Whether you’ve stayed in France for a long vacation, as part of a study abroad program, internship, or short-term job, or whether you’re making your life here, there are some parts of the culture that end up becoming a part of you.
Some of these, like appreciating five weeks of paid vacation a year (plus sick and personal days), are pretty understandable. But there are many other French habits that you might be surprised to find you’ve adopted.
Here are 10 strange French habits and customs!
1. Assuming shops, businesses, and government offices will be closed.
There is a flip side to the more leisurely French way of life: Very few things are open 24-hours, or even very late. Plus, in many parts of France, most stores even close for a few hours during the day for lunch, and lots of banks, libraries, and small businesses are closed on both Sundays and Mondays.
If you come from a culture where convenience and commerce reign, this can be maddening. You’ll probably find yourself gleefully strolling down the florescent-lit aisles of a 24-hour supermarket when you’re back in your native country. But some small part of you might, just might, wonder if it’s really the best way, since it means your native country may never let people relax and just take a break the way they do in France. (But still, it is really cool to be able to easily go get aspirin if you need some at 1am.)
2. Using French vocabulary and turns of phrase.
You may know someone who studied abroad in France for a while and then came back speaking their native language a little bit like a foreigner. Certain incorrect or odd turns of phrase, or vocabulary choices that were slightly “off” might have crept into their vocabulary. Maybe they even used French filler words like euh and bref.
This might have seemed like an obnoxious affectation to you, but trust me – it’s a real thing. Most non-native speakers who spend time in a foreign country report coming away with some change to their speech.
For most of us, the longer you stay in France, the worse it gets. You might find that you don’t know or easily remember certain words in your native language. These might be words you use so frequently in French that that becomes the default way you say them, or they might be terms you never used or heard in your native language to begin with.
Speaking a bit oddly at times and knowing French terms for certain things better than English has certainly happened to me. I even wrote an article about this phenomenon for a linguistics blog a few years ago. Essentially, the reason why your speech changes is a combination of simple habit (if you hear the same intonation, words, and speech patterns used all the time, you’re bound to get them stuck in your head) and bilingualism. When you speak or even deal with two (or more) languages, it turns out, the brain keeps them both “on” at all times, so sometimes you switch over to the other one, especially if you’re used to using it every day.
Additionally, this blogger suggests that sometimes your accent or way of speaking changes because you need to be understood by locals, even in your native language. Interestingly, in her experience, her English has gotten slower. Mine has stayed very much the same – fast-talking metro New Yorker for life! This shows that each of us experiences language(s) differently.
3. Acquiring a taste for sirop.
I’ve written before about how many French people like to add flavored syrups to their water. There’s a huge variety of flavors, including the iconic mint (menthe) and red berries (grenadine). The latter is my personal favorite. Like many native French people and transplants alike, I’ve gotten into the habit of savoring a glass of grenadine syrup with water (called, simply, une grenadine) at a café terrace on a hot day. If I weren’t still in France, my sirop habit might be a problem, since they can be hard to find and expensive in other places. So, if you’ve got a sweet tooth like me, stock up before you leave France!
4. A need for cheese.
If sugary drinks don’t tempt you, maybe you prefer a savory treat. Some people like cheese more than others, but many people who come to France discover at least one or two cheeses that they really enjoy eating on a regular basis. Not surprising, considering the country boasts more than 1200(!!!!) varieties.
Most of these cheeses are much more affordable than they might be in your native country, which can make for a rude awakening. If you return to the US with a camembert craving, for example, you’ll have to shell out a lot more money to get your fix – if you can even find this cheese in your local stores. In some countries, obtaining real French cheese may even be downright impossible. I’d say, then, that it’s a good idea never to try cheese when you’re in France, so that you won’t know what you’re missing. But that would be like saying it’s better to never fall in love than risk getting your heart broken.
5. Getting used to bureaucracy and paperwork.
One of the most unpleasant things about life in France, for both French people and foreigners, is all the paperwork and stress around just about any kind of government or business procedure. It’s so bad that the French even have a derogatory term for paperwork: la paperasse.
You’ll become very familiar with la paperasse if you’re a foreigner who spends some time in France. For instance, every year when you renew your carte de séjour (residence permit), you’ll still have to bring basic, unchanging documents like your passport (and photocopies) from your country of origin with you, since the Prefecture doesn’t seem to keep copies on file, and since the French government doesn’t just rely on digital records (I’ve heard that that’s a deliberate choice to preserve jobs). You’re expected to have hard copies of everything, even sometimes quite unlikely documents – and the requirements may change from year to year. Add to that the fact that many French government workers don’t actually know the most up-to-date requirements, and you might be able to imagine why going to the local Prefecture is an enormous source of stress.
And it doesn’t stop there. Regardless of where you come from, whether you’re changing banks or your kid is starting another school year at the same school they’ve been in since they started scholastic life, you will have paperwork that you have to fill out, photocopy, and deliver (often after waiting somewhere for a long time to do so).
This video is an astute and hilarious critique of French paperwork by a British man (reporting for the French channel Canal+). It’s got a lot of obscenity from the get-go, so if you don’t like that, maybe abstain, although you’ll be missing out.
On the French side of this, this news segment shows how French people are frustrated by all that paperwork (and gives some reasons for why it exists),
Still, if you dream of studying or living in France, don’t get discouraged – somehow, most of us do manage to get through la paperasse. It’s just frustrating.
