As when visiting any country, one’s experience is improved by observing certain cultural customs. Below are a few norms (definitely not an exhaustive or authoritative list) to follow that will smooth your path to successful interactions with French people:
- Always use the “vous” form (formal “you”) address when speaking with a server, store clerk, grocery check-out worker, and basically anyone you don’t know, but with whom you’d like to have a mutually beneficial interaction. Merci and s’il vous plait don’t hurt either!
- Make sure to greet those working when entering any type of store. It is not the job of the store clerk to greet you, and it is considered rude not to say “Bonjour!” especially since most places of business are smaller than the ones we frequent in the US. Ignoring the one person working in the store becomes painfully obvious when the store is a shoe box, so when in doubt, just say hello. Say goodbye too, even if you decided not to purchase anything at the store you visited.
- You can always window shop if you aren’t in a buying mood. Lingering outside a store front display is normal in France (and Spain).
- Holler “Hello” and “Goodbye” when you enter and leave the host family’s home. This lets everyone know who is where, avoiding any unwanted surprises, and it shows respect for those staying at home as you traipse in and out.
- Try to speak French in your daily interactions! We were pleasantly surprised to find that most everyone would respond to us in French, and were willing to let us practice, even if we made gargantuan blunders. It could be that Tours is a small town with more limited tourism, so English isn’t quite as widespread as it might be in Paris or another large city. And, if someone does switch to English, that’s okay too! People are generally flattered if you notice their English, and comment on how well they speak. This is another way to open the door to a friendly exchange. I used to feel insulted that someone would switch on me to English (it happens all the time in Germany!), but now I realize it isn’t generally done in arrogance, rather for the sake of efficiency, or because they’d like to try out their language skills. I’d rather have a positive interaction than feel slighted, too, and the power to make a conversation uplifting ultimately depends on me.
- Cars have the right of way in France! We’d been surprised by how fast cars sped by the zebra crosswalks in downtown Tours, and kept commenting to each other on how drivers weren’t nearly as thoughtful of pedestrians as in Spain or Germany. Well, turns out, they don’t have to be! I’m sure we made quite a few French motorists upset by barreling out onto the crosswalk without a second consideration! After asking our host “mére” what the protocol was, we understood the uncomfortable feeling we’d had, even if we didn’t agree with the law. We began to stop at the curb before each crosswalk, waiting patiently for oncoming vehicles to pass. Though some drivers didn’t slow down, just as many stopped out of courtesy for the pedestrian.
- Dressing “chic” is appreciated, but not a prerequisite to success. While packing I panicked! How could I dress as effortlessly as the French? How could I keep my blackheads to a minimum when I was sharing a bathroom with Andrew and another German student from the school? What was I going to do with my hair without access to my beloved heat wands to curl, straighten and flatten? (Just fyi, the converter that ConAir markets that will “regulate” the voltage for your hair tools doesn’t stand up to a flat iron that heats to 450 degrees Fahrenheit or your Dyson hair dryer – thank me later for saving your preciously expensive styling machines). Turns out, in Tours at least, people aren’t as “chic” as I expected. Hair stands up in the wrong places, a natural wave is expected, and as for clothing, anything goes. There really was no defined dress code. I way over-packed in fear that I’d have to have a solid rotation of clothes to keep up, but in reality, I could have packed much more reasonably. Not that I minded having lots of options, since half the battle of a good attitude in the morning can be feeling good about how you look.
These are a few insights we picked up on while in France! Anything important you’ve noticed while traveling abroad that would improve our interactions in the wide world for the future? Anything you think we should add to this list?