At first glance, French and American cultures don’t seem that different. But the longer you live in France and the more time you spend with the French, you’ll notice all the differences between the two ways of life. Sometimes they’re funny, interesting, cool or straight up baffling and weird. Let’s take a look at very normal French cultural things that would never work in the USA.
Very normal French things that would never work in the USA
Hey guys, I wrote a post a while back on American concepts that haven’t caught on in France so thought I’d do the opposite for you today.
The French concepts and societal norms below are highly unlikely to ever become commonplace in the USA — but it’s still fun for me to point them out. Yes, I know we’re talking about two separate countries and cultures here so of course they’re not the same and they never should be. Let’s take a closer look:
Realtors scheduling a house showing when the owners are home
Usually in the US when someone is selling their home and a realtor has a potential buyer ready to see it in person, the owners are asked to leave their home while the showing is taking place. That way the buyer and realtor can discuss everything freely without having to worry about the owner overhearing them. But not so in France!
When we were house hunting, if the owner happened to be home at the time of the showing, they stayed put and sometimes walked through the house with us! I kept all my comments positive for this reason. A plus? It was handy to have the owner around to answer specific questions the realtor might not know the answers to.
Taking the month of August off from work
That’s a recipe for getting fired in the USA. OK, maybe not everywhere but most jobs would draw the line at 2 weeks of vacation at a time (and even then some companies may only allow 1 week at a time) unless there are extenuating circumstances. In France, all full-time employees get 5 weeks of paid vacation per year. It’s required by law. it’s very common for employees to peace out for 3 weeks or even the entire month of August for some much-needed vacay. Totally normal. There’s even a word for vacationers who take time off in July and August. Oh, and sick time doesn’t come out of your bank of vacation days either, like it sometimes can with employers in the USA.
What the French find weird about Americans >>
I’ve written about volets (French shutters more or less) several times on my blog and it’s no secret I find them annoying. It seems like everyone I know is obsessed with opening and lowering their volets. Yes, they serve a purpose and they’re a part of French culture but American houses survive just fine without this constant opening and closing of shutters so we’re not likely to change that in the good ol’ US of A.
Some French people have automatic ones and others require you to actually open your window (that lets the cold air in during the winter!). Where are volets useful? Parts of Alaska that stay light during the night some parts of the year and hurricane-prone areas. Last time I checked, France isn’t prone to hurricanes. Blinds and double or triple pane glass work just fine. I think it’s safe to say Americans will not be jumping on the volet bandwagon any time soon.
I thought striking was just a stereotype until I worked in a few French schools back in 2009 and saw strikes firsthand. It’s like the French take pleasure in disrupting people’s lives. Does striking actually work? I guess so or they would have stopped doing it. Air traffic controller strikes, teacher strikes and even tractor strikes are fairly common occurrences.
In the USA, people do strike but it’s not on the same scale. If everyone went on strike I think they’re more likely to all get fired than to get what they want. In France, it’s much more difficult to get fired and at-will employment is not the norm. Striking is definitely not seen the same way in the US as it is in France. It’s part of French culture.
High cost of tolls
If you’ve taken the autoroute from Point A to Point B in France, you’ve probably noticed the exorbitantly high cost of tolls (except in Brittany, another plus of the lovely region!). From where we live to Paris (about a 4-hr drive), it’s over 30 euros each way just in tolls! Back in the USA, throwing 35 cents as you drive through the toll plaza is normal or a few dollars here or there, but it’s pretty easy to drive long distances in the US and not pay a ton in tolls. The 18-hour drive from New Jersey to Florida is more or less free from a toll perspective depending on what route you take. The high cost of tolls in France shocked me! (and still does!)
