With the world increasingly globalized, more companies in France are opening up to people without excellent French language skills. Some multi-national companies work primarily in English in order to compete, while certain industries cater specifically to Anglophones.
You can live and learn, or you can take the advice of those who have “been there, done that” before you in Paris. Hear what these foreigners say they wish they knew before moving to Paris.
When I moved to Paris and needed to improve my French FAST, I added some French podcasts into my playlist as part of my crash-learning plan. Here are my top picks, and some reader recommendations!
When speaking with a French person, you may be tempted to sprinkle some clichés or well-worn jokes into the conversation. But if you want them to like you, there are a few cultural sensitivities to be mindful of, some of which aren’t obvious to us foreigners.
Rosie from Not Even French and I put our heads together to come up with a list of the biggest faux pas, clichés and cultural misunderstandings we anglophones make with French people.
We’ve both put our pieds in our mouths at a few dinner parties, so take it from us and avoid these topics:
“You’re French? I love Paris!”
Only two million of France’s 67 million residents live in Paris, and many from outside the city don’t have a great opinion of Parisians. So while you may love Paris, French people don’t appreciate all being lumped together, or the assumption they all live in the capital city. Regional pride is huge in France. Each département has its own cuisine, culture and history and to immediately ask about Paris can feel like you are ignoring their heritage. Better to ask, “what region of France are you from?” first.
“Your accent is sooooo cute!”
Some French people are sensitive about their English skills, and pointing out their accent can feel like a dig, even if your comment is well intentioned. French education focuses a lot on reading and writing — so for example, while my husband studied English for nearly a decade in school, he hardly spoke it until he did an exchange program in Canada. And often their English teachers in French public schools aren’t native speakers, so they are learning from someone with a French accent.
“Ew, you eat that?”
Snails, glands, organs — French people enjoy foods you may find different from your cuisine back home. But calling it gross just makes you look uncultured and rude. I once accidentally ate veal kidneys at my work cafeteria, and when I made a comment about how weird it tasted to my coworkers, they told me even kids eat rognons de veau at school. It made me look childish!
“So, what do you do for a living?”
Talking about money is a huge faux pas in French culture. And by asking about someone’s job, it can be taken as being nosy about how much money they make. There is a strong Catholic influence on the country’s overall attitude toward wealth, and flashiness or obvious displays of money aren’t appreciated. French people also rarely consider work the most interesting thing about them, and it’s not uncommon to spend a whole evening with someone and not discuss their job.
“I love your home/car/bag, it’s so nice. How much did you pay for it?”
This goes in the same bucket of money sensitivity. Asking how much something cost can be seen as gauche or trying to figure out if someone is wealthy. And being overly complimentary is something French people make fun of Americans for (a French person impersonating an American will say: “That’s so amaaaaazing!”). The exception to the rule of money talk? Taxes. Complaining about taxes is a national sport.
“Everyone knows French people don’t like to work.”
French people hate the cliché that they are lazy and always on strike. Yes, they enjoy more protections for workers and vacation time than in many other countries, but France has the 6th largest economy in the world, so they must be doing something right. Protests and strikes are a part of the culture (and they are very good at it), but in fact Canadians go on strike more. Plenty of French people work overtime and are ambitious, and even joking that they are lazy can upset people.
“You know you’d be speaking German if it wasn’t for us Americans.”
Not only is this historically iffy — it’s très rude. Ditto with the “French love to surrender” and wave the white flag references. In general, jokes about the World Wars are better left alone, as Europeans are still sensitive about this period of their history. Best to be respectful.
“Are you religious?”
Faith and prayer are very private here. France is a majority Catholic country, but there is a peculiar dichotomy between religious beliefs and society. The public sphere and religion are supposed to be entirely separate, a concept called laïcité (or secularism). Because Catholic holidays and traditions are so wrapped up in French culture the reality is less so, but religion in general is not a topic to bring up with people you don’t know well. There is no prayer in school, or public worship the way you see in America, though it seems every street, town and dessert in France is named after a saint.
“Who did you vote for?”
The French love to discuss politics and policy, but the specific candidate someone votes for is held close to the vest. It isn’t uncommon for even family members not to know. Because there are more political parties than in the U.S. it isn’t always easy to tell who someone supports, and there isn’t a culture of displaying your political preferences with t-shirts or bumper stickers.
“Hello!” without even trying “Bonjour!”
Walking up to a French person and starting with English is a sure-fire way to piss off or confuse them. Even if you switch to English after, a “bonjour” when you enter a shop or approach someone is considered the most basic of courtesies in France.
“You know those French men, they all cheat.”
