If you grow up in one area of the world, you become very accustomed to how to behave socially there. You know what’s normal and what’s a no-no. Upon visiting other areas of the world, we learn that social norms can be majorly different and we aren’t always aware of them. What we do at home doesn’t always translate across cultures. Let’s get into some very normal American social norms that don’t translate to French culture.
Avoid these American social norms in France
One of the areas I love writing about on my blog that seems to resonate with so many of you out there is French versus American culture. Cultural musings, comparisons, and even mistakes are all a lot of fun.
The things I discuss more below might be overlooked at first, but the more time you spend in France, the more you’ll see that social norms are a little bit different here.
Keep in mind that some of the things I mention aren’t necessarily rude but might be seen as unusual or even confusing in France because French social norms aren’t the same.
1. A mediocre level of politeness
As you’ve heard me say 100 times here on the blog and on YouTube, you have to kick off any interaction in France with a bonjour. It’s the magic word that starts every conversation off on the right foot. Bonjour not only shows that you understand French social norms but that you respect the fellow human being you’re about to converse with as well.
Now in the US, it’s normal to be polite. Many people start off their interactions with a friendly hello and are socially polite. But there’s a catch. The difference between American and French social norms is that in many contexts in the US, you can get away with a lot less and it would be seen as normal. People who aren’t overly polite but aren’t rude either — just a mediocre level of politeness. Let me give you an example.
Imagine that a woman approaches the deli counter employee at a supermarket (I heard it last month when I was back in Florida). The woman says, “I’d like a half pound of yellow American cheese please.” That’s perfectly fine. Again, it’s not overly polite, but there’s a please at the end and it’s fine. She could’ve said, “Hello, how are you? I’d like a half pound of yellow American cheese please. Thank you!” But what she said isn’t going to get any side eye from those in earshot.
In France? Skipping that bonjour is a major faux pas even if you throw in a merci at the end.
The difference is that in France bonjour is obligatory. People will think you lack basic education if you forget this magic word that shows you understand French manners.
Also in the US, I’ve heard people be less polite than my deli example. While I don’t think it sounds very good, it’s perfectly accepted. Take for example someone at Starbucks on the phone while trying to order at the same time and says, “Give me a tall skim latte.” No hello, no thank you, and no please. It’s definitely not the most polite thing, but Americans order like that all the time.
Remember that in France, you have to nail the social politeness every single time. It’s probably not a bad habit to carry over to your life back home either. But as I said, you can get away with less in the US.
2. Hugging to say hi
The French do cheek kisses to say hi and bye to family, friends, and even coworkers in some offices. Usually you do two kisses, one on each side, but in some regions of France, the norm is three or even four.
What’s NOT the norm is to hug! I wrote all about why you shouldn’t hug in France here.
It would be really unusual for French people to hug to say hello like we do in the US, so avoid this at all costs. The French would find it awkward and maybe even weirdly intimate, so when in doubt, shake hands. If someone’s coming in toward you with their face, it’s because they’re about to faire la bise so just go with it (or get schooled on your technique like I was!).
Keep in mind that generally speaking, when you get to a party or a gathering of some sort, a loud hello and a wave directed to all the guests won’t cut it. You go around to each person and cheek kiss them individually.
That said, cheek kisses are not my favorite thing and I’m glad they’ve been on the decline since COVID.
3. Speaking casually about money
Is talking about money taboo for you? I’m talking about things like your salary, how much you spend and on what, and how much things cost. In the US, I feel like money gets mentioned as a detail in a conversation — just matter of fact and not a flex.
It would be normal-ish to hear an American friend or family member mention things like this in a casual conversation:
— I’m celebrating tonight because I just got a $5000 bonus at work! Drinks are on me!
— I got a great deal on my new car and paid $27k — down from a sticker price of 33k!
— Check out my watch! I bought it as a gift to myself for my birthday. It was $1000 and well worth it!
You get the picture. Sure, some Americans flaunt their money and are showy about it — there are French people like this too of course — but I feel like Americans tend to incorporate details about how much they earn and spend into conversations a bit more than the French.
The French tend to steer clear of money conversations that revolve around their earnings and personal spending, especially with people they don’t know well. They won’t add details about how much something cost and won’t ask personal questions about someone’s finances.
An exception would be if they were remarking about how expensive a vet bill was or complaining about the cost of their new car insurance premium. You’ll hear conversations like, “Oh man, I had to spend another 400 euros at the vet this week. I hope my cat is OK!” kind of like they’re commiserating with a fellow French person over obligatory spending and one of the many costs that come with living life.