7 Things I’ll never understand about the French >>
No school on Wednesdays
In the USA, most public schools are in session Monday through Friday. In France, that’s not the case nationwide and certain age groups have off the whole day on Wednesdays and are even required to go to school Saturday mornings. Does that make any sense? This isn’t the case across the board, as some schools do things differently after a new ruling took effect, but even still it’s quite normal for me to be out at the park at 10 am during the week with Dagny and see kids just walking around. I don’t know how French families manage childcare if both parents work. Americans would not be down with kids being off every Wednesday.
Debit card only society
Most French people have a carte bleue and use it often — even for small purchases. It’s a debit card with a chip that can be used to pay for everything from tolls to restaurants and anything really. In most cases, the money comes out of your account right away just like an American debit card. What French people don’t have, though, is a selection of credit cards in their wallet that allow you to pay at some point in the future.
While the concept of credit isn’t completely foreign to the French, most banks don’t offer a credit card option. It’s not mainstream. The great part about this is that the French tend to be less in debt than Americans because if the money isn’t in their account, they can’t make a purchase. Americans seem too attached to their credit cards to go debit card only! I’m included myself in that generalization — I like earning points for airline miles! I’ve written more about French banking here.
Forget just tu and vous and saying hi and bye to shop owners — even the way the French address each other (Mr. or Mrs. So and So and not your first name even if you are on the younger side) has me raising my eyebrow at times. I’m technically a Mrs since I’m married and all, but just call me Diane at the dentist or at the pharmacy! I won’t be offended!
Also, there’s no need to tell me to have a good day three different ways. I got it the first time! French politeness is something I had to get used to since American interactions tend to be more casual, but now I seamlessly incorporate it into my interactions in France. Are Americans ruder than the French? Maybe we’re perceived that way if you base it only on social interactions. I think if I used the same level of politeness in the USA when out and about as I do in France, people would look at me like I had three heads. And they have!
Wine at business lunches
When French co-workers grab lunch with colleagues, they don’t hesitate when it comes to ordering wine. A pichet split among the table is more than fine and no one even bats an eye. It’s completely normal to have wine with your meal and isn’t a faux pas in the least. I’m not saying this would never happen in the US, but let’s just say in France, it’s much more commonplace to have a glass of wine midday when out to eat with colleagues. It doesn’t mean you’re getting drunk or even tipsy. It means you’re French and enjoying your meal!
What aspects of French life would you add to my list of things that wouldn’t work in the USA?
Linda McConnell says
Having stores close at noon for 2 hours and then only staying open until 7 pm would never work in the USA. Making appointments to open a banking account is also strange. Everything regarding banking is difficult. Having a tax on whether you have a TV or not would cause a serious uproar in America. Finding an open gas station that was willing to take cash, or at least the hours that they accept cash and gas stations are definitely not on every corner. You really have to plan your gas stops.
Oh yes, very good additions, Linda! I couldn’t imagine stores closing for 2 hours even in the suburbs. Don’t even get me started on banking. From the mound of paperwork, to sitting there for 1-2 hours to simply open the account to PAYING for the card and account, just nope would never work in the US. Thanks for stopping by!
You take your text, write in opposite way and you have my feelings in the US 😀
I love the volets (I replace the white vertical blinds in my bedroom by a big thick black curtain), I love the debit card society (the credit score is the biggest difference between US and France I think and the weirdest for french people), I love days off for 3 weeks (How can you travel in an other country to discover with only one week?).
And I totally understand the tolls (but yes it is expensive). In California, the roads are…. rotten? (Is my tire flat or it’s just the road which make this weird noise?) In france, the tolls are used to repare the road, not here…
Hello! Yes, it sucks most of the time we only get a week of vacation at a time in the USA. I was allowed to take 2 weeks when I went to New Zealand but that was because I took a risk and booked the flight before asking my boss. So he either needed to let me use the time (that I accrued fair and square, just not normal to do 2 weeks at a time) or fire me. Thankfully he didn’t!
And yes, US roads tend to have more pot holes than French ones, which seem to be expertly maintained. So the tolls are going somewhere — still hurts when you have to pay them though!