In reality, French men don’t cheat any more than in other countries, though French culture is a bit less puritanical about sex in general. When I first moved to Paris, I showed some of my husband’s friends a video of Pepé Le Pew, the cliché Frenchman in a cartoon form. Unsurprisingly, none of them found the portrayal as a smelly, groping skunk funny.
“Voulez-vous coucher avec moi?”
Just don’t. You aren’t the first (or millionth) person to make this joke and they don’t think it’s funny.
Have something you’d add to this list? A story about a faux pas you made? Leave a comment and share!
And if you want to learn more on the truth about French clichés, check out this popular post: Do French People Really Wear Berets? French Clichés Investigated
Wine and long conversation en terrasse is a time-honored pastime in France, but is especially cherished when the grey winter gives way to sunshine. Here are my top picks in Paris!
A step-by-step guide for self-employed or freelance workers in France. Get your micro-entrepreneur status, SIRET number, and learn how to invoice companies and declare your taxes.
Moving to another country for love is romantic, adventurous and very, very hard. As the spouse of a local, you do have a leg up in many ways: A partner who speaks the language and understands the culture. You don’t have to find a place to live on your own. Your visa process is pretty straightforward.
But you still have to adjust to a foreign land, create a new life and integrate into a society unlike what you’re used to. Not an easy task.
When I first moved to Paris, I thought I had mentally prepared for these challenges. I’d been honest with myself that the adjustment wasn’t going to be all fun and games. But there are certain things in life you can’t really grasp until you’re in the thick of it.
A year and a half in, I’m still learning something new everyday. But I have a firm understanding of what I did right before boarding the plane for France, and what else I wish I had known.
BEFORE YOU GO
Have a serious talk with your partner about the level of support you will need
In the excitement of moving, its easy to get caught up in the daydreams of walking along the Seine, hand-in-hand with your spouse as the Eiffel tower twinkles in the distance. You’re not thinking about what happens when you can’t find a job or you try to exchange something at Monoprix and the process goes awry and you cry in the store (I speak from experience).
These are also the moments that will make up your new expat life. Doing an assessment of where you will need help and how you are going to handle it as a team is a must. Some questions to discuss:
- How much help will I need with the language? Will I be able to get through day-to-day life alone? Do visa or employment paperwork alone? Work in the language? Are you prepared to help me with all that if needed?
- How much support will I need financially? How will the balance of our financial responsibility change once we are there? How long could I potentially go without working? Will I be making less money?
- How much of a social support system will I have? Do I have my own friends or family there? How much are we going to see your family? How often will we travel back to my home country?
- How much emotional support will I need? Will my level of independence be much different there? How could that balance of power change our relationship?
Give yourself a timeline
Set an amount of time you are going to stick it out no matter how hard it gets. I told myself (and my husband) I was committing to 2-3 years and if after that I still didn’t like it, or couldn’t build a life, we could broach the subject of moving back. I knew from moving to NYC in my 20s that it takes years to really feel like you live in a city. So I wasn’t going to make an assessment until I had given it enough time to really know Paris.
The purpose of this commitment is two-fold. First, there will be many times, especially in the first year, that you will want to give up. Where it all feels too hard. Where it feels like you will never learn the language. Where it feels like the loneliness is unbearable. In those moments, booking yourself a one-way ticket home and saying au revoir to all that will be immensely tempting.
The second is that if you have in your head that you can or will leave, you’re not going to give it the same effort as if you’ve committed to this being your life for at least the near future. You won’t work as hard to make friends, or learn the language or even learn your way around the city. If you go into it believing you have an escape hatch, you will reach for the emergency brake instead of pushing through the hard times.
Understand it is a lot of hard work and be ready
Time for a come to Jesus moment with yourself. Moving abroad is not all ponies and unicorns. It will change you, it will change your relationship, and it will be a lot of hard work. The sooner you get the fantasy of wine on terraces all day out of your head, the better.
The idea many people have about life in France can make you feel guilty if the reality isn’t a dream. Friends back home will tell you you are so lucky to live here (true!), but therefore may not be receptive to hearing about your struggles.
For a better idea of what to expect, I recommend reading up a bit on French culture, history and the intricacies of the language — as well as the tales of expats who came before you. Here is a list of books I read before moving.
I don’t regret moving to Paris at all, but immigrating and adjusting hasn’t been easy. The amount of payoff you get is directly related to how much work you put in. If you don’t put in the effort, you will fail to integrate, period.
ONCE YOU ARRIVE
After you move into your new home, unpack, and memorize your own telephone number in French (took me longer than it should have) — the work of building your new life and identity begins.
