Culture Shock

Culture Shock

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I have just returned to France after visiting my folks in New Jersey for ten days.

Soon
after I arrived in France in 1991, an American expat friend of mine
remarked how she had to get used to being back in the U.S. after
arriving there for a visit. I scoffed at this. After all, we’re both
American, aren’t we? We happen to live in France, but the way people
act in the United States is “home,” right? Now I have to admit that,
eventually, she was right.

I
hadn’t realized how accustomed I had become to the “way things are
done” in France. Without even realizing it, I now expect people to act
in a certain way that is different from what I grew up with. On my last
trip, I definitely experienced “culture-shock,” from the point of view
of someone French! It began soon after my US Air flight took off from
Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris, headed toward Philadelphia. As we
were ascending, the captain came onto the public address system for his
“welcome aboard” speech. Right after that, he announced something to
the effect of, “New Transportation Security Administration regulations
prohibit passengers from congregating in groups around the toilet, or
in the aisles of the aircraft.” This was in addition to the
stewardesses reminding us, numerous times, that we were not to use the
toilet outside of our class of seat. I almost died of embarrassment.

While
we were checking in at De Gaulle, I had played a game, trying to guess
each passenger’s nationality and then verifying it once they presented
their passport. At least half of them were French! (Including the
Hell’s Angel copy-cat guy with his black leather jacket and Mohawk
haircut, seated across the aisle from me.) What would they think of us?
Were the stewardesses going to beat us back with baseball bats if we
“congregated”?

You see, in
France there are so many rules and regulations, no one takes them all
seriously. In contrast to the U.S., who you are (and the mood of the
person enforcing the rules) plays a large part in how and even if they
will be enforced. I asked myself why did they keep repeating the
regulations over and over? Then I remembered. In the U.S., the rules,
no matter what they are, must be respected. And enforced. No matter who
you are or how you feel. No exceptions allowed. Gotta remember that.

My next culture shock was the coffee on the plane. American, acid, watery coffee. Not a drop of espresso in sight. Sigh.

Landing
at Philadelphia International Airport was not bad at all. (Here I’m
being French again – starting from the negative. My American persona is
yelling in the background, “But it was great – fine!”) Then I realized
a wonderful thing about America: elevators work. The elevator in my
parent’s apartment building – works! The door closes right away (and it
doesn’t hold open if you’re standing one and one-half foot inside the
door). It goes fast, too, I mean like normal elevator speed from one
floor to the next. I’m lucky that in my Paris apartment building we
have an elevator at all, and a large one at that. Don’t ask it to be
efficient, however. It will come when it decides the time is right.
Otherwise, take the stairs, baby.

I
also enjoy people giving me a lot of space. According to the
anthropologist Edward T. Hall, “Each person has around him an invisible
bubble of space…”. In Northern Europe and the United States, this “body
bubble” is rather large. It gets smaller as you move south. I just love
it when Americans actually apologize if they step into it or me! Except
in Manhattan, of course, which was far worse than Paris in terms of
people bumping into you. But it was cool in New Jersey. And even in New
York, while we were waiting in line to buy a theatre ticket, people
actually apologized(!) for butting in line (they had been there earlier
but did not have enough cash to cover the cost of the tickets). Wow! No
need for my French techniques for holding back butter-inners. That was
nice.

I also quickly got back
into walking in a straight line. Let me explain. In France, the
national shape is the circle. So, when one walks, or drives, one does
so in linked semi-circles (I call this the snake walk). This explains
why French drivers will turn left from the right lane – they are merely
circling around to make their turn. It’s really confusing at first
until you start calculating people’s trajectories as they go around.
Then you can avoid bumping into them. No need for this in the good ole
USA. Just go straight.

Towards
the end of my stay, though, I started to miss Paris. This longing was
especially heart-felt after eating a chocolate dessert that had so much
sugar in it, I could barely taste the chocolate. By this time I had
gotten used to the coffee. Just dump enough milk or cream into it to
counteract the acid content. Then, it’s drinkable.

I
also never did get used to “strangers” talking to me. This is not done
in France! Except if you have a reason. For example: let’s say you’re
standing in line to go to the movies on the Champs Elysées. Do not
expect a friendly word, or smile even, from the other people in line.
Except, if something happens. Like say there’s an enormous car crash
just in front of you, but no one is hurt. They’re just all out there
yelling at each other behind their crushed vehicles. Then, of course,
you might say a word or two with your “neighbors” in line. Smile even.
Let’s just say that after five years in my current apartment, I am now
on “hello in the hallway” terms with some of the other tenants.

It
was great to arrive back in France and eat some outstanding chocolate
(see my article on a great French diet: Chocolate Every Day). Plus
excellent tomatoes. I then breathed a huge sigh of relief after I
brewed my first cup of espresso (in my little top of the stove espresso
pot where you have to listen to when it stops boiling in order to know
when to jerk it off the burner). After about a week, the re-adjustment
to life in France was complete. It’s great to be back “home.”

Reference: Understanding Cultural Differences by Edward T. Hall and Mildred Reed Hall, Intercultural Press, Inc.


Jeanne
Feldman is an intercultural specialist working with English speaking
expatriates to help them integrate into french life, both
professionally and personally. In addition she works with French
executives who need to communicate internationally.

Jeanne has also written a shopping guide, Best Buys and Bargains in Paris.

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