Yes, French highways are well maintained but the companies who own the tolls make scandalous benefits too…
I would add to this: public urination. Or even semi-public urination. Sometimes we come home late in the evening and my husband just goes in the yard. I’m like THE TOILET IS RIGHT INSIDE.
One thing that bothers me about the politeness in stores it that is so obviously artificial when they say “Merci bonne journée au revoir” before you even manage to put away their receipt, put your wallet back in your purse, and walk away. It’s comes across as “get the f*ck out of here now” rather than “have a nice day.”
Also with you on credit cards. So not a thing here. I don’t even know what I’d do if I wanted one.
I just got in from walking Dagny and saw an older man taking a break from his petanque game to go pee on a tree. I see this all the time and it’s really nuts.
And agreed about the artificial politeness. It’s just automatic and I don’t think shopkeepers mean it at all.
Let’s be real! “Have a nice day!” is truly superficial.
Well it’s true but American shopkeepers don’t mean it either when they ask “how are you?”
Donna Skeen says
The little things I remember most are the very well behaved children. I had a fun time watching a French family (including the dog!) in a restaurant during a very long Meal behaving beautifully.
Another time in a restaurant I waa little taken aback to observe a man enjoying a plate of steak tartare — finely chopped raw steak.
Hi I am french and I have been using a credit card for years . When I first came to the us my credit card even allowed me to pay a huge medical bill. My credit card comes with an insurance that may be used abroad for medical emergencies . Several french companies (not only banks) offer credit cards services…
Susan Minnich says
I haven’t commented before, so hello! Your blog is fun to read … especially the 11 months of the year when I am here, not there in France.
I totally enjoy lighthearted (mostly) comments on the differences between the two cultures, but I suppose right now I am in an even more sombre mood than usual, so this will tend to the serious.
Car driving Americans (that includes me) won’t like this, but I think high tolls can serve a purpose. Here, our taxes underwrite the interstate highway system, and so, directly, underwrite the trucking and auto industries. So industrially produced, often pesticide rich and GMO foods from across the country are cheap out of season, and local foods which are not subsidized, have a tougher go at it. And the trains suffer without the same kind of subsidies, they are not very convenient, and don’t even exist in large areas. The passenger train system here is quite expensive and almost non existent.
Both local food production and travel by train are far more sustainable and sensible for the planet. They are smart.
And, in France, I LOVE the variety and availability of local food and the ability to get so very many places by train. Plus, I can take my bicycle along. Just try that here … ha!
Hi Susan, thanks for saying hi! What part of France do you visit each year?
High tolls absolutely do serve a purpose and French roads seem to be much better maintained than ones I used to drive on in the USA — hands down. Still hurts to pay them though!
I love train travel too. I had no idea all the places I could get to relatively easy by train. And they allowed dogs! 😉 Thanks again for commenting!
Maureen Lanseur says
Well..the last time I drove from Michigan to Virginia, it cost me about $24 in tolls each way on Ohio and PA Turnpikes. Worth it on Ohio, but I have no idea who pockets the PA money because it surely doesn’t go to the pike! The “péage” system is more than fair, plus you always have the train as a good alternative, unlike here.
Vive la France!
I remember as a child my dad being off over the Christmas holidays he would have in total 6 weeks off all at once 4 weeks annual leave and with public holidays and such it turned out he would be off work for about 6 weeks which I thought was just the norm as a child
Six weeks is great! Is that common in Australia? Way better than a measly 2 weeks in the USA!
I love the debit-card only concept. Most Americans are in debt up to their eyeballs, and hoping to win the lottery. I’ve bailed myself out of debt 3 times, and it’s not fun. I’m going cash and debit only! Debt isn’t cool. I love the French formality, too. I think Americans have become way too casual. I hear the F word in regular conversations every day, several times. People don’t say hello or please before blurting out their food or coffee orders. I heard one man say please after placing his hamburger order at a fast food place, and I almost gave him $5 just for reminding me to be polite!
