Find us on Facebook
When travelling to another country, especially on one’s Year Abroad, the biggest concern is “am I going to fit in with the locals?” The last thing you want to do whilst trying to improve your language skills is to make cultural gaffes which might betray your glaring ‘English-y-ness’.
In Europe it is easy to make the assumption that the lack of formal borders makes everywhere simply an extension of England where you can pretty much continue life as you know it but just in a better climate and with Euros. However beware! In France there are some definite cultural differences that are essential to take note of. We interviewed three French language assistants Thomas, Mathieu and Eve for some insider tips. There they are below!
Firstly, the night-life across the channel will not be what you are used to. We knew already that the reputation of English youngsters abroad didn’t exactly paint us in the most admirable light. Even we turn our noses up at the antics on ‘The Magaluf Weekender’! However, you’ll get more than a few judgmental looks if you booze to excess and dress skimpily in France apparently. Running riot in the streets is strictly reserved for political demonstrations!
Talking to the French assistants, we learn of their horror whenever they, dressed in coats and jeans, venture to the slimy depths of Broad Street on a Saturday night (or any night of the week in Birmingham for that matter). They say they cannot believe their eyes at the attire of the intoxicated, frolicking youth before them. Although we knew there was some difference between French fashion and our own, we were not expecting to be thought of as “prostitutes”. Sadly I fear the beloved paradigms of ‘body-con’, ‘bandage’ and ‘crop-top’ have been somewhat lost in translation!
You would never even have an opportunity to dress in such a way in France in any case, since clubbing pursuits are supposedly unheard of on any other night than Saturday and, even then, a more laid-back night at the pub is generally preferred. What shocked Thomas, Mathieu and Eve the most is that there is a bar on the University campus here at Birmingham; drinking is completely separated from Academia in France.
When we ask them what the best way of blending into French society was, we were met with a phrase from all three of them in unison: ‘pause café’. It seems that, built into the daily routines of every worker in every office across France, are several mandatory coffee breaks (on top of a two hour lunch)! Although they may have replaced philosophising with gossiping, this trend is all part of France’s so called café culture which saw many of the great French thinkers of the 20th Century such as Satre and Simon de Beauvoir spending large parts of their days in Parisian cafés. The ‘pause café’ breaks are prime times to socialise with co-workers and, as the French assistants regrettably concede, to smoke. You’re unlikely to see any French workers taking their lunch ‘al-desko’ like most of us British! I hasten to ask “what if you don’t drink coffee?”
The bemused expressions on their faces give me my answer.
So obsessed with this phenomenon are the French, they have even produced a sitcom ‘Caméra Café’ which narrates the antics that go on during the numerous coffee breaks. It is worth a watch even if the French sense of humour seems strange at first!
Thomas and the gang also make us aware of the importance of mealtimes in France. Within the family unit all generations are brought together round the table, often spending hours at a time chatting. Even university students regularly return home for family dinners and often to the homes of their friends for a taste of their mothers’ cooking. We muse on why it is that the British have largely strayed from these kinds of habits but conclude that, perhaps if we did gastronomy like the French, then we might be inclined to stay round the table for longer!
Decorum and manners are also nuances which may take some adjusting to. ‘Tutoyer’ (addressing someone as ‘tu’ rather than ‘vous’) is well known as something which we Brits find difficult to remember and which can come across extremely rude when talking to one’s superior or senior in France. Naturally, the French assistants themselves had some adjusting to do to our English rules of conduct. Thomas makes us chuckle when he tells the story of when he moved in with English students and greeted one of the girls in his usual French manner — a kiss on each cheek, only to receive the evil-eye from the girl’s boyfriend who had clearly got the wrong idea!
We get round to what their preconceptions of Britain were and what they miss from back home. All three of them had heard, and their relatives always ask them if it is really true, that we Brits just drink tea, eat low quality food and that it rains all the time here. On most of these accounts they claim that we are not completely true to the stereotype. Although they miss the French cuisine (well, who wouldn’t), they say that Britain has such a variety of foods that it is impossible to complain.
So there you have it, if you’re travelling to France or if you ever come into contact with French people you may be guided slightly by these pointers. Remember: whether you like it or not you must take up coffee drinking, be philosophical and avoid wearing short skirts. But girls: please try not to entirely lose sight of the Topshop girl within you!
By Maddie Kilminster
Interview by Emily Brickell and Maddie Kilminster
The UoB Linguist Magazine
Guild of Students,
University of Birmingham