And there’s good news! If your country of origin has more reasonable record-keeping and requirements when it comes to bureaucratic procedures, you’ll find that your battles with French paperwork have made you strong. You’ll seem like the most professional, prepared person ever.
Recently, for example, when I saw the US Embassy’s list of documents to bring for my son’s US passport renewal, tears sprang to my eyes: It was clear, the documents required were completely logical, and there were so few of them! Getting those documents and photos might seem like a chore for lots of people, but after years of dealing with French paperasse, it was almost pleasant!
6. Becoming a café addict.
This is one of the French habits foreigners pick up easily and, depending on their native country, miss the most when they leave: Sitting out on a café terrace for as long as you like, watching the world go by. It’s considered an actual pastime, especially in Paris, and is one of those simple pleasures that make life in France even better. Picking up this habit may make your life back in your native country a bit calmer and more enjoyable, too – -unless you come from a place where cafes aren’t really a thing or where you’re not allowed to linger in them.
7. Finding it weird when people express their religious thoughts/beliefs in a non-religious context.
Some countries, like my native one, for example, are all about expressing yourself when it comes to religion (not that everyone in the US does this). But no matter how religious a native French person is, they won’t be particularly open about it. At most, they might have a discreet chain with a small religious symbol at its end. But they will never tell you “Have a blessed day” or preach on a street corner or wear shirts touting their messiah.
Before I go on, let me clarify: I’m not talking about fellow immigrants or their descendants – I’m talking about native French people who have lived in the country for centuries.
For them, as well as the French government, religion is mostly private, and/or simply not practiced (or believed in) at all. One reason for this is that one of the founding principles of the French Republic is laicism (la laïcité).
In addition to not being openly religious, I find most French people to be less openly spiritual than people in many other countries. In addition to la laïcité, I think this religious privacy also comes from the French tendency not to show extreme emotions, not to mention French culture’s centuries-long relationship to philosophy, as well as a history of revolutions where organized religions (especially the once powerful Catholic church) were overturned or even briefly forbidden.
Depending on your own relationship with religion/spirituality, being immersed in a culture where this is something that’s not shouted from the rooftops can be a bit strange or a total relief. Either way, when you return to your native country, you might be taken aback or find it awkward the first time you hear someone loudly proclaim a religious opinion or spiritual sentiment.
8. Changing measurements.
If your country doesn’t use the metric system, you may struggle with it at first. I know I did – and some days, I still do. Overall, though, like most American expats in France (including this one), I’ve made peace with centimeters, meters, and kilograms (well, maybe not the kilograms I’ve acquired from my addiction to French pastries…).
But there are some measurements that have really become ingrained in me. For example, while I still perfectly understand temperature in Fahrenheit, I prefer to use Celsius when I need to understand how to dress for the weather.
France may share the metric system with other countries, but it has its own clothing and shoe sizes. Although I know the US equivalent of mine, for my son, who was born in Paris, I only know French sizes, which is frustrating when family or friends in the US expect me to know his US shoe size off the top of my head.
9. Keeping your eyes to the ground.
Okay, this is mostly a habit you’ll pick up when you spend time in Paris, not necessarily other parts of France, although some of them may inspire it as well….
I can absolutely confirm that Paris is a gorgeous city. But I can also confirm a dirty little secret you might have heard: the sidewalks here are filthy. It seems like the street cleaners just can’t keep up. Even in upscale areas, les trottoirs are speckled with dog poop, cigarette butts, streams of (hopefully dog) urine, bird droppings, and various other detritus.
But the dog poop is the worst part. Take your eyes from the sidewalk for a minute or two, and you’re almost guaranteed to step in a pile of it, or at least walk through streaks left by someone who stepped in a pile before you.
It’s not that the City of Paris doesn’t try – there’s a fine for not picking up after your dog. But in such a big city with so many dogs, who’s going to enforce this? And although I loathe stepping in dog poop, I kind of have to respect Parisians for not wanting to stoop down and pick up hot, stinky canine droppings.
Dirty streets have been a part of life for a majority of Paris’s urban history – they’ve even inspired a few French superstitions. That may never change. So, when in Paris, you learn to do as the Parisians do: regularly look where you’re walking. But if you live in Paris (or anywhere in France, for that matter) and you have a dog, please don’t take up the habit of not picking up after it!
10. Knowing a strike or demonstration is always a possibility.
In France, strikes and demonstrations are extremely common. In fact, statistics show that France is consistently the country where people go on strike the most.
Many strikes and demonstrations are restricted to a particular job or service that may not concern you. But transportation strikes are, unfortunately, a regular part of life here – so much so that when you’re planning on taking public transit to an airport or train station, you find yourself regularly checking the news to see if a strike is going to be announced. And of course, if there’s not a local public transit strike, you also have to hope that the national trains won’t be involved in one, or the airport, or a particular airline…. After many years of living in and traveling to and from France, I find myself never taking an estimated arrival or departure time for granted.
If this seems like a French habit you hope you won’t have to pick up, there is a way to cope. Whenever I get mad that there’s a strike, I think about the quality of life in France and remind myself that it probably wouldn’t be so great here (paperasse aside) if French people didn’t stay vigilant and outraged. You don’t get all that paid vacation and access to cheap, wonderful cheeses – not to mention things like free or affordable education and medical care — without some protests and strikes (or even full-blown revolutions).
Of course, your native culture – and you as an individual – play a part in the habits you might find odd or adopt. If you’ve spent a lot of time in France, what are some French habits and customs you’ve picked up?