The following is a guest post from Finn Skovgaard, a writer from Denmark.
France is one of those countries everyone has an opinion about, and which has spawned many stereotypes: the French are eternal seducers, lazy, speak only French (so fast that no one else can understand it), and drive like the Italians, just to mention a few. But, hand on your heart, how much do you really know about the French that you haven’t just heard in clichés? And, since you’re reading Roosh’s site, you may well ask yourself if you’ll ever stand a chance against the army of romantic French seducers Hollywood will have you believe are omnipresent.
Un. Etiquette – or not
Don’t waste your time and money on snob etiquette guides like the one recently promoted in the Telegraph, unless you will be banging high society. As you will see in the readers’ comments, many British expats in France have torn it to pieces. You’ll only make yourself look ridiculous, stuffy, and old-fashioned if you try to behave as described in what could look like a retired diplomat’s guide. Other guides may be better, but travel guides have a tendency to stick to old-fashioned stereotypes that tell you very little about modern life in France.
The young, typically under 30, are fairly easygoing and nothing like the old president Charles de Gaulle stereotype, head tilted towards his backside, looking upwards towards the top of the Eiffel Tower in superiority. The last president of the grandeur de la France generation was Jacques Chirac, who stepped down in 2007, replaced by the dynamic and modern Nicolas Sarkozy. A similar change of character has taken place amongst ordinary Frenchmen, at least outside the snob circles.
Every guide book will tell you to say vous, not tu, and to address people as Monsieur or Madame Poubelle, or whatever their surname, but the young generation is no longer like that, and will quickly use tu and first names. The young Internet generation doesn’t have the obsession that English is a menace to the French Republic, though the miserable French schooling system doesn’t give them much of a chance to learn it. Hence, the more French you speak, the better, and don’t hesitate to use what you know. The main thing is not how much French you know but that you approach them in their language.
Deux. Indirect Conversation
Once the introduction is done, you can get a conversation flowing in French, English, Franglais, or whatever. Using two languages always gives the possibility of getting some conversation going by simply explaining words, concepts, and differences. If you’re American, you’ll probably find that although the French are always ready to criticize the US in public, many of them secretly admire and envy its power and success regardless of the economic crisis ravaging even the US.
France is a country with a Latin culture, and it is expected that you ‘sell’ yourself and talk about your exceptional experiences and personality, contrary to Denmark, where you have to present yourself as modest, one out of the grey mass, as Roosh found out to his horror in Don’t Bang Denmark.
You need to be aware that the French often talk indirectly, in complete contrast with the more direct American way. Let’s stereotype a bit and ask for the salt:
US: “Salt, please.”
UK: “I’m terribly sorry, but I wonder if you would possibly allow me to ask you to be so kind as to pass me the salt, please.”
France: “I’d say a bit more salt would perhaps have brought out more of the flavor in this dish.”
The French will not always tell you in direct terms what they want. They have a tendency to speak in diplomatic and indirect phrases. You may need to continue the thoughts of the girl and figure out ‘so what would a woman want in this situation?’ I deliberately omitted the word ‘logical’ since—as most men know—a logical woman is an oxymoron. Look carefully for innuendos too.
Trois. Latin pride and secrecy
You will rarely hear a Frenchman admit he made a mistake, and even more rarely apologize for a mistake. According to the Latin roots of French culture, that would be seen as a weakness. If a retailer has goofed, and if you manage to convince him that he needs to compensate for it, the retailer will in most cases call the compensation a “commercial gesture.” The intention is to avoid losing face. Note the indirect element of this type of communication. Never mind that the example uses a retailer; this is the way the French think.
As well as saying things indirectly, the French are often minimalistic about the information they give out, as if there were a secret police waiting in hiding to arrest anyone who said too much. When you live in France for a long time like me, you notice a stark contrast with a country like the UK where the government makes a large number of informative and detailed leaflets available to people to explain administrative procedures and your rights and duties. Not so in France.
In the not so far past, French administrative documents used to be secret. Before the Internet started gaining acceptance in France, something that happened several years later than in the English-speaking world, it was very difficult to find such government documentation. The Internet has certainly helped, but even governmental information sites are still often incomplete.
