Thursday, July 12, 2007


Food...for thought and for table

Today's post will be very short, because I will be in the kitchen burni...I mean cooking...a French recipe for all of us to try.

In the mean time, here's just a little food for thought. If you encounter someone from another culture than yours, it's wise for both of you to give each other the benefit of the doubt when it comes to manners. I am only speaking from an American/French perspective in this post, but it applies to relationships between people from any two countries. Perhaps, some of our readers who live in other countries besides the U.S. or readers who have spent extended time in another culture than their own will care to comment on their experiences.

Today's American is likely to believe the French are rude. Ironically, many French think Americans are rude.

The fact is that there are people with rude hearts and people with kind hearts in every country. Perhaps, you have encountered a French person who was intentionally rude to you. Maybe, that same French person has encountered an American person who was intentionally rude to him. Typically, though, impressions that people from a certain country are rude are formed simply because we do not understand each other's culture.

Here's an example: The church I attend in a Southern state regards the fellowship as a family. People are very warm and welcoming, and you'll even see people greet each other with hugs. Even visitors are welcomed with a handshake.

Now, the French people in general also employ a handshake as a typical greeting. But, another frequent French greeting is to "faire la bise" or "faire le bisou" -- meaning to give each other a peck or two on each cheek.

I didn't think about this at all as DH and I walked from our hotel to attend a sister church in Paris. When I got there and was introduced a woman in the church, I automatically extended my arm to greet her in the fashion of our Southern church. She looked puzzled for a moment. Then, she said, in her best English, "Oh! You don't bisou, do you?" She graciously started to change her manner of greeting to the American style.

I, on the other hand, thought to myself, "Of course! They follow the French custom of giving bisous! That's the way Parisians would make each other feel like family! I should have thought of that!"

It was no big deal. We understood each other's heart -- that we wanted to greet each other as part of extended church family. Love covers a multitude of cultural misunderstandings!

But, if you don't give each other grace, little misunderstandings like these can leave a bad taste in everyone's mouth. Here are a few cultural differences you might encounter if you ever visit France. Again, this is a comparison of French/American ideas. If you are from neither one of these countries, think how your country's cultural assumptions might be similar to or different from both American and French:

1) The French generally tend to be more reserved than Americans. They are private people, and they take a while to warm up to strangers. Friendship and family are highly regarded in France, and both carry with them certain expectations. These expectations have a lot to do with loyalty and support. Thus, to the French mind, to come on too strong with a stranger -- especially a tourist -- is to presume too much, too quickly of that person.

Only among their loved ones do the French feel truly free to let down their guard and be themselves. The French have a certain set of social customs for family and friends. For those who are not in their inner circle, the French observe a more formal code of politeness.

Americans, who tend to be very casual and instantly friendly, mistake French reserve for coldness and rudeness. It's not. The French do not mean to be unkind; they mean to be polite. It's just the French way of treating strangers with the same respect with which they want to be treated.

The French, on the other hand, mistake our casual approach as being pushy and overbearing. We don't mean to be that way! We just have a different style of relating to people.

However, if you are polite, soft-spoken, smile, and ask politely for directions, you will find that even some French strangers will open up to you -- at least on some level. In this way, you can have interesting discussions and learn a lot more about France than you would from guidebooks.
(Do use good judgement, though. In France, as in every other place, you don't want to put yourself in potentially dangerous situations. I'm not advocating that a lone woman go up and talk to a strange man, for example, or that you strike up a conversation in a dark alley.)

2) The French are still more prone to reserving first names for family and friends, only. Americans used to follow this style of etiquette, but, today, we are much more likely to use our first names with everyone -- even with strangers.

3) Like Americans, the French do not rest elbows on the table when they eat. However, they do keep both hands above the table, rather than resting the hands in their laps. Little things like this are not very critical if you are eating in a French restaurant, especially with people of your own nationality. The French depend on the travel industry for a good part of their economy, and they are quite used to seeing people from all over the world in their public places. They know that not everyone eats according to French style.

I've always eaten American style, even when staying several weeks in a French dormitory. But, then again, I was in situations where I was given a lot of understanding for being a foreigner.

If you are ever invited to dine with a French family in a French home, that's a different matter. Then, it would only be kind to familiarize yourself with French dinner customs before you go. Of course, your hosts will understand that you are used to an American style of eating. But, your hosts will appreciate your effort to meet them half-way.

Enjoy!
Elizabeth

8 comments:

Tammy said...

Very interesting post! This is a good reminder for us, when dealing with any culture!

Mrs. Burrows said...

Quite good post! I used to use my first name online but after some episodes(and even on places like Habbo where I once frequented because of our son being invited there), hubby and I agreed on Mrs. for the sake of propriety and consistency(the handle "Mum" got me very unwelcomed solicitations and rude comments ~ not sure what was up with that!).

It's interesting to trot around the globe via the computer and learn differences in language and customs. Nappy in the UK isn't SW PA redneck slang for a quick afternoon rest, for one example. I often wonder if people think I'm a real kook. Youngins tend to be the most forgiving of me. On the other hand, we had a dear lady in fellowship that would hug the puddin out of everyone while some wouldn't do the "turn around and shake hands" fellowship gesture. We certainly are a melting pot in the US. :-)

Elizabeth said...

Hello, Tammy,
Hello, Mrs. Burrows

I'm glad y'all enjoyed the post.

Mrs. Burrows, it is great that the Internet is bringing us all together! It's funny how even in this Internet world, expressions still vary, though.


I loved your description of the woman who would hug the puddin out of everyone!

We are a melting pot in the U.S., aren't we!

Jenny said...

I loved this post! It reminded me of the fun customs I had to learn before going to France. The purpose behind the hands remaining on the table stems from the time when pirates were very common in the country. When someone had their hand remaining under the table, it was usually because they were holding onto their weapon! Another custom to keep in mind, especially in southern france where many families are muslim, is *not* to cross one's legs. It is considered rude and inappropriate to show the bottom of your feet to someone else. Instead, try crossing your feet at your ankles and to one side.

I look forward to hearing about the french cuisine!

Elizabeth said...

Hi Jenny,

That's interesting about not crossing your legs in Southern France. I had not heard of that custom -- at least not for that reason.

I never knew the reason why the French keep their hands above the table, either. That explanation makes perfect sense.

Thanks for sharing about that.

Mrs. U said...

As always, wonderful post, Elizabeth!!!

I wish we would all start calling each other Mr. Smith or Mrs. Smith. I grew up that way and think it is so much more polite. Now everyone is Mr. Mike or Miss Karen...

I loved learning about some of the differences you shared here. Greeting each other with a kiss seems to be usual in several countries.

His,
Mrs. U

Lilith said...

Hello everybody,
What a good thing for me to read this post, because I'm french and it helped me to remember what our habits look like for others. It really made me laugh sometimes, because I recognized myself in it ! It is true that in France we often think that the americans are too extroverted, too loud... And many of us find ridiculous this way of hugging strangers (I only hug my parents and fiancé !)... just as it may seem ridiculous to kiss strangers, I guess ! ;o )

Elizabeth said...

Hi Lilith,

Thanks for giving us the French perspective on this!