The French Experience

Story by Mary Chen | chen.mary@husky.neu.edu

Americans gained independence from Great Britain in 1776 with help from their loyal French allies. Over the next few centuries, Americans incorporated many French elements into the U.S. to make it the world power that it is today. Now, 240 years later, the Americanization of France has become a much-studied topic amongst international scholars. When I lived with a host family in the countryside town of Annecy, I gained new realizations about how France’s culture differed greatly from the U.S. despite American influence on the country.

The first time I visited France, I stayed in Paris for two days and spent an afternoon in Normandy; needless to say, I barely had any time to fully appreciate or understand French culture. Living in an authentic French environment for a month created a conducive environment to discuss a plethora of inquiries I had about life in France. One of the first mysteries I unraveled was that of the culture surrounding “les bisous.” I knew it was the proper way to greet people in France, but I didn’t understand the rules behind it. Our host mother described the customary action as a stepping-stone to maturity. Most young girls greeted their female friends with a kiss on each cheek, but the same could not be said for young boys. Before high school, young girls and young boys would not greet each other with les bisous. Even in high school, it was more socially acceptable for young men to fist-bump than to bestow a kiss on either cheek. I also learned that younger people are more likely to initiate les bisous toward elders. As a result, I only exchanged the customary greeting with the children that came to visit our host family.

This custom gave me the impression that the French have a different definition of personal space and familiarity than Americans do. From my perspective, Americans value privacy more than the French do; in America, public bathrooms are larger, restaurant booths are embellished with curtains and situated far apart from each other and residential houses are built further apart. Even the customary American greeting – a handshake to be polite or a slight nod of the head to signal acknowledgement – reflects this need for personal space.

A second question that plagued me for most of my stay was why the French wore so much clothing during the summer. Although the weather remained an average of 75 degrees fahrenheit, most of the residents wore long-sleeved shirts, long pants and even coats. Our French language teacher explained that wearing shorts or sports clothing for uses other than sports only became acceptable in France after 2008. Because of a fashion trend started by Americans, more adolescents began to wear shorts outside during the summer. My host family, however, disagreed, telling me that French people only wear shorts on vacation, at the beach, for sports or when it is unbearably hot, at 85 degrees fahrenheit or higher.

A third discovery I made was the reason behind the ubiquity of petite cars: gas prices are excessively expensive per kilometer. With prices that translate to almost six dollars per gallon in America, most families own a single car and use it sparingly. The French are more conscious about saving resources, which is also why most of their showers and home utilities are on the smaller side to conserve electricity and water. Because cities appropriate water sparingly, public restrooms and drinking fountains are a rare find; bottled mineral water is usually offered at a price that translates to two or three dollars per bottle. Additionally, indoor lights are almost never used during the daytime. Even during the evening, my host family always reminded me to turn off the lights when leaving a room.

Consequently, I believe Americans possess different work ethics and attitudes toward life than the French do. Americans spend a majority of their time working in order to make a better living; on the contrary, the French have a 35-hour maximum work week, hardly ever work on Sundays and spend a greater percentage of their time engaging in leisurely activities. On the weekends, for example, it was common for people to spend all day with their families or friends– biking, hiking, walking, swimming and enjoying the beautiful weather.

Realizing that the French have a more recreational outlook on life put things into perspective for me: American culture surrounding livelihood is rushed, goal-oriented and capitalistic. Most Americans work through the weekends and jump at the chance for overtime to earn more money. In turn, this money is used to pay for living and leisure expenses. Consumer, grocery and rent prices in the U.S. are far more expensive than those in France, perpetuating the capitalist cycle America is known for.

These differences between cultures that I observed put into perspective the disparate avenues human progress can take. Although France heavily influenced American independence and the French independence movement repurposed American ideals, both nations have evolved into national identities distinctive from each other. I was able to see American traditions and habits from a foreign standpoint, and observed the benefits and drawbacks of several American enterprises, inventions and cultural habits compared to those of France. These travels allowed me to understand France’s unique culture instead of judging based on appearances, media or stereotypes. Participating in this dialogue inspired me to view French-American relations in a new light and consider unconventional approaches to international affairs. By embracing cultural differences, people can foster international cooperation in terms of human progress and different cultures can adopt efficient policies and inventions from another to make their own societies better.