Cash and debit-card only is a great system. We have a cash budget in our household for things like groceries, pharmacy stuff, gas, etc. and it works great. It’s so tempting to just swipe a credit card all the time and not realize how much is actually being spent. When used responsibly, I think a credit card can be a great tool (and useful for emergencies too).
Yeah, about the cursing I think I wrote about that a few months back and I have to say I hear putain here all the time. Adults, teens and even instructors at my gym (which surprised me since it’s a professional setting, they’re at work and say this around paying clients). Politeness really does seem to be lacking in the US overall. A few pleases and thank yous never hurt anyone!
I am sure you will agree that driving on an autoroute in France is quite a different experience from driving on the highway in America (think cracks/potholes vs smooth roads), so you do get what you pay for in the end.
Oh wow, I had no idea that certain regions of France use butter on their baguette. Never seen that!
really ??? this is so common…
Harriet Springbett says
This is a great list. I sometimes think that the French and the Americans are directly opposed in terms of culture. I read an interesting document on this at http://www.understandfrance.org/France/Intercultural.html. It analyses the stereotypes, right down to potty-training!
By the way, I love shutters. I can’t understand why we don’t have them in England. They’re great for hangover mornings, for keeping the house warm (or cool – not that you’d need that in England).
Kerri McConnel says
Interesting your perspective about initially thinking the two cultures are similar as I would observe that they are vastly different. France is definitely on it’s own with some of it’s customs and you’ve named some great ones. They also completely gut apartments at the end of each leasing agreement so it’s quite common to have to install cupboards and even toilets if you rent. Shops closing at midday on Saturdays and not opening on Sundays is also something that is a little weird to me but it’s because they are heavily unionised.
Hi Kerri, thanks for your comment. By thinking they were similar, I just meant that we’re talking about two developed nations, with France being more similar to the USA than say China. I’ll always remember a story from my friend where her father was served a live monkey at a business dinner while in Asia. They killed it right in front of him on the table by chopping into his skull. And then served it to him. It was horrible he said but a sign of respect for his business. Totally normal! Thankfully that isn’t the norm in France.
Yes, the no cabinets thing in rented apartments is very strange to me and I’ll never get used to shops being closed on Sundays! Thx for stopping by!
Girl Gone Gallic says
The “Rond Point” that you find everywhere is something I could do without… Some of them are downright confusing and dangerous. And yes today I tried to drop off dry cleaning and go to the pharmacy at lunch and both were closed from noon to 2pm. Argh! As far as tolls go, the bridge toll for the Golden Gate Bridge is $7.25 – not so cheap!
They really are dangerous, totally agree with you. A lot of the time people don’t properly signal either so you have no idea if they’re going to turn or what. That happens in the US as well but traffic circles are much less common. We like our traffic lights.
Yup bridges and tunnels are expensive. I think the Holland and Lincoln tunnels are now over $10!
Phoebe @ Lou Messugo says
I love your hatred for shutters!!! (Does that even make sense?) I find it funny that you feel so strongly against them that you’ve written several times about it!. Each time I mention that I love them!!! I can’t compare things to USA as my knowledge is limited to 2 visits to NYC and once to Boston but I tend to compare to UK most easily and when it comes to road tolls I know they’re expensive but the autoroutes here are great; at least the money really pays for stuff. In countries where there are no tolls the roads must be paid for somehow so they’re financed by some other taxes, by everyone whether you use the roads or not and certainly not by foreign trucks . At least by having road tolls they are funded by those that actually use them including the vast amounts of foreign trucks hauling goods across the country. I think it’s a much fairer system even if it doesn’t feel it when you have to add on the cost to a trip. Interesting comparison to your home country once again, thanks for linking to #AllAboutFrance
Hello, hello! First, thanks for hosting the linkup! 🙂
So just to respond to what you said, I’m by no means saying the toll system isn’t fair or that the roads aren’t well maintained in France. I’m just saying that paying 40 euros for a 4-hour drive would be a shocker for most people coming from a country where you can go from NYC to Florida pretty much for free.
