In a few short weeks, I will be crossing the pond to Europe for the first time. It has been a long time goal of mine to study for a quarter in France, and this spring my chance has finally come. Though I’ve been preparing mentally for years, the time has now come to read books and truly delve into the French culture. The last thing I want is to stick out as the typical, obnoxious American!
Obviously, my biggest problem is my lack of strong (if any) French verbal skills. And it doesn’t help that I have heard so much about the cold, snobby French. Although I don’t believe this stereotype could possibly be true of an entire country of people, it worries me.
It was easy for me to relate to author David Sedaris, who begins Part Deux of his book Me Talk Pretty One Day describing his previously held beliefs and judgments of France. He says, “My understanding was that, no matter how hard we tried, the French would never like us, and that’s confusing to an American raised to believe that the citizens of Europe should be grateful for all the wonderful things we’ve done.”
Luckily, in Sally Taylor’s Culture Shock, I learned one possible source for these stereotypes. “Not only does the rooster crow loudly,” Taylor writes, “he struts about, holding himself aloof from the other animals in the barnyard… He is a bit laughable, but gets away with it by posturing.” Aha! The rooster is a national symbol for France. Rather than being stuck up as many Americans so quickly label them, the French practice poise and indifference to get by daily stresses. As for the few French natives I have met, they quickly warmed up to me, and I am hoping the same will be true while I am abroad.
As a girl, it is vital to learn some of the rules of eye contact. Culture Shock explains “the look,” which is that men have a sort of right to toss a look at a woman they find attractive. In America, men who do this are seen as pigs, or if not, a woman might respond by laughing and continuing on her way. In France, “the look” is to expected, but must be ignored by quickly looking away. Offering a return of eye contact or laughing could be taken as a ‘yes.’
As for verbal communication, my readings covered this extremely adequately. Speaking softly in public, the importance of at least attempting the join the conversation a table, and the taboo of silence are all topics I encountered. Conversation and discussion (as opposed to argumentation) are very important to the French people, so understanding how and why to participate is key to fitting in.
To learn French, I am going to have to be open and receptive to the language during my visit. I realize it will be important to participate in conversations and to keep my ears open at cafés and on the street to overhear the words and phrases that other people are using. Only by being receptive to the language around will I be able to learn it and use it on my own.
And of course, there is fashion. “To dress well in Paris reflects taste and class,” Taylor writes, and I am sure the same applies to other parts of France. Americans pride ourselves on comfortable jeans and the acceptability of wearing running shoes and sweatpants in public, but in France, “they will get dressed up to run to the post office.” Personally, I am glad to be visiting a country that boasts of their impeccable fashion taste and iconic personalities, such as Coco Chanel. My reading has influenced me to look into buying a few scarves to keep the same outfit looking fresh and new, week after week!
Inevitably, there will be points when I become homesick or overwhelmed by French culture. Surely I will grab a hamburger some day. There will be times that I seek English-only conversations. But luckily, though I am terrified of not knowing French and having a hard time getting by, I know that I am going to explore as much of France as possible and try to become as near to fluent in French as I can in those short three months. The ability to adapt, patience, tiring effort, and a little reading are essential in avoiding typical American visitor status. Bon chance pour moi!