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It’s in the Details

Struggles with Differences in Cultural Details that Cause Feelings of Alienation

When I moved to France, I was admittedly unprepared. Before France, I lived in my hometown, a college city with a mix of different American cultures all centrally located. I never really had to think about how to interact with people there, as it came naturally. I was seen as outgoing and funny. I made friends and had good communication skills that helped at work or in personal relationships. When I decided to move, I didn’t expect things to be the same as my life in my hometown, in America. I just didn’t anticipate all the ways things would change.

Again, I absolutely did not expect things to be the same here in France. I expected a lot of big changes. Of course, the government is different and bureaucracy is so notorious, I knew to expect the long periods of waiting and unending paperwork. I knew I would need to learn a whole new language, and become at least competent at writing and reading in said language. I knew that the culture would be different in some ways, but had yet to fully conceptualize what that would mean. So, I was prepared for changes, but even when you know to expect change, that doesn’t make the actual process of changing any easier. And when you are a foreigner in a new place, learning a whole new culture and way of living can often feel alienating. It was the small details of the culture that I didn’t expect that really threw me.

Here are a few examples of those details that I was completely unprepared for.



Whoever said laughter is a universal language was absolutely categorically wrong. Sure, we can all understand laughter and we also usually all enjoy a good joke. But what one culture considers funny may not necessarily translate as well over to another culture. For me, I didn’t know I had social anxiety until I moved to France.

As it turns out, I’ve been quietly struggling with social anxiety my whole life and I simply coped with it by making a lot of jokes. I thought that considering how many American comedy films do well over here, my jokes would translate pretty well. I was wrong. One time at a party that my husband and I hosted, others were teasing a friend about how he wouldn’t eat any vegetables. I tried to join in by making a joke about how I slaved over a hot stove to make salads for the party. I thought it was a pretty obvious, low-hanging joke. He took that to mean that I was genuinely hurt that he didn’t like my cooking and made himself have some of the salads I had made. I was slightly mortified when I found out he didn’t understand I was joining in the joking.

I don’t know if it was the joke itself or if I just can’t convey the correct tone for a good joke in French yet. But that wasn’t the only time my jokes fell flat. That being said, sometimes they do land! But usually it requires some translation help from my husband or some very patient friends. Back home, the tone for joking is innate for me. So, I never had issues with people confusing my jokes for serious remarks. I think had I not been so reliant on jokes to get through social situations and just sat back and learned the correct tone and gained familiarity with our friends before attempting to crack jokes with them, it would have gone much better.

Smiling at People

It’s a pretty common stereotype that French people are rude. And honestly? I don’t think that’s true at all. Most French people I have interacted with have been really nice and polite. I think we just show friendliness in different ways.

Americans tend to be very open and exchange niceties to everyone we encounter. I think one of the biggest tells that I am an immigrant here in France is that I cannot stop smiling at people I accidentally make eye contact with when grocery shopping or walking down the street.

It was one of the best parts of wearing masks the last few years, because no one could see that tell-tale smile on my face. And it isn’t that French people don’t smile, it just isn’t quite as frequent as what feels natural to me. But the lack of smiles doesn’t mean people are somehow less friendly or more rude.

Everyone I pass tends to greet me with a quick bonjour and I can’t enter a shop without a polite greeting. As a disabled person, if a stranger sees me struggling with a door or to reach something on the shelf, a stranger will always be nearby to help me out. So, obviously people are plenty friendly, but it tends to be more reserved.

To be continued!

Struggles with Differences in Cultural Details that Cause Feelings of Alienation

Part two

Here are a few more examples of those details that I was completely unprepared for.

Timing and Friendliness

Timing may be the most important aspect to friendly exchanges for the French and it was something I didn’t fully understand until I lived here for a while.

There’s a larger sense of formality with people than we may observe in America.

For example, in certain places in America, it’s considered normal to just strike up a conversation with a stranger while waiting in line or on the bus. You might smile and maybe even wave at people you don’t know very well. There’s definitely more blurred lines of formality in American culture where I’ve had very friendly relationships with bosses and teachers. But in France, there is a formality of relationships that seems a little more strict. One easy to see identifier of that formality is in the language, when you switch from using vous to tu. Vous is more formal, while tu is more casual.

The formality in French relationships extends to a set of boundaries that we wouldn’t expect in American culture. One of those boundaries is being too friendly with someone you are not very familiar with. While it’s common to be very friendly with a complete stranger in America, here in France, that would be considered inappropriate. Just the act of smiling and joking around could be seen as very awkward.

One person explained to me that being too friendly without the right level of familiarity is weird and uncomfortable. A person who does that may come across as someone you can’t take very seriously or even as someone who isn’t very intelligent.

Be prepared

There are so many preparations to consider when you are starting out your journey of being an expat. But it’s the small details that we overlook that can really come between you and integrating. Even when a culture is similar to your own, you may find that there are key differences in how people interact with one another and what is and isn’t considered appropriate. I think learning those small differences and appreciating them are important steps to overcome those feelings of alienation that crop up when you are immigrating to a new culture.

The best advice I have is to just slow down, take a step back, and listen to what the locals tell you.

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