As a French person who has been living in the USA for the last 4 years, I must say that the first few months were a bit difficult for me. I had not expected all the communication issues I would encounter daily, whether it be at University, at the supermarket, or later, at work.
Each culture feels the way they communicate, from taboos, to social cues, to body language, is the “normal” way. This can lead to failed expectations and big misunderstandings. Based on my personal experience and on testimonies from Americans and other French people, I offer you some analysis and advice on how to understand and interact with a French person. Remember that everyone is different, and these are generalizations that might work in most but not all situations.
Hard skin and soft heart
Let’s start with a metaphor, and please bear with me: imagine that French people are like coconuts, and Americans are like peaches. Why is that?
Well, the same way a coconut is covered in a hard, thick layer, most French people are hard to approach, look grumpy and annoyed at any stranger talking to them. But once a French person has let you pass through this layer, they are, like the coconut, soft and sweet.
On the contrary, when you bite into a peach, it is soft and sweet, until you reach its hard center. Americans tend to be easy to approach and talk to, but it is much harder to become close and develop real and durable bonds with them.
Subtlety and good measure
When I worked at a big company in Paris, we regularly had American interns. One of them, far away from his native Kansas, tried to explain to us how unpredictable the weather was, and how devastating some rainy episodes could be. He said, with dramatic body language, something along the lines of “One minute it’s sunny, and suddenly, out of nowhere, the sky is pitch black, the rain is flooding the streets like crazy, you can’t see one meter away... and 10 min later, it’s a quiet and sunny day again.” (if you’ve ever spent a week in Kansas, you might know this to actually be quite accurate).
To us, he was going too far. It is not that what he was describing was impossible for us to see, but rather that the way he was saying it seemed too much. A French person would probably have said something that could be translated like this: “One minute it’s sunny, and suddenly, clouds fill the sky, the rain is pouring, and it’s difficult to see further than two meters away, and it can all go back to normal ten minutes later,” all in a calm and rather steady tone.
Traditionally, we try to do everything in subtle, even elegant ways (no, I didn’t misspell “arrogant”). For example, one might be looked down upon for bursting out laughing at the office or at a dinner.
This also applies to language: we call any abundant use of words like “huge”, “amazing” etc… a hyperbole or an exaggeration. It is not natural for us, French people.
So remember, when talking to a French person, hyperbole and over the top dramatic body language and tone can make your speech sound insincere. The same way a French person will tend to ponder everything as to not sound like the content is exaggerated.
"It is so nice to meet you, I’ve heard so much about you, I can’t wait to spend time with you!"
During the first week of my arrival in the USA, I heard this sentence said with a rather high pitch and a lot of excitement in the voice, at least twice a day, every day. All I could think was “I have never seen you, what do you want from me?”
This is the combination of the two things I mentioned above: extreme open friendliness coupled with exaggeration. Usually, a French person will simply say “Enchanté, j’ai hâte d’en apprendre plus sur vous.” [Nice to meet you, I am eager to learn more about you.], in a calm and steady tone.
To this extent, my advice to you for when you first meet with a French person: keep it simple, and don’t be surprised when they do. (ie. chill)
Live to work, don’t work to live
The French, as is widely known throughout the world, don’t live to work. Quite the opposite. French workers like to keep their work life at work, including their colleagues. It is a common thought that if employees mix their work and personal lives together, it will cause issues whenever some kind of trouble arises in either of these lives.
Don’t be surprised if your French colleague looks uncomfortable the first time you invite him or her for a drink or a dinner. Sure, we do “afterworks” (going for a drink before going home) and company cocktails, but this is usually seen as team building, and doesn’t mean anything personal.
That said, it is common for an employee to become friends with a colleague, but the number of colleague-friends will be kept low. I have personally kept in touch with only one of my old colleagues.
Getting in touch with management
One of the common complaints of expats in France is how difficult it is to get in touch with the higher-up positions in a company. We respect the different levels of authority in the workplace, and this is one of the ways we show it. If you want to talk to your N2 (the manager of your manager), you need to go through your N1 (your manager).
This is a rather important thing to consider in the work environment because your newly arrived French colleague might not know what can or cannot be done when it comes to getting in touch with the higher levels of the corporate hierarchy. So take some time to lay out the guidelines in that matter, it’ll help a lot.
The French often appear extremely direct because they are not afraid of asking probing questions. This applies to anyone in the company, including your boss (and their boss). In consequence, the French may seem to be questioning or protesting everything. This is not exactly the case.
Our favorite questions are “Who?” and “Why?.” We need to know who is responsible for something, why anything and everything happened, happens and will happen. It is somehow necessary in order to move forward. From my experience, when a problem or a complication arises, the French tend to be obsessed with knowing “Who?” is responsible for it and “Why?” whatever happened actually happened, whereas the American would immediately start thinking on “How?” to solve the problem.
Debating and arguing are appreciated skills
If you thought we would stop at asking “Who?” and “Why?”, think again.
It often happens that a foreigner participating in a French friendly discussion thinks that all the participants are raging at each other, only to be surprised when they leave laughing and commenting on how great of a time they just had.
Remember some points mentioned above: we are suspicious of overly friendly people, we don’t like exaggeration and hyperbole, we like questioning everything and knowing the reason for everything… Add it together, and here you are: conversations that feel like debates.
We debate because we need to know the details, we want to understand all points of view, the positive and the negative arguments, etc… In this manner, in addition to asking “Who?” and “Why?”, we often are the devil’s advocate, because good debating skills that demonstrate an intellectual grasp of the situation and its consequences is a key skill to possess in a French environment.
This can make us sound pessimistic or negative in a lot of a situations, when we just see it as trying to take into account all the possibilities in order to be as ready as possible for any upshot.
Learning how to interact with people from different cultures -- French, or otherwise -- always requires some empathy, and open mindedness, ideally from both sides. Understanding why people say what they say and do what they do, even if you disagree with them, will help you navigate social interactions more fluidly, while avoiding misunderstandings, so you can focus on what's important.
After reading this, I hope that you have a better understanding on why your French colleagues appear to be distant, confused or grumpy during what seems to be normal conversations with you and other Americans.
In short, here is what you have to remember:
- The French appear to not be very friendly at first, but it is just a shell that needs to be pierced through.
- A concise and precise speech is preferred to exaggerations and decorations, which can be considered as fake and trying to make up for weaknesses.
- We take work seriously but don’t let it rule our lives.
- There is a certain respect of the traditional hierarchy pyramid and we have to go through each levels to reach the highest one - requests are generally not addressed directly to the higher levels.
- We like to know why something happened before knowing how to deal with it.
- Debating and arguing don’t mean disrespecting and protesting, it’s our way to process information and make sure we grasped all the details of a situation.