In my experience, Brits moving to France definitely experience less of a culture shock than Americans. After all, the two countries are neighbours and share many characteristics and the sheer proximity means that you’re likely to have visited (probably on a school trip) and experienced some French culture before deciding to move here.
But while Americans are trying to figure out stick-shift automobiles (or ‘normal cars’ as we call them) and expressing amazement at the concept of decent paid holiday time and maternity leave (that’s just basic worker rights, guys) there are still some culture shocks for Brits who make the move.
Here are some of the things that blew my tiny mind when I first landed in France as a full-time resident.
This one varies according to where you are, but when I first arrived in small-town France in 2011 the 12-2 closure period of shops and offices was very strictly observed.
As was Sunday closing, which led to a hungry day when I decided that I would move all my stuff into my new apartment on Saturday and then stock up on essentials at the supermarket on Sunday. Big mistake.
In Paris things are a little more flexible and most places stay open all day, but I’ve still learned not to bother calling offices at lunchtime after overhearing a colleague on the phone ask if someone was available only to sternly be told “Non. C’est midi“.
Manners cost nowt
I liked to think I had decent manners before I moved, but I rapidly found out that these were not good enough for France and my lack of formalities and greetings was considered insufferably rude.
Starting every interaction with a bonjour and endlessly wishing a pleasant afternoon/evening/lunch/match to a succession of strangers has now become second nature, and I find it imposes a pleasant rhythm on everyday interactions.
So much so that last time I was in the UK I greeted the girl at the car hire desk with a formal ‘good evening’ and then paused for her response. She looked at me like I was insane until I produced the details of my car reservation.
As a reserved Brit I was mortified the first time that a stranger scolded me in public (for going to the wrong door at the mairie) but I’ve since come to accept that this is pretty common.
As a foreigner it’s not too surprising that you make mistakes, but French people often do it to each other as well and it’s not particularly unusual for strangers to scold kids who are behaving badly in a public place.
My most recent telling off was thoroughly deserved – on a packed tram and absorbed in my book I failed to notice that one of the standing passengers was heavily pregnant. An old lady scolded me for not giving up my seat and I actually think that’s a nice example of a community in action (obviously I gave up my seat).
Healthcare in France is pretty great but there are two big differences I noticed. The first is that GP consultations are much more holistic – my doctor always asks me if I’m sleeping well and am generally well, whatever I go in for, and a consultation will often include a general health check even if you’ve gone for something banal like a prescription for anti-malaria tablets before a holiday.
The second thing is that you always need to be wearing your best underwear for a trip to the doctor, as it will probably involve taking off at least some clothes. French doctors seem to feel that they haven’t done their job properly unless you have had a full examination, which can be pretty disconcerting for UK residents, where GP appointments are generally more limited.
Just don’t do what The Local’s Europe editor (and Paris resident) Ben McPartland did and end up naked on all fours in front of your doctor. They don’t like that.
Bureaucracy is a French word
Hardly an original observation, but yes French bureaucracy is something else. Things have changed and a lot more services are now online, but you can still expect to spend a fairly significant amount of time completing administrative tasks.
I once fondly imagined that I would one day be ‘done’ and have completed French admin. Now I know better, and try to picture it as a computer game, or maybe a Medieval quest, in which successfully completing one level simply leads you to the next one.
The magic key
But one thing I have learned about bureaucracy is the attestations are strangely powerful. You can frequently untangle a bureaucratic Gordian knot by offering to supply an attestation – a sworn statement – if you’re missing a vital bit of paperwork.
If you have exhausted all options and the fonctionnaire is sorrowfully telling you that something is simply not possible, offering an attestation can often magically make it possible. And now there’s a government website that drafts the document for you in the correct French legalese. Handy.
A few shandies
French people are – compared to Brits – not big drinkers, and tend to be a little quieter in public places too.
I’ve definitely noticed my weekly alcohol consumption dropping since moving to France – even with all that delicious and reasonably priced wine about. Likewise, it’s a good idea to dial down the volume slightly if you’re drinking with friends on a terrace, unless you want to be the subject of annoyed glances.
The exception to this is sports – French sports fans are extremely vocal and enjoy daytime beers (or three) so if you want to indulge your national tendency for rowdy drinking (I think it’s our Viking ancestry. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it) – head to the match.
The statutory annual holiday entitlement for workers in France and the UK is virtually identical (30 days to 28 days per year), so it’s not that the French take more holidays, it’s just that they prioritise them more.
Public holidays (of which there are more in France – 11 days a year versus 8 in the UK) are often followed with workers ‘doing the bridge’ or taking an extra holiday day to create a long weekend, and it’s simply to be expected that roads will be busy and many businesses closed or on reduced hours over holiday weekends.
Likewise the months of July and August are devoted to holidays and many shops simply put up cheery cardboard signs saying ‘see you in September’ and close up for a month.
Holidays feed into a wider sense of the work-life balance in France. It’s not that the French don’t work hard, in fact their workers are among the most productive in Europe, but the private/family life is prioritised.
The only Michelin-starred restaurant in the town where I first lived did not open on Saturdays because the owner liked to take his kids to the match on a Saturday. Make more money by opening on the busiest day of the week or spend precious family time with your children? A no-brainer for him.
A better work/life balance is one of the biggest reasons people give for moving here, and a recent report into foreign investment in France mentioned that one reason that foreign companies like France is that it’s easy to persuade their employees to move here.
France’s dedication to work-life balance is actually good for work, as well as for life.
Certain sections of the UK – mostly tabloids – indulge in enthusiastic ‘French-bashing’ and it’s generally assumed that this is reciprocated in France.
Not so. In fact, in my experience most French people feel pretty warmly towards Brits as a nation and find our accents charming or even sexy.
When it comes to political spats, France generally reserves these for the Germans or the US while its cross-Channel neighbour is largely not seen as significant enough to row with. Likewise, while French papers do report on British news (especially anything to do with royals) it would be very surprising for a tabloid to devote its front page to a cartoon of a UK prime minister depicted as a worm.
If you’re Scottish, Welsh or Irish, however, you will need to get used to the fact that the French use les anglais to refer to all natives of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
Emma Pearson lived in south-west France from 2011-2013 and since 2019 has been happily installed in Paris. Do you agree with her culture shocks? Share your views in the comments below