I know you’re unlikely to be interested in French government, but I tell you this because governments are made up of people, so they function the way the people think. Many young women work in the civil service, so you will meet them in the Paris nightlife anyway. Talking about the French civil service, the concept promotion de canapé (sofa promotion) refers to the way some of these attractive young women get promoted. Before Jacques Chirac became president of France, he was mayor of the Paris city hall where he was known as tonton braguette (uncle zipper) among the young secretaries because of his womanizing. I was told this by a former city hall secretary. Money and power attracts bangs in France—forget about political correctness.
The French care a great deal about their privacy, and it can look like something close to an obsession the way some of them value every single bit of information as if it were something that could put them in prison. Withholding information and speaking indirectly are both a type of diplomatic behavior that can require great communication skills to match. Don’t try to wiggle out of a debate that is getting too complicated for you with a silly joke or pun as you would in a British pub. It will neither be understood nor appreciated.
Quatre. French Humor
Another minefield is humor, sarcasm, and irony. Forget everything you know about American and British humor. What I just said is indirect language for ‘avoid humor until you understand French humor, whatever that is.’ I’m still not sure after 14 years in France.
The French tend to take things more literally and seriously, and will not catch British subtleties. It may seem contradictory that they take things literally, since I just said they speak indirectly, but what they would take literally is their interpretation of what you just said, after a diplomatic decoding, if necessary. The French diplomatic decoding does not work the same way as the British decoding of subtleties. As you can see, this can become extremely complicated, so watch your step. Try to avoid complicated subjects unless you know what you’re doing.
So what is French humor? Imitations of politicians seem to amuse the French, particularly when someone has goofed, like Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who took his womanizing too far. Sexism and immature jokes about sex are also popular on French TV, typically in the form of a discussion panel of all men except for one attractive young woman with big ‘attributes.’ Actors making silly faces and acting in an exaggerated way, like Louis de Funès, are popular; not that there are many of them, so the French still laugh at the late de Funès. A French movie is not a real French movie if a few big-busted women don’t bare at least their tops, preferably more. Apart from that, your guess about what French humor is as good as mine.
Let’s end number quatre with a quote by the French Green Card and Cyrano de Bergerac actor Gérard Dépardieu who was once thrown off a plane after peeing in the aisle: “[The British] are people who have a great sense of humor. It is the French who are cretins.” Do yourself a favor and do not repeat that in France.
Cinq. Equality between sexes. Not.
You might wonder if you stand a chance against the stereotyped, romantic French seducer who, in Hollywood productions, always speaks English with an accent like the French singer Charles Aznavour. You certainly have a chance. French men are ordinary guys like you. Forget the stereotype. The difference is simply that they have fewer inhibitions, and they know that gallantry and showing off their advantages still works in France.
Holding a door for a woman is normal in France and won’t earn you an assault like the “I’m a grown-up woman perfectly capable of holding a door myself, you sexist jerk” response followed with the 400-pound lady flattening you against the wall while bulldozing through the door. That is, unless you happen to stumble upon a female American tourist.
French women ask for equal salaries, an end to discrimination, and full equality, just as elsewhere, but in a sense, they want to have their cake and eat it too, since they won’t give up female privileges. It is still widely presumed in France that the man is the main breadwinner. If a woman is talking about her insufficient income, she may well be asked, “but aren’t you married, Madam?” presuming that the man alone earns sufficient money for the family and that the woman’s income is just an optional extra. The equal rights stuff is much more of a façade than in the US, the UK, and the Nordic countries.
Some French women quite openly target guys who have enough money to keep them in comfortable lifestyles without their having to work—outside the bedroom, that is. They have no qualms about this, and they would expect a quite liberal access to the man’s credit card in return for their sexual favors. In a case I know, the man ended up having enough after his girlfriend emptied his credit card account to buy shoes when she should have done the shopping. One day, he moved without telling her in advance or leaving a new address.
Six. All the French are happy about the great French lifestyle. Or?
When you speak to the French, it’s fine to mention the classic advantages of France, gastronomy, nature, art, monuments, and all that. But you don’t want to take this so far as to appear as a naïve teenager who has learnt his tourist guide by heart. As an adult, you know there is a backside of the medal, and while you don’t need to highlight the negative parts, it’s no good to pretend they don’t exist.
Before bursting out how happy the girl must be to live in such a great country, take some time to make her talk about how happy or not she is herself to avoid stereotyping her. Many French are truly happy about their lifestyle, but many others are faced with problems such as the 10% unemployment, the financial crisis, unsuitable housing, 7 million living in poverty, and so on. Others may be stuck in the Kafkaesque and sometimes corrupt French administration or justice, struggling with favoritism and lack of humanity in the way they are treated.
