Holy heck are cultural differences fascinating. I’ve been blogging here on Oui In France since 2012 and there’s no shortage of material when it comes to examining the differences between life in France versus the U.S. I love writing about this stuff in the hope that it’ll help prepare you for your trip to France, or at the very least, give you insight into how the French do things.
To that end, here are calculations — or differences that relate to numbers and measurements — that are done differently in the two countries. Some of them you’d probably expect, but a bunch were new to me and were things I only learned about after moving to France.
Things we measure differently in France
Note: Some of these may apply to countries other than France, but since I live in France, that’s always my reference point.
1. Fuel efficiency. This one took me a minute to wrap my head around. I wrongly assumed that gas mileage would be calculated in France the same way it’s done in the US — just with liters and kilometers instead of gallons and miles. But that’s not the case.
In the U.S., fuel efficiency is measured as a distance. It’s miles per vehicle per unit of fuel volume, so the number of miles you can drive per gallon of gas. The higher the number, the more efficient the vehicle is. You usually see a number for city and highway driving. An older pickup truck or SUV might get under 20 miles per gallon and a smaller car or more modern trucks might get over 30 miles per gallon.
In France, fuel efficiency is a measurement of volume. It’s the volume of fuel consumed per unit distance per vehicle, so liters consumed per 100 kilometers. Fuel efficiency is expressed as how many liters of gas a vehicle uses to go 100 kilometers. The lower the number, the better it is for your wallet.
2. School grades levels. In the U.S., school grades go from 1 to 12, in that order. It’s pretty simple and easy to remember since it’s sequential. In France, the grade school names for elementary, middle, and high school are a bit different and they don’t go in numerical order from 1 to 12.
Truth be told, if you asked me to tell you the French equivalent of 5th grade off the top of my head right now, I’d have to do a quick calculation because I don’t know the grade names by heart. I’m literally looking them up for this post so I get it right! I’M SERIOUS!
I chalk that up to not having kids and not really focusing on school-related things and committing them to memory (despite teaching in two French schools!).
Here are the names for each French grade level:
Grande Section (GS): Kindergarten
Cours Préparatoire (CP): 1st grade
Cours Elémentaire 1 (CE1): 2nd grade
Cours Elémentaire 2 (CE2): 3rd grade
Cours Moyen 1 (CM1): 4th grade
Cours Moyen 2 (CM2): 5th grade
Sixième (6ème): 6th grade
Cinquième (5ème): 7th grade
Quatrième (4ème): 8th grade
Troisième (3ème): 9th grade
Seconde (2nde): 10th grade
Première (1ère): 11th grade
Terminale (Tle): 12th grade
3. Blood pressure & cholesterol. Blood pressure is measured in units of millimeters of mercury (mmHg) stateside and consists of two numbers, such as 120/80 mmHg. Systolic is the upper number and diastolic is the lower one.
In France, it’s the same measurement as the U.S., but the unit is cmHg, so centimeters of mercury. As you know, there are 10 millimeters in a centimeter, so just add a zero to the end of each French reading to have the U.S. equivalent.
For example, if a French doctor tells you that your blood pressure is 12/8 (cmHg), add a zero to each number and you get 120/80 mmHg.
Regarding cholesterol in the U.S., it’s measured in milligrams (mg) of cholesterol per deciliter (dL) of blood. In France and other countries, cholesterol levels are measured in millimoles per liter (mmol/L).
4. Credit score. This one doesn’t even exist in France! If you’re not familiar with credit scores in the U.S., everyone has one and the highest you can have is 850. It’s used to assess a person’s credit worthiness and anything above 750 is very good.
A higher credit score means you’re less of a risk to lenders so you’ll have an easier time getting a better interest rate, credit lines, etc. Things like defaulting on a loan, paying your bills late, applying for too many loans in a short period of time, and a variety of other factors all influence one’s credit score negatively.
In France, if you want to get a loan, there’s no credit score involved. You sit down with your bank and review your bank account, earnings, and any other loans. They do a calculation to make sure you have the means to repay the loan and then make a decision about whether or not to loan to you. Also, the French don’t really use credit cards (debit cards, yes).
5. Bed sizes. Before moving to France, I never really considered that different countries would have different bed sizes. I figured beds would be a standard size everywhere and didn’t give it much thought. But nope! A twin bed in France doesn’t have the same dimensions as a twin bed in the U.S.
For reference, let’s look at a queen-size bed. In the U.S., it measures 60 by 80 inches. In France, a queen measures 160 by 200 centimeters (63 x 79 inches). Pillows aren’t the same shape either. I never bought square pillowcases until I moved to France.
If you’re in the U.S., these are my favorite sheets (actually, the whole store is great!).
6. Ring sizes. French ring sizes are straightforward and are measured in millimeters. Just measure the circumference of your finger and that’s your ring size. Sizes in the 40s-60s are the most common, depending on the finger.
Ring sizes are tricky in general because even in the U.S., a 6 at one jeweler may not be exactly the same size at another place or in a different style. They’re pretty close but ring sizing can be a pain if you aren’t able to try something on before you buy it.
When a ring is just the tiniest bit too tight or too loose, it drives me nuts! Luckily, my new favorite ring fits just right. Phew!
Now add in French ring sizes and it takes the complicated nature of things to a whole different level. When you’re shopping online and trying to convert your American size to the equivalent French size, it can be hit or miss. Some size charts say a French size 51.5 is a U.S. 6 and others say it’s a 52. See the issue?
On that note, French clothes and shoe sizes are different as well.
7. Sales tax. Depending on where you live, there may or may not be sales tax on whatever you’re buying. Even when there is sales tax, it’s state dependent so it’s not always easy to figure out the total price at the register ahead of time. The price on the price sticker is not the total amount you’ll pay!
In NYC, you’ll pay sales and local tax on things like furniture and hotel stays. It’s 8.875% on restaurants and electronics, and you pay tax on clothes in NYC over 110 bucks.
Just over the Hudson River In N.J. where I grew up, state sales/local tax is 6.625% and there is no state sales tax on clothes, but there are exceptions like if you’re buying fur clothing. Then, to switch it up even more, there are five states that don’t charge any state sales tax at all: Alaska, Delaware, Montana, New Hampshire, and Oregon.
Turning to France and many countries in Europe, the total price including VAT (value added tax or la taxe sur la valeur ajoutée, TVA en français) is the price you see on the restaurant menu, at the grocery store and on the clothing tag you see at the mall.
It’s a much simpler system in France and you’ll know the total amount you need to pay at the cash register because the VAT is already included in the sticker price. No additional amount is added.
8. Baking measurements. In the U.S., recipes list out ingredients in cups. But depending on how you fill your measuring cup, your half cup of flour might not match mine.
In France, ingredients for baking are measured out in grams. It’s all by weight. One-hundred grams of flour when weighed on the scale is always going to be 100 grams of flour. Since precision in baking is super important, weighing your ingredients like the French do makes a lot of sense.
I’ve come to love recipes that measure ingredients in grams. Less room for error!
What other things would you add that are calculated differently in France?
P.S. For more information to prepare you for your trip to France, check out my ebook!
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