How to make friends with the French
Obtaining a visa, securing an apartment, finding a job and navigating the labyrinth of French health insurance: moving to France was never going to be a walk in the park.
But, the hardest thing of all?
Making friends with French women.
Allow me to begin by saying that I do not agree with the popular discourse that the French are unfriendly. Nor do I believe there is much truth to the idea that French women are suspicious of other females.
Indeed, I think much of my problem lies with me. Or rather, how I am used to making friends.
History matters in French friendship circles
A shared history seems paramount to the French. Discrete friendship groups are mostly formed at university; they have survived geographical shifts, relationship ups and downs and career blues. Perhaps once in a while, a work colleague will find their way into the mix. But only after an appropriate length of time has passed, and even then, maybe not.
By contrast, Australians generally believe that there is no such thing as too many friends. Our love of team sports and international travel serves only to widen our friendship net, and our tendency towards frequent job changes seals our fate.
The result is that our dinner parties, weddings and birthday celebrations are often made up of a somewhat motley crew. Which of course, to an Australian, are great places to make new friends. And the cycle continues.
In France, friendships move slowly
In Australia, it takes little more than half an hour, two glasses of Sauvignon Blanc and a compliment to ignite a long lasting friendship between women. Not so in Paris, where it can take months of seeing each other at mutual acquaintance’s events before a tentative suggestion to meet up for sushi can be extended.
“I am not French. Who says that I have to play by their rules, and wait for them to make the first move?”
Where in Australia, friendships move at the speed of light, in France, even the queue at La Poste moves quicker.
This reticence is so great that I have had to reign in my inherent Australian ways to avoid disappointment. Upon meeting the lovely wife of one of my husband’s friends last week, I swiftly squashed any notions of our future friendship. (Complete with Sancerre-soaked evenings on café terraces and the sharing of our deepest darkest secrets along with a fondant au chocolat).
Taking the French by storm
After three weeks of meeting several nice, potential female friends and receiving a sum total of zero lunch invitations, nada suggestions to try a yoga class together, and no offers to see a movie ensemble – I was feeling more than a little disheartened.
And then it occurred to me.
I am not French. Who says that I have to play by their rules, and wait for them to make the first move? And with that, I contacted each of the women I had met and extended brunch invites, gym dates and drink offers.
They were all swiftly accepted.
In all of my efforts to fit in, I had forgotten that I was still allowed to be me.
Making friends with French women seems just a matter of making the first move. No white wine necessary.
What do you think? Are the French too cautious when it comes to making new friends? Write about your experiences below.
All images by Alison Eastaway.
Note: This popular article has been refreshed and republished in 2020.
Quant aux amitiés entre femmes, je crois avoir lu il y a plusieurs ans dans le livre ‘Almost French’ de Sarah Turnbull qu’elle trouvait que les Françaises ne se hâtaient de se lier des amitiés intimes et, en causant avec ses amies d’autres nationalités,que celles-ci aussi partageaient son opinion. Étant .australienne, et avant d’aller en France, elle avait eu l’habitude de se faire des copines en Oz sans trop d’effort. Je pense que les Français estiment mieux que nous les amitiés de longue date. Ils savent qu’une bonne amitié est quelque chose à nourrir, qu’on s’y engage. La qualité plutôt que la quantité. Personnellement, j’ai trouvé que les Français témoignent de bien plus de franchise que nous, Lorsqu’une amie française nous a rendu visite en 1996, elle m’a passé un de ces savons, elle a râlé, etc. car elle me croyait au-dessus du boulot que je faisais à ce temps-là. C’est déconcertant au début mais on en arrive à apprécier ça.
You are correct, Sarah Turnbull does explore this issue well in her book. Yes, the French have a more long term approach to friendships and they do take time to build them, slowly, slowly over a long period of time! And yes, brutal honesty from French friends is something we learn to appreciate. Thanks for your comment!
I just wanted to share my own experience being a Frenchman in Australia and trying to make friends.
I feel exactly as you said, it is hard to get used to a new way of making friends.
When you are far away from people who have been around you for more than 10 years, it’s complicated to forget about that and start all over again.
Indeed, here in Australia everyone is always very friendly which is obviously a better thing than people seeming mad at you for no reason.
Though I find it quite hard to really know what people might think of me, if they are just being polite or if they actually like being around me.
When in France, you might face some people who will clearly tell you they don’t like you, you might then interact with only very few people who seem interested to spending time with you but you kind of know you can share a lot with them.
There is not as much ambiguity, nevertheless you are right about saying you have to adapt but you obviously can still be yourself.
And on a personal note, I know I need to be more assertive and just go for it.
Thank you very much for your comment, it was so nice to read about the other side of the topic, and from a male perspective as well! It’s true that this easy approach to friendship in Australia can make it difficult to know what everyone is really thinking. Though I still find it quite confronting when French people tell me exactly what they think, or when we are having a discussion between friends and someone voices a very unpopular opinion, unconcerned about what everyone will think about them. It is a refreshing approach, but sometimes for a foreigner, it can be a bit tough to reconcile 🙂
Good luck making more meaningful, long term friends in Australia!
As a French woman, I would agree that it takes time to build meaningful frienships with other women. I do get along much more quickly with men, but then maybe the friendship won’t be that strong. It just takes time for French to trust other people and build a relationship.
Thanks Jennifer! It’s always nice to hear the French perspective 🙂 You make an interesting point about female and male relationships. Thanks for reading!
I enjoyed the article very much, particularly as I’ll be in this position next year. I like your approach to finding friends. Australians are funny how we make friends with anybody even if we only have one thing in common such as, “Wow I like cats too!” “Wanna grab a drink?/Be my bridesmaid?/Part of my Will?” It’s nice though that the French look for more depth over a longer period. There is a lovely sense of comfort when one is with a friend one has known for years.
Thanks for reading Sandra, I had a good chuckle at the ‘one thing in common’ comment 🙂
My general advice is to join a club. Find something you are interested in and go to outings.meetings. People with a passion for something will be delighted that you share it. You do have to be rather brave about it though — clubs are run by people who have known each other for a long time and forget that new comers don’t always understand how the club works. For example, no mention of lunch might be made — it will just be assumed that everyone will bring something to share. Often people are not fully introduced to you either, and you can spend the longest time interacting in a friendly way with someone who you have no idea what their name is.
In terms of parties and drinks — if invited most people will meet you for a drink or coffee. Whether they come to dinner will depend on how much English versus French will be spoken and therefore on the language skills of the guests. If they think mostly English will be spoken and they are not comfortable with that, they will not come because they will feel out of it.
Making deep friendships is the same all over. They take time. I never made any deep friendships in the UK after moving from Australia, where I had a close circle of women friends. In France, most of our friends are like us — incomers. Not necessarily expats, but also French people who have come from other areas. They have just as much trouble making friends and comment on it just like the expats do.
Thanks very much Susan, and what great advice! I have recently joined both a book club and a social/ foodie club and met some wonderful people through them both. You make a very interesting point about French people who move from other parts of the country fitting in as well. Thanks so much for reading!
I really think the key word to make friends in France is patience! It can seem very hard at the beginning but if you are patient and you don’t give up, you can make friends for life. As a comparison, I live in Spain now and it’s totally different. At the beginning, it seems you can make real good friends easily but in spite of this impression, it’s not easy at all …
Thanks very much Bertrand, indeed I’m learning a lot about patience in France, and not only in the friend department! I’m intrigued to hear it isn’t as easy as it seems in Spain. Good luck!