Don’t rely on your partner for your entire social life
Most expat husbands and wives find it is important to their happiness that they don’t feel completely dependent on their partner. This requires putting yourself out there, and getting yourself out of the house a lot.
If you have even remote connections in your new country, use them. I found that when I announced I was moving to France, friends and acquaintances happily offered to connect me with anyone they knew here. It can feel awkward to have to meet so many people, many of whom you won’t “click” with, but there is no shortcut to making friends.
Other ways to meet people:
- There are a ton of resources online — from MeetUp events to Facebook groups for expats based on country of origin, interests or reason you’re in the country (such as for au pairs or spouse groups).
- In Paris, there are dozens of organizations that cater to expats — from theater groups to libraries to church groups to sports clubs.
- Try getting involved in a hobby you had in your new country. Become a regular at a yoga studio, sign up for an art class or another activity you loved back home that could attract like-minded people.
Even if you participate with your partner, it will feel good to be leading rather than following their plans. It’s also okay if your personal social life is in your comfort zone. While I do speak French with my husband’s friends and family, my personal social circle is almost entirely in English.
Give your days structure
Be disciplined about getting out of the house, studying and looking for opportunities to meet people. Get out of the normal touristy bubble and learn about local events you can add to your calendar. You will learn very little about your new home by sitting on your couch, as tempting as it is sometimes.
If you don’t have a job yet, I recommend using language school as a way to give yourself a set schedule. This worked great for me.
If you are searching for a job, be open-minded and get creative about the opportunities you look for. Dedicate time everyday to searching, applying and building a network. For more tips on finding English-language work in France, check out this article.
Language, language, language
It may seem obvious, but still needs to be said: Make learning the language a priority. If you can afford to and need to, take a few months when you arrive to dedicate to language courses and giving yourself time to learn your new environment. Classes don’t have to break the bank, and this can give you some adjustment time.
For those of us living in our foreign spouses’ homeland, the language is integral to connecting with your partner’s family and friends and becoming more independent. Personally I don’t enjoy the process of learning French much, and feel dumb much of the time, but the change it makes in your quality of life is immense.
Avoid playing the comparison game
The guy you read about who was “fluent” in three months. The woman who created a blog and now makes a living off her Instagram account. The friend-of-a-friend who landed a job in a week. These stories aren’t the reality for the vast majority of people who move to another country, so try not to use them as a yardstick.
Part of moving is figuring out who YOU are in this new environment. You may not have the job, family, friends and social structure you had back at home — and it can be hard to know yourself without all that. Focus on learning what works for you, not comparing yourself to others (who probably aren’t sharing all their struggles).
Don’t take it personally and move forward
Cultural differences will sometimes make you feel like people are being rude, when in fact they are just being French. There will be times when you feel like an alien because your normal ways of communicating don’t translate. Try not to take it to heart (easier said than done, I know).
You live in France, and you’re going to have to adjust to the way things are done here — the country is not going to change for you. So the sooner you accept that and learn how to deal with it, the better your life will become. You can spend all day comparing how things were done back in your country — but deciphering the culture and moving forward will be more productive.
Don’t forget to enjoy yourself
In the whirlwind of setting up your life, the pressure can feel overwhelming. Remember to still take time to do things you love, discover new places and take care of yourself.
Find the parts of the culture that really interest you and do a deep dive — maybe it is the language, food, regional differences, design or history. Or just give yourself a “day off” every once in a while to take a break from learning and treat yourself.
MARK YOUR MILESTONES
When you’re in the day-to-day struggle of building a new life, it can be hard to accurately assess your progress. Sometimes I beat myself up about my language skills, the number of friends I’ve made, or how I don’t know the names of the streets in my own neighborhood. But when I compare my life now to when I arrived, or even six months ago, I feel proud of myself.
Every few months (or whenever you’re feeling discouraged), check back in on some of the milestones you’ve hit with language, social life, work and learning about France.
Set goals, but don’t judge yourself too harshly if you don’t hit all of them exactly on time. The reality is, it will likely take you longer than you expect to adjust to your new country. Give yourself time to make it work, and cut yourself some slack.
Integration and adjustment must be measured in months and years, not days and weeks. By having realistic expectations, you and your relationship will be more likely to succeed. And of course, each person’s process is different, so please leave a comment and share what worked for you if you have additional advice!
I confess that my French is not as far along as I would like. But when people here in Paris find out I am married to a Frenchman, many are quick to scold me for not speaking French at home with my husband.
Each year, French chocolatiers and confiseurs create even more high-end, creative and beautiful calendrier de l’Avent, elevating them to a must-have for cozy holiday decor. And now the offerings have extended beyond chocolate to include tea, beauty and high-end treats.