I have never seen so many depressed people as in France. The hard statistics make France rank third in suicide rates in Western Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand after Finland and Belgium. The rate is twice as high for French farmers. A survey comparing France, the UK, Germany and Italy placed France as the largest consumer of antidepressants. The background for this is partially a paternalistic state that meddles in everything people do, leaving less individual and financial freedom than in many other western countries. France is what many Americans would call a ‘socialist paradise’.
There is no need to take the initiative to talk about negative subjects, but if the girl starts, some compassion and understanding will be well received. You don’t have to suggest a lot of solutions, although you don’t risk much by suggesting that politicians are incompetent idiots everywhere. Women simply like someone lending them an ear.
Sept. Ze Lazy French
The French are perceived as lazy, but is it true? Yes and no. In private companies, the French seem as productive as elsewhere, but in the civil service and semi-public companies, the lifestyle may be more laid-back with long and numerous coffee and chatting breaks, and long lunch hours. Among the unemployed, many turn down job offers if they are not the perfect jobs. To their defense, it has to be said that because of the reduction of social allowances, if they start working, they may end up earning almost the same as if they didn’t work, and in some cases, they will earn less. So long as the state pays them for not working, and so long as working more doesn’t really improve their situation, why work?
For the French youth seeking employment, three out of four consider a civil servant career attractive. The only reason for that is that it’s a job for life where it’s impossible to be laid off, and where they don’t have to work too hard. You won’t find many aiming for the sky. Everything and everybody have to fit into pre-defined ‘boxes,’ and there is no ‘box’ for unconventional people. The French business culture is quite the opposite of the US.
Capitalism, profit, privatization, and globalization are dirty words in France. The French have been brainwashed by their politicians to believe that free markets are the root of all evil attacking the French lifestyle, and that turning the clock back to the 1950s and closing the borders would solve all their problems. Hence, the French are scared to death about the future and any change. All the French political parties support a big, all-controlling state and its corporatism.
Huit. Rules are there to be broken
While the French want a big state to take care of them, they don’t like to abide by its rules. It’s difficult to write about France without including some clichés, so it’s quote time again:
In England, everything is permitted, except what’s prohibited.
In Germany, everything is prohibited, except what’s permitted.
In France, everything is permitted, even what’s prohibited.
In the USSR, everything is prohibited, even what’s permitted.
The French would not appreciate a word as direct as cheating, but whatever they call it, that’s their national sport. If they see their opportunity to steal something without being caught, they don’t see anything wrong with that. It’s part of their mentality. There is no social stigma associated with cheating even if caught. That was just bad luck, as when someone snatches a parking space just before you.
Stealing and cheating is a God-given right in France. The French have many rights but few duties. They have a right to spend more than they earn. They have a right to a comfortable life, five weeks paid vacation, strikes, long lunch breaks, long weekends, blockades, making mistakes, or at least that is how the French perceive things. The trouble is that honesty often doesn’t pay in France. Another problem is that French politicians are just as dishonest as everybody else and regularly involved in scandals, so they set a bad example.
I think he [Dominique Strauss-Kahn] is a bit like all the French, a bit arrogant. Besides, I don’t really like the French.”
Gérard Dépardieu, March 2012.
— Fin —
‘Hey, wait a minute,’ I suppose you’ll say now, ‘there are only eight points. You said ten things you’ve learned in France! You’re cheating!’
My reply: never trust that what you get has anything to do with the promises in France. The French cheat. That’s how it is, and that’s how it’s always going to be. WYSINWYG is a main rule in France.
Finn Skovgaard has been a Danish1) expat since 1993 and lived in England1), Luxembourg1), Germany1), and since 1998 in France1). A former IT specialist, Finn has worked in freelance writing, web editing, translation, relocation service, and tourism the last ten years. Finn is the author of Streetwise-France.com, a practical guide to living, working, and traveling in France, and the French Page and the Danish Page with sarcastic and critical views, the latter confirming Roosh’s very negative experiences in Denmark, as described in his book Don’t Bang Denmark.
1) Explanation for American readers: Denmark, England, Luxembourg, Germany, and France are European countries. They live in houses and apartments, not mud huts, and they have refrigerators, cars, and computers.