The best antidote for someone who’s stuck in their ways is to move abroad. You’ll realize your habits aren’t part of your DNA and you’re more adaptable than you thought. I’ve had the pleasure of calling France home for a little over three years now, and while I’m still me, I’ve definitely taken on some French flair since moving here and have almost forgotten all about my American habits (until I go back home). Adapting to the new culture is part of respecting it, so let’s get into it.
American habits I lost when I moved to France
1. I don’t go out anywhere in sweatpants
A drawn out “Ohhh la la” accompanied by a frown is what you’ll get from passersby if you venture outside in a dreaded pair of worn out sweatpants. Or maybe you’ll be mistaken for a homeless person. In all seriousness, the French tend to look effortlessly chic and their definition of casual is slightly different than mine.
Even in my small town, I feel kind of weird going outside to run errands in casual clothes that a French person wouldn’t leave their house in — ever. I wear gym clothes only to the gym (well, for the most part). Even French people’s casual clothing choices are elevated with classy accessories, especially in big cities, so think casually chic, not casually messy.
2. I don’t refrigerate my eggs
French eggs are sold at room temperature on a shelf in the grocery store. Yup, it’s normal, and nope, you won’t get sick. I repeat, eggs in France are not in the refrigerated section next to the yogurt or butter. In the USA, all commercially produced eggs need to be refrigerated to prevent condensation from forming on the shell. Moisture allows bacteria to get into the egg and makes us sick.
In France, the eggs retain the protective coating that prevents this from happening due to the way they’re processed. French people do sometimes refrigerate their eggs but not out of necessity like we do in the USA. They’ll refrigerate them to extend the shelf life or to free up counter space. So if you come over and have a look around my kitchen, you’ll see a carton of eggs on the counter just sitting there at room temperature. It’s not a cause for concern — just how it’s done here. You don’t have to refrigerate your eggs in France unless you want to get them off the counter.
3. I don’t rush through my meals or multitask while eating
Mealtime is kind of sacred in France (especially big family meals on Sundays) and food is to be savored and appreciated. It’s not an obligatory task that we all rush through to get to the next thing on our to-do list. I wrote more about my favorite French mealtime habit here. What a welcome change it is to slow down!
Normally families will eat together without the distraction of TV and will really take time to enjoy dinner. I’ve learned to focus on my meal and not eat while juggling three other things (most of the time). Of course not every meal is cooked fresh and slow, but overall, the French put more of a focus on savoring high quality food and enjoying the time at the table with their friends or family.
4. I don’t make small talk
The French aren’t really masters of small talk, nor are they accustomed to it. With people you sort of know like your pharmacist or an acquaintance you see from time to time, maybe you’ll talk about the weather or other little things but with complete strangers? No way. The French don’t often make small talk and might seem a little taken aback if the smiling American starts up a conversation in the bakery. That’s not to say it never happens, but it’s not on the same scale as it is in the USA.
This is because the French respect the personal versus private sphere in social contexts. A French person may be curious about something you’re wearing or doing, but instead of being inquisitive about it, they’ll keep to themselves out of respect. I still chat with people who seem open to it, but tend to let the French person take the lead.
5. I don’t tip
Americans are used to tipping at restaurants, the hair salon, and many other places as we go about daily life. Tipping culture is very different in France and the French do not leave 20% for servers at restaurants, etc. This is because in France, service personnel are paid a livable wage and tipping is just not part of the culture in the same way.
In the USA, tipping is part of our culture and an obligatory part of eating out at a restaurant, getting a haircut, and other services. We know that when eating out, a 20%+ tip for good service is customary, and even when the service isn’t great, you still tip. Bartenders are tipped. Valets are tipped. Bellhops are tipped, and the list goes on.
In France, it’s not customary to tip the same way you do in the USA and I have to fight my Americanness when I eat out. It’s an appreciated gesture if you truly did have amazing service to leave a little bit extra in France, but big tips are NOT the norm in France and you will NOT be seen as rude or a cheapskate if you leave nothing extra. Again, that’s because servers are paid a livable wage and don’t depend on tips to get a decent paycheck like they do in the USA.
I definitely don’t tip in the same way in France!
6. I don’t talk to my neighbors beyond a “bonjour” and don’t even know their names
In many suburbs in the U.S. (and in my NYC apartment building), you know your neighbors’ names and at the very least have chatted with them here and there. Even if you’re not friends, you know who lives next door and if you’re ever in a jam or need a cup of sugar, you can ask them to lend a hand. In France, my efforts to introduce myself to the people on either side didn’t go as planned (I even made them cupcakes. Fail.). I don’t know their names and they don’t know mine.
I’ve found it takes people a little longer to warm up to newcomers in France. Some people will always keep their distance and that’s OK.
7. I don’t hug to say hi
In France, I learned this one the hard way when hugging my father-in-law resulted in him standing there perplexed with his arms at his sides waiting for this weird embrace to be over. No one hugs to say hi (here’s what to do instead).
People faire la bise, or give cheek kisses, to say hi and bye (pre-pandemic, anyway). If you hug someone, you’ll make them feel extremely awkward because it’s seen as too intimate and will come across as culturally ignorant. Don’t hug!
8. Flossing my teeth
Just kidding. I still floss. The French don’t though. Or very rarely. My dentist (who is young and has a modern office, which would make you think he’s on the up and up on all-things-dentist) has never mentioned flossing. French people I know use floss once in a blue moon to get at something stuck between their teeth. But a daily floss? Nope. Yet they still have pretty nice teeth…
Not surprisingly, the dental hygiene aisle in grocery stores is majorly lacking in floss varieties. I often find junky waxed floss that is flavorless and breaks, and forget about different varieties of floss picks. I’ve had family members send floss picks and good dental floss because the French stuff just doesn’t cut it.
What they do use are interdental brushes which work pretty well but can get expensive.
What habits have changed for you since moving abroad to France or elsewhere?