January 30, 2013

Letters from Abroad

The French Connection

I think it is most appropriate to use my first column to describe a few of the cultural differences I’ve noticed thus far while studying abroad in Toulouse, France. I’ve only lived for an extended period of time in two places in my entire life: Brunswick, Maine and Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Although you would be hard pressed to find someone who thinks either town represents the epitome of American culture, I have enough life experience to notice that many things are culturally dissimilar between France and the United States.

The other day, my host and I chatted about French and American politics. The most striking part of the conversation was her confession that the French could not care less about a politician’s love and sex life. An elected official could have two, three, four (here she was holding up her hands and gesticulating with the appropriate number of fingers) mistresses and it is all the same to them. I remarked that in the United States, unless they were especially skilled or popular, this revelation would potentially ruin a politician’s career. Bill Clinton was impeached for the offense, and it was all the media could focus on when Newt Gingrich ran for president in 2012. My host could not understand why, when America created Jersey Shore, has more fans of Fifty Shades of Grey than of the New York Times and is the leading producer of the world’s pornography, we care so much about the private sex lives of politicians. I have to admit, I couldn’t give her a good answer.

I’ve also noticed that the French tend to be both more and less polite than Americans. On one hand, they are less polite because they are not very good at waiting their turn in line. In the United States, if you are waiting to get on a bus or metro, or are filing through a door or up the stairs or escalator, you typically let those in front of you go first. In France, someone behind you will have no qualms about swooping in and slipping in front of you, sometimes stealing your bus seat or the last spot in the elevator.

Another difference is one’s degree of friendliness toward strangers. The French, and especially the students, rarely make warm introductions when meeting strangers for the first time. It takes effort to break the ice – but when you do, the relationships are just as rewarding as the ones made in the U.S. I think this is why the French are made out to be rude and snobbish.

However, in some respects they are more polite than Americans. As each patron exits the bus, he or she tells the driver an obligatory “Merci, au revoir.” Day or night, rain or shine, every single rider says this phrase. It’s not something you typically see in the U.S., and the French pride themselves on thanking people for services.

Obviously many Americans are very polite and say their please-and-thank-you’s, but in France it seems to be a more universal utterance.

Of course, there are more than two cultural differences between the countries, but so far those are the two that I find to be the most interesting and nuanced. Another is that McDonalds here sells the McBaguette – yes it’s what it sounds like, and yes I’ve had one.