François-Marie Arouet (aka Voltaire) was a writer, philosopher, poet, dramatist, historian, and thought leader during the French Enlightenment in the 18th century. Even today, his ideas resonate in French culture.
One of his key admonitions to his readers was to “Think for yourselves and let others enjoy the privilege to do so too.” That’s a useful principle for me to remember as I attempt a late-in-life integration into French culture. As tempting as it is, I have to resist the impulse to view French behaviors, habits, and lifestyles that are different from my own as wrong because they aren’t what I am accustomed to.
Indeed, despite my best efforts, ethnocentrism inevitably makes me view the differences in French culture as anomalies—the norm being my American culture. But when I step back, I realize that the differences are simply differences. And if I’m smart, I’ll use them to challenge my assumptions of how life can be lived and increase my options.
Difference #1: Tipping Is Not Customary
Recently, I hosted guests from the United States who were frustrated by the practice of no tipping. I explained that the tip was built into the price of the meal. Further, I explained, restaurant staff, unlike workers in the United States, were paid livable salaries with benefits. They weren’t dependent upon tips to make ends meet.
“But then,” my American friends complained, “how do you reward good service and penalize lousy service?”
I shrugged. The American visitors went ahead and tipped anyhow.
Difference #2: Food Is Really, Really Important!
The importance of food is revealed in many ways, including the emphasis on quality versus quantity. Many of my French friends buy only bio food, which is organic food raised or processed without chemicals. Consumers pay a premium for bio food, but no one complains. Quality is king.
The importance of food also shows up in the attention given to presentation. In the past year, I have taken more pictures (at home and in restaurants) of gorgeous food presentations than I have taken in my entire prior life. In focusing on presentation, the underlying assumption is that the eye (sight) is as important in enjoying the food as are the nose (smell) and the mouth (the taste).
The quantity of food may appear modest by American standards. However, it is more than adequate to leave the diners feeling satisfied—but not stuffed!
Meal planning is also a major part of life. At first, I found it odd that we discussed what we would be eating for dinner while we were still eating lunch—or what we would be eating the next day while we were eating our evening meal.
For example, last Sunday, we were eating a lunch that consisted of grilled pork chops, fried tomatoes, a leafy salad, and some delicious bread. While we ate, we discussed our dinner menu. I would make an apple and pear dessert and Attenderella would make a tomato tart with cheese and a salad. With it, we would serve red wine. I was engaged in the planning process and considered it normal.
Difference #3: Manners Are Essential
In one of my earlier blog posts, I wrote about the emphasis on manners. The need to thank the bus driver when exiting, the need to thank the clerk and wish them a good day after purchasing groceries, the need to greet each of my neighbors every day with bonjour (or in the evening, bonsoir)—all of these struck me as odd. And I must add that before making any purchase, one must first greet the seller.
A sign in front of a coffee shop demonstrates my point. If a customer comes in and orders a coffee, the price is 6 euro. If a customer comes in and says, “A coffee, please,” the price of this coffee is 4 euro. If the customer comes in and says, “Bonjour, one coffee, please,” the price for this coffee is 1 euro 60 centimes.
Difference #4: Family Ties Are Emphasized
When my son, Expresso, first moved to France, I asked him if he didn’t find it claustrophobic to spend so much time with his extended family on weekends and holidays. Because he needs time alone, he had to make an adjustment.
And I had to make a similar adjustment when I came here to live. Because I am a writer, I value large hunks of time by myself. And with a bit of planning, I can still make that happen. (When I don’t get enough alone time, I get anxious.)
But as difficult as it is for me to admit, I also no longer enjoy solitude as much as I once did. I can’t be alone too long without missing company.
Still a Ways to Go
I’m not yet able to celebrate everything that I’ve observed in French culture that’s different from my own. For instance, from my perspective, French parents seem to raise their children to remain dependent as long as possible. It’s as if they don’t want their little hatchlings to leave the nest.
In contrast, my experience is that American parents are more inclined to raise their children to be independent. Like me, the American parents I knew were ready to push their hatchlings out of the nest when they reached college age.
Which is better? In my view, encouraging independence is, but I have to be open-minded.
Also, I can see that French retailers—whether they sell clothes, furniture, or housewares—put more emphasis on style and design than American retailers do. This is true whether the retailer is similar to Walmart or more like Nordstrom. An incredible amount of style is included in the price of even the least expensive product.
I’ve been delighted to decorate my new home with what would be considered avant-garde choices in Iowa. Yet part of me considers the emphasis on style and presentation to be superficial. Which is better? I’m ambivalent but am moving more toward style.
Are Differences Even Important?
If I write a blog post on this topic a year from now, I suspect it will be quite different. Such is the nature of absorbing the culture of another country and deepening one’s understanding of similarities and dissimilarities.
Yet none of this is to be taken too seriously. As President John F. Kennedy said, “For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children's future. And we are all mortal.”
Whether articulated in English or French, this sentiment is worth remembering.