And for the record, I don’t hate volets. I hate messing with them. If they just stayed open all the time (like decorative shutters), I would have no issue! I think my volet annoyance comes from my husband who has to constantly open then in the morning, close them at night, repeat, repeat. He’s so French ahahah. Just leave ’em open! He was away last week so guess what, our back and upstairs volets stayed open all night and we all lived. Nothing a good lock on the door, blinds, and double pane glass can’t handle! If I had automatic ones on a timer — meaning I never have to mess with them — fine, but I don’t think I’ll ever get on board with the up/down nonsense. And yes, volets always make their way into my roundup and cultural comparison posts because they don’t exist in the USA and I find the whole cultural phenomenon fascinating!
Just recently spent some time in Florida and was slightly annoyed by the lack of shutters and darkness in the bedrooms especially when you have little kids who need to sleep. Funny the things we get used to!
Tee hee! Yes, shutters!!!!!!!!!!!! I love the blackness they create but honestly, life is too short…
Becks from Access Riviera says
Totally agree with the strikes and August holidays! Also, no school on Wednesday seemed so bizarre when I first came here but now my son’s school does half days on Wednesday and that is actually more inconvenient for working parents. The ‘faire le pont’ concept would never fly in my home country (New Zealand), if a bank holiday fell on a Thursday you definitely couldn’t take Friday off as well! #AllAboutFrance
Hi, I’m over from #allaboutfrance. I’ve got to say I love the French politeness – maybe it’s all those Sunday night British dramas set in the first half of the last century .
Hi , about the french politeness , i think ( even if it is automatic) it is friendly and is usually said with eye connection . Before xmas time anywhere you go shopkeepers/assistants wish you ” bonnes fêtes de Noel or bonnes fêtes de fin d’année , it ´s rather nice to here and you reply ” et vous aussi “
Not too sure about all those things that “wouldn’t go” in the US…all I know is that France is shot through with an indefinable charm that the good ole USA will never be able to emulate. And it shouldn’t try……its thinking just isn’t the same. And vive la difference!
Hi Jeanette! It was just my opinion based on living in both places. Maybe the US will have volets one day! You never know. And of course French charm can’t be copied. I love all the differences and really enjoy writing about them. Thanks for taking the time to comment! 😉
In response to the wine at lunch bullet point, I agree, and I’d take it one step further. There are many times here in the States we have dinner with customers, and the wine flows freely. What we avoid at lunch is more than made up for at dinner. But business dinners in France have been much more subdued. For a party of four in France, we have shared one bottle. Even a party of six, we have limited it to one bottle. In the States, it would be two, maybe three bottles over the course of dinner. Walking away from dinner with a bit of a stagger isn’t that unusual after a business dinner in the States.
This was a fun read and honestly that lifestyle I would enjoy and I think cos of my Spanish background. Although born and raised in the States as well as my parents, my grandparents on both sides grew up with the respectful traditions and you never call someone by their first name. And with an older relative their is a nickname used Don for a male and Doña for a female. Showing honor and respect. You’re only informal with your peers and young people. Life can be very stressful here in the States and I like that many cultures take vacations seriously, slowing down and enjoying their food and politeness seriously.
John Blackman, or BLACKMAN John says
I like your posts because as someone from the UK who lives in the south of France it is fun to see the difference between not 2 but 3 points of view. Regarding the tolls, they bare only applicable if there is a fast alternative route ( marked in Green rather than Blue) signed as you approach an autoroute. No fast alternative, no charge. The main route from Paris to Toulouse is free for the greater part of it.
It’s fun to see what pleases and what irritates so keep up the good work.
I find it it amazing that readers are horrified by horse meat on the shelf but are ok with cow or chicken. To a vegetarian the whole meat aisle is that horrifying. Every animal is a beautiful creature.