When I write “thinking French”, I don’t mean thinking IN French. Yes, this certainly is a helpful linguistic skill, but I mean learning to think like a person raised in main-stream culture France.
Here are some tips to get you thinking French. Keep in mind, none of these are rules. They’re more guidelines and highly influenced by the southern French (or at least Nîmes) experience. They also bar any influence racial or other discrimination might play because that would take up a post of its own. Most of all, be patient with yourself. You might not have to change your own thinking, but you will have to open yourself up to others’ ways of thinking. You’ll make mistakes, so learn from them.
Being the newcomer:
French people tend to expect newcomers to make the effort to reach out to them, not the other way around. This is the opposite of what’s expected in the United States. In France, you’ll have to make the effort to insert yourself into conversation and say hello. In general, French people won’t impose themselves upon people they don’t really know. Much the same thinking goes for waitstaff. The waiter won’t come check on you, he or she will leave you alone- for as long as you want! You have to get their attention (a polite wave, catch their gaze, a “Monsieur/Madame, s’il vous plaît!” as they pass by). That’s perhaps why Americans often stereotype French waiters as impolite- it’s the opposite of what we expect.
You don’t become good friends with someone who is going to leave. In the United States, we’re used to going far away for college, then moving far for a job- this isn’t the typical model in France. Most people stay near home for university and then stay in the region. It’s hard to leave a friend. Why go through that when you have your childhood friends and several people who aren’t leaving the country (let alone the region)? Friendship is important in France, not something casual. One of the assistants from last year asked some of her friends if she could put new assistants in contact with them and they said “no.” They were tired of their friends leaving them. There’s logic to that, you have to admit. In both my experiences in Nantes and in Nîmes, I find the people I become closest to are those who aren’t from the city I’m in or those who have experienced what’s it’s like to live abroad, or at least far from home. Those that I’ve met from Nîmes admit that their friendships are typically pretty closed.
There’s also something I like to call the “phantom invitation.” This is where someone invites you to go somewhere/ do something and then they don’t follow up and usually you never see them again. Honestly, I don’t understand this phenomenon, but a lot of my friends and I have experienced it. It’s definitely not done impolitely, so don’t feel offended. I’m not sure if the original invitation wasn’t genuine or if it’s a way of conversation or a way to get closer to someone while keeping a set distance… Or something.
I have heard so many French people stereotype the French as being self-centered. For example, one person said that they meant people won’t get involved with something unless they can see how it will benefit them. Is that so different from thinking in the states? Only in that perhaps even more than free food, if people see how something will benefit them, they’ll be more likely to participate. They also said that they want to feel important. I certainly have noticed that as far as associations go, membership and motivation seem kind of low. Again, I think this might be more of a southern French thing as this didn’t seem as much the case in Nantes which, granted, is a much larger city.
Is sacred. It is to be appreciated and enjoyed.You won’t typically see people walking around with a coffee and sandwich in hand (nibbling the end of your baguette before getting home is totally normal, though). Snacking isn’t really a thing here. Lunch breaks are at least an hour and don’t even THINK about shortening it. You might provoke a grève. Tell someone Americans get 20-30 minutes for lunch at school and watch the looks of horror.
Time and Space:
More specific to the south of France. This is a quote from a book about Italy, but I find it rings true here as well; “I have discovered that time and space are relative notions there… No one maliciously puts you on the wrong part of the train or sends you in the wrong direction. It’s just that arrivals and departures matter much less than wines and sauces, the state of your frescoes, and lovemaking… What matters is seeing, smelling, tasting. Who cares if you turn left, when right is just as beautiful and the wine is just as good” (Mary Morris). Time isn’t linear, it’s relative. Hardly anything will start on time. People are often late. There’s no rush, so just chill. Things happen when they’re ready to happen. As for space, it’s also a more general notion. People may confidently give you wrong directions. They probably don’t realize they’re wrong and don’t do so mean spiritedly. It’s their best guess, so they give it to you with all the confidence of certainty. Left, right, both ways are nice. You’ll get wherever it is you’re supposed to go… Eventually.
When walking in the city streets, smiling or making eye contact with strangers is considered odd. If you do make eye contact, you’re probably not going to have a Paris je t’aime metro experience, though.
Whereas Americans are told you need to smile and look happy all the time, not so in France. You smile when you’re really happy, and not just at anyone. You should say hello to people who work in the shops and if you’re just looking, say “ça va, merci, je regarde” when asked if you want assistance. Say goodbye and thank you before leaving.
Now, I’m no expert, but people in different countries, regions, towns, and cities have different typical ways of thinking. Different. Not better, not worse. Do you disagree with any of these guidelines? What have you noticed in your efforts to think [French]?