Depending on the context and the company you keep, it might be inappropriate or a social faux pas to bring up money in the US just like in some situations in France. You don’t go to your new neighbor’s dinner party and ask the host how much he paid for his house. That’s a definite no-no probably everywhere.
Now all that said, in the past couple of months, I’ve been quite surprised when French acquaintances have asked me how much I’ve made on various YouTube videos or on my blog. The questions caught me totally off guard (and weren’t from people I know well or should have any business knowing).
Generally, what I said above holds true and the French are less likely to talk about money but it happens. I think the YouTube question was more out of curiosity. So it’s not across the board that money talk is avoided at all costs in France. Some people will broach topics of money, but I’d say to be on the safe side, let the French person be the one to open up the money conversation first. Read the room.
4. Saying mm-hmm to mean you’re welcome
Imagine you’re in the US and someone holds the door open for you at a store. After you go in, you say thanks and they have a few options about how to respond to your thank you. They can say you’re welcome, or a no worries, or something like that. But one thing we commonly do is to say “mmm-hmm” or “uh huh,” which in this case means you’re welcome.
This doesn’t translate into French. Saying you’re welcome for a small gesture like holding a door open (or a you’re welcome in general) has to be de rien or je vous en prie (or t’en if it’s familiar). Pas de problème would probably work too. But what will NOT work is an “uh huh” or “mm-hmm.” The equivalent type of sound doesn’t exist in French in the same way and actually confused Tom when someone held a door open for him back at a West Palm Beach mall years ago.
It wouldn’t be rude exactly if you responded with a “mmm-hmm” out of habit in France — I think I did it a few times after first arriving in France — but it might confuse the French because it doesn’t mean anything.
5. Going to Halloween parties
Halloween doesn’t have the same cultural significance in France, and while it’s become a little more popular over the years, you won’t find a ton of trick-or-treaters or Halloween festivities in France. It is generally enjoyed by kids or is an excuse for teenagers to party. It’s also often quite commercial without any tradition.
In the US, kids and adults alike enjoy celebrating Halloween and I’ve been known to bust out a few costumes and go all out with my decor and my candy bowl for the kiddies.
From school parades and activities, to Halloween-themed food at the grocery store, to special Halloween recipes, it’s totally normal to get in the Halloween spirit. Even for adults, it’s not uncommon to dress up for the holiday and go to a party. In France? Well, it’s just not the same. Although I think the French would be open to coming to your Halloween party and would probably have a blast.
6. Sending Christmas cards
Unlike the US, where it’s common to send out holiday cards to your friends and family in December, the French send out Happy New Year (bonne année) cards after Christmas instead. That’s not to say that you won’t find Christmas cards or that no one does it, but it’s more common among the French to exchange Happy New Year cards with friends and loved ones. Common phrasing you’ll see on them is bonne année et meilleurs voeux, which mean Happy New Year and best wishes! If you don’t get a Christmas card from friends in France, don’t be offended. Just wait a few weeks until January. 😉
7. Meeting a friend for dinner at a restaurant at 6 p.m.
Now while many of you may eat later than 6 p.m., it’s totally normal in the US to see restaurants full of people eating dinner at 6 p.m. on any given night. Especially older people and families with young children who have early bedtimes. While you certainly can eat at 7 or 8, 6 p.m. is an option. Restaurants are open.
In France, unless you’re going out for some apéro pre-gaming, an apéro dinatoire, or drinks only, meeting a friend for a sit-down dinner at 6 p.m. wouldn’t be possible in France because most restaurants don’t start dinner service until 7 p.m. or later. This is especially true outside of touristy areas and big cities. 8 p.m. is probably the most common dinner reservation time at a French restaurant.
When I’d mention to French people that I’d eat dinner at 6 p.m. as a kid growing up, they’d laugh and tell me that’s the time senior citizens eat dinner at nursing homes in France.
8. Baby showers
Most women in France don’t have baby showers! This traditionally female, fun-filled party with friends and family before the baby is born isn’t common in France at all. Some French women may have one if they’ve attended a shower abroad or heard of the tradition, but in France, the baby is “showered” with gifts once he or she arrives, not before.
You won’t see special baby shower cards for the expectant mother or any pastel shower decorations at party stores. They just aren’t a thing here!
What American social norms to avoid would you add to my list?