E&M’s author Aurore Yverneau shares a few tips to help add a certain je ne sais quoi to your everyday life. If you want to keep up, you’d better get practising those Vive la Républiques!
When I got asked about writing an article on how to behave like a French person, I naturally felt a degree of French pride. I started thinking about what it means to be French in very practical terms: what defines a French person, what is in our nature and how does our French environment shape us? For instance, are we born with this irresistible accent that makes us so recognisable abroad or is it something one can pick up?
Since one is never one’s own best judge, I asked friends from every continent and compatriots a simple question: what makes a French person so French? I will admit that my French pride got a bit hurt when I learned that one of the images we have abroad is the one of a bunch of never-satisfied workers who do not put in more than 35 hours a week. I felt better though, when I read the French succeed rather well in taking time to enjoy living in their beautiful country.
So to help those of you who want to integrate more of France into their everyday lives, here is a non-exhaustive series of tips inspired by the various answers I got, covering the finer points of being French for both beginners and more advanced students of the nation.
# 1: Dress properly: do not even think of going out in pajamas to get some milk or just to take out the trash. Chances are slim that a French person would remain in pajamas, even on a rainy Sunday (the only exception being when struck down with flu, and even then, not looking your best might make you want to at least try to improve your look as far as is humanely possible when your temperature is hovering around the 40 – 41 °C mark).
Keep in mind that you should not adapt to fashion but that fashion should adapt for you (take this opportunity to definitely split with Karl Lagerfeld’s philosophy of the cotton-bud-shaped body). But of course this does not mean you should wear anything: French women are actually positively critical of women who know what kind of clothes highlights them (and resist the temptation to wear the last trend if it does not fit them). If you have lived in France, even for a very short period, you might have heard of Christina Cordula’s theory of letters (if not you might want to have a look, though it is not revolutionary, you might have fun listening to her distracting phrases).
Note that the only exception to the well-known French-sense-of-style can be found on travels in remote lands, where a French person is recognisable by their Decathlon-sponsored outfit and their Routard, the sacrosanct book of those new travellers whose first interest in Europe began with the introduction of the Schengen. Note, however also that many French people also lament this exception to the rule, and claim that whenever a pair of Quechua shorts is sold, it is a small part of France’s cultural influence that fades away.
# 2: Don’t settle for gastronomic second best. The French, as guardians of an unrivalled culinary art, are very critical of food. So when abroad, do not be surprised by a comment on how a “French touch” (= very often French wine) could have made the dish sky-rocketing.
If living abroad, you might want to remember to help the fresh expatriate in his struggle to understand why there are 10 different sorts of grated cheese on the supermarket shelf. Do not take it personally if it all ends with a comment about incomparable French know-how, it might well be out of despair. This is the moment for you to dare suggesting new products and dispense some recipe tips. Chances are you should be happily surprised by the interest you could raise in your interlocutor’s attention. In exchange, this latter will probably want to do the same and accompany you to the alcohol aisle, point you to the French wine section, and help you chose the best wine pairing for your next dinner.
# 3: Treat yourself the right way. Have you heard of the book French women don’t get fat? Well, to be honest, it makes things too simple. It is not in anyone’s genes to be thin, French people are in no way supernatural on the question of metabolism. A more appropriate title would be: French people take meals seriously.
Respect the body that you inherited from your ancestors and feed yourself with fresh and regionally produced food, which allows you to have access to quality products for a fair price. Of course it takes to wake up early on Saturday morning to go on the marché, but it will bring you two advantages: your metabolism will thank you for the freshness of your food, and your wallet for suppressing all the intermediaries between you and the food that cost so much. You can consider yourself on the right path of assimilation when you begin kissing the producer on the cheeks every time you see each other and he does not even need to ask for what you want because you have been meeting each other every Saturday morning for months.
Eating is a shared happy time. French love having guests over, and this is true no matter the host, be it a student, a family living abroad, elderly people, flatmates, and so on. We enjoy a proper break at work at midday around a real meal, mostly with some colleagues, all the while contemplating how to move mountains and make this world a better place (this last element has to do with the French propensity of questioning everything). We do not simply fuel our bodies with energy (and we do not freak so much about counting how much energy we eat), we celebrate meals as nice shared moments.
Now that we’ve covered the first impressions part, it is time to embark on a course of “advanced Frenchness”.
# 1: Know your rights, and be ready to go fight for them. Be also ready to fight against those who fight for what they think is right but-is-not-really. Also do not hesitate to take to the streets to protest, chances are French people will find you even more friendly if you do. You should not really worry about the population’s hostile reaction: 1/3 of the French population is probably born during a strike, and we have grown used to missing school and trips often enough to not complain anymore (and actually think it is quite fair that everyone can have their say).
After the protest, be ready for two things: comments on how much of a failure the demonstration has been given the inexistent governmental reaction, and on how come your figures and those of the police are so different (brace yourself with some mathematical demonstration to shut their mouths, or admit that you might have overstated the number of people).
Confronted by a uniform or a regulation, their first reaction is not to blindly obey, but rather to ask themselves if it is really necessary, and make disrespectful remarks if they decide it is not (…). The Frenchman is convinced of his right to think by himself and to voice his criticism.
[From a 1944 manual handed to British soldiers debarking in France]
# 2: Get along with sarcasm: learn to spot it and to pass the buck. This goes along with a strong propensity for making fun of themselves and others. Currently, the French have a bit of a problem with the political classes so to blend in, I advise some jokes on political leaders, but remember to keep it good-natured.
# 3: Think great, because the French have been used to reading the most inspiring pieces of literature since they were four (according to French parents, French children are, after all, gifted children). The French tend to have the idea that their authors are probably the most brilliant among the brilliants, so they would expect you to quote Camus, Maupassant, Colette, Hugo or Proust. Actually, to be safe, you should be able to quote at least four great people and their work in the following categories: kings, presidents, composers, painters, movie-makers and singers (note that Céline Dion is not French, and should never get into any world top 100 anyway).
Thinking great also means thinking of France as a whole. If you want to remain socially interesting to a French person, avoid quoting Cannes as your favourite holiday spot. Prefer a place like Saint-Amand-Montrond or Beuzec-Cap-Sizun; you should get some kudos for having the courage and interest to go on vacation there.
# 4: If you intend to blend into French society, you have to integrate French pride (and at some extend patriotism). Listen to your French counterparts when they are pointing out a Renault car whenever they see one, concluding that no matter what there is nothing better than a baguette from a small boulangerie de quartier, comparing Paris with every other city they have been to, and reaching the conclusion that, despite all the air pollution, stress and Parisians, there is nothing more magical than Paris. For all of what is listed above, remember to nod and smile if you do not want to get into a long discussion with French people on the pros and pros of the French culture (even though we complain a lot, we do not really think the grass is greener elsewhere).
Being French is probably one of the biggest sources of pride for a French citizen, so keep in mind that you should never hesitate to ask one about his/her manners and behavior (but do not dare ask a Parisian how to get somewhere). It is highly probable you will get very detailed answers so be ready for it; grab a bottle of French wine, expect your speaker to provide some cheese and saucisson, and start exploring how to put these tips into practice with your own personal counsellor!
Cover photo: Aurore Yverneau