Why Are the French People so Difficult to Understand?

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Why Are the French People so Difficult to Understand?
The character of the French will never stop being a topic of discussion. Often observed by foreigners, and widely commented on in a way that is not always complimentary by journalists and travelers, the French leave nobody indifferent. Their numerous contradictions generate questions and sometimes give rise to misunderstandings among foreigners. Working every day alongside expatriates from various backgrounds and all nationalities for the past 10 years, I like to decipher the cultural markers of my fellow citizens with the neutrality necessary for this exercise. This article is an attempt to clarify five French contradictions, steering clear of clichés and preconceived ideas as much as possible. Photo © Refocus, Unsplash 1. The grumpy French vs. the French joie de vivre The France of the ’60s seems like a distant memory, along with its Godard and Truffaut movies, Jeanne Moreau and Jean-Paul Belmondo, and the admiration for the French language and way of life. If the French art de vivre — celebrating the joy of living, carefreeness, a taste for culinary pleasures and holidays — is a widely accepted characteristic, outside observers are amazed when they notice the perception that the French have of the future. Where is the famous joie de vivre? From lack of faith in the future and rejection of political leaders, to skepticism about the education system and the welfare state, pessimism pervades all areas of French life. So, the French, these bon vivants… are they also incorrigible complainers in addition to being pessimistic? According to an Ipsos study carried out for BVA in February 2018, 70 percent of French people expect the situation in their country to worsen in the years to come, which makes France the world’s most pessimistic country, amongst 57 countries where BVA investigated. There is therefore a real contradiction between people who are quite happy individually, or who aspire to be so in the private sphere, with their family and friends, and those who are pessimistic when it comes to the fate of their country, which they think is heading straight for disaster. According to the sociologist Rémy Oudghiri, speaking on France Inter’s program “Bonheur à la Française, why are the French so pessimistic” on February 19, 2020, “what’s difficult in France, is to acknowledge that we are happy publicly. There is a fairly typical scene in France; especially in the mornings when people arrive at work and begin to talk to each other: they have this custom of criticizing everything, by suggesting that everything seems to be going wrong, but in the end, they are very happy. It’s as if, deep down, pessimism is a topic of conversation.” Criticism is indeed a national sport and all subjects may be the subject of fatalistic and acrimonious remarks: from the political situation, the country’s leaders, the economic situation, to the weather. My students, who are either visiting Paris, or living here as expatriates in France, are often disconcerted by the temperament of the French, who grumble all day long and often see the glass half empty- while others (non-French) would see it in reverse, half full. Photo © Joshua Ness, Unsplash

Lead photo credit : Photo © Martin Robson, Wikimedia. (CC BY-SA 2.0)

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Based in Paris, Florence is the founder of French a la Carte, an agency that offers private and tailor-made French lessons to expats and also immersion in Paris with private tours in easy French for French learners. Florence is a "Parisienne" with her eyes turned toward abroad, and she has as an endless curiosity for Paris. She feels both like a native and an expat who likes to play the tourist in her own city. She was first a press attachée for ARTE, a Franco-German cultural TV channel, before turning to French language teaching. She founded French à La Carte in 2012. For lovers of Paris who would like to improve their conversational French in a efficient and enjoyable manner, French à La Carte also offers private tours which immerse the students in the vibrancy of Paris, with fulfilling outdoor activities adjusted to the level in French of each student. A pastry and chocolate tour in Saint-Germain-des-Près, the discovery of Paris vibrant neighborhoods, a private visit to the Rodin museum or a tour on the influential & feminist women in Paris, these are examples of what French à La Carte can offer. You can contact her at http://www.private-frenchlessons-paris.com/contact for more information on French lessons or private tours.


  • Ed Cobleigh
    2021-12-30 11:26:14
    Ed Cobleigh
    I have enjoyed Paris often. I stopped counting at 50 visits. I have never had a bad experience with rude people. I could bore you for hours with tales of how Parisians and Parisiennes went out of their ways to help me. In my opinion, Americans bring rude behavior on themselves by not bothering to learn even the basics of interaction with the French. There is even a book on the subject, The Bonjour Effect. I have a vision of a Parisian calling the fire department in Paris, the Sapeurs-Pompiers, "Bonjour, my house is on fire." Also, the French seem to have the expectation that they should be able to speak French in France and not have to cope with Anglophone exclusives.


  • Terry Seligman
    2021-01-18 05:58:23
    Terry Seligman
    Excellent article. Having visited France many times, I've found several of Florence Harang's points to be right on target. I've always found the French to be courteous and respectful, especially when I observe certain customs when I approach them. At the same time, I realize how hard it would be to make friends with them, if I were to move to Paris, as we are very different. Americans approach others with our own unique brand of warmth and friendliness, which includes smiling a lot. This can be off-putting to those whose cultures don't smile a lot. By the same token, we Americans can be put off when the French do not return our smiles. This creates the (mistaken) belief that the French are rude and discourteous.


    • Florence Harang
      2021-01-20 12:42:17
      Florence Harang
      Bonjour Terry Thank you very much for your kind words regarding the article Why are the French people so difficult to understand! You are right, multiculturalism can rise so much incomprehension. You mentionned warmth and friendliness, French people are usually reserved and sometimes shy when they speak to strangers, they don't have the spontaneousness of Americans to engage a conversation. It is unfortunately not something taught at school or with their family. Merci !


    2021-01-14 07:58:27
    We have traveled to Paris and France many times over the last decade and have found the French people almost always polite and reserved, as would be expected. Once this Covid business is over the plan is to return soon. We love Paris.


  • Hazel Smith
    2021-01-14 06:43:47
    Hazel Smith
    Good article. The leopard jeans lady outside des Deux Moulins looks like Brigitte Macron.