Do as the French do: 5 formidable habits

Since moving to France there have been ways in which I’ve consciously tried to adapt to French life.

For example, like using the bises greeting or always saying Bonjour/ au revoir. However, some practices I never consciously adopted have crept into my mindset and daily life. I’d like to share below part of this ‘collection’ of habits and a little about what each one can tell us about the French.

Air it out

It wasn’t until I came to France that I saw people ‘air out’ rooms and their homes.

The size of living spaces and a mild climate probably relate to this being a common practice. No matter the season, this is common in France and even recommended to keep your home space ‘healthy’. The idea is that a lot of objects in our homes (furniture, rugs, paint, etc.) actually create air that can be more polluted than the air outside.

After observing lots of French people do this, now it’s a reflex for me to get out of bed, pull back the covers, and open up those windows.

Quality over quantity

Among the different eating habits, I’ve adopted in France is a preference for quality over quantity.

It took my French husband to remark to me how Americans were often in great admiration when there was a wide plethora of things to eat or choose from, like a restaurant menu with thirty pages. I know now I also used to revel in this abundance of variety and choice.

Now though, especially in restaurants, I’m wary when the menu has more than a few pages, assuming the food must be frozen or pre-prepared. And on the flip side, I’m reassured when I see only a few options for starters and main dishes. Even if the kitchen runs out of something, I take it as a good sign because it often means they are really preparing the food fresh, for each day.

Presentation matters

There’s a certain, unspoken social order in France. One of the ways you demonstrate you understand it is in how you present yourself to the world, including how you dress. French people are conscious of how they present themselves because it reflects on their understanding and observance of this social order.

I once had a conversation about this with a French friend. I was complaining that I didn’t want to ‘dress up’ to go to the gym since I was just going to get sweaty anyway. This friend explained that people going to the gym in France are not dressing for themselves, but for everyone else.

Now I understand this issue of clothes and how you dress as a tool. I can use it to my advantage, to show that I too understand and observe the social order.

Yes to asking for information

In France information is not always accessible, and so the French are used to hunting it down and asking for help. This is still true even in our days of smartphones and GPS systems, of people stopping and asking for directions on the street. The French are used to communicating and interacting with people to get information.

Now I know that I will usually be more successful in accomplishing my task if I make a phone call, go physically to a place, or simply ask “Is this the right place?/Do you sell…?/ Does this bus go to…?”. All of these steps will get me much farther than trying to find information on my own.

No to small talk

While information is seen as a legitimate reason to engage in conversation with a stranger, small talk is not. I can stop someone to ask them something (provided I start it with Bonjour, excusez-moi), however, I cannot stop someone to give them a compliment. In other words, if my interaction has a purpose, it will fly. If it’s being social just to be social, I will probably be perceived as crossing an invisible line. So now I know- information, I can share freely with strangers. Compliments, I keep for my friends and acquaintances.

This is my list of habits, and I imagine this list will continue to grow and evolve.

Whether you’re studying French or living in a French-speaking country, there are probably also habits, expressions, or practices you’ve adopted, consciously or unconsciously. What are they? Tell us in the comments below.

Image credits:
  1. Open window, Photo by Alistair MacRobert on Unsplash
  2. Clothes, Photo by NordWood Themes on Unsplash
  3. Information, Photo by Roman Kraft on Unsplash

About the Contributor

Jessica Sarlandie

An American expat living in Lyon, France, I studied and taught French in the US before teaching English at the university here for nine years. I love the richness that being an expat brings to my life. I’m currently studying Art Therapy and also practice foreign languages, art, and writing.

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