never your own. In France, you always poke fun at your friends, but never yourself.

1. One for All > All for One
America is a very individualistic society. The usual example of a collectivist society for a comparison is an Asian society, but France would make a good example. In America, the individual is the most important thing. A single person can do something, change the world, make a difference… or simply make his or her own way in the world and be an entrepreneur. Standing alone is normal, it’s accepted, it’s even encouraged in a lot of situations. This is part of the reason why Americans run to sue whenever they’ve been wronged (often as a first resort), it’s simply because they (as a single person) can. There’s also the idea of personal responsibility and self sacrifice, I have to do this for myself/my family/my country, I did this, so I have to own up to it. This is all crazy in France. France is rooted in solidarity, in collective responsibility. In France, if you’re going to get something done, if you want to be heard for whatever reason, you need a group to shout at the same time, not a single person with a megaphone. The individual (for the most part) is meaningless. The individual might have had the idea, but you need the group to carry it out. There are no single heroes, bettering the world requires group action. Individual actions don’t matter. I’m willing to bet that this is why Joan’s host mother laughed at me when I said I wanted to be a writer. That’s an individualist profession. I do it all on my own, I don’t need a team, I’m very rarely part of team, and I’m kind of an entrepreneur. Being an “entrepreneur” in America is seen as the highest rung of the ladder, but in France, it’s what you say when you can’t find a real job. Furthermore, America embraces individuality. Think about it, do you have to speak English to get a Green Card? How many languages are the Driver’s License tests printed in say, in Los Angeles? This isn’t the case in France. When you’re in France, you speak French, you dress like a French person, you eat like the French, and you do NOT break those cultural rules. In France, you’re part of a group, and you should stay that way. Being an individual isn’t the way to go, there’s a sense of solidarity that needs to be maintained.

Before you tell me that I’ve got it all wrong, keep in mind that everything I’ve noted here are things I’ve picked up on, and this is all my own interpretation (and my own opinion) of both France and America. If you’re evaluating a document that’s been translated from it’s original language, you have to take into account something called “translator bias.” Perhaps I’m biased one way or the other. Regardless of how YOU feel, everything in this post is how I feel, and that has to be respected. However, if you think I’ve made a “mistake” (since opinions can’t really be mistakes), feel free to leave your opinion below.

For more differences (some more obvious than others), check out these sites:

Lonely Planet’s Cultural Differences

Marlena (makeupgeek)’s Top Differences Between Paris and America

2 thoughts on “Top Ten: Differences Between France and America THAT NO ONE TELLS YOU ABOUT

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