West Virginia University in Vendée, France

"La Vie de tous les jours..."

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As you know, Amercian and French cultures are closely related and share many common behaviors and assumptions.  There are, however, some aspects of French life that may surprise, frustrate, or charm the first-time American visitor.  The key thing to keep in mind in such situations is that the French are very tolerant of what they call the "faux pas" (the mis-step), especially when the newcomer shows good humor, generosity, and a willingness to accept customs not immediately understandable.

Aware that sometimes it's the small things that count, a part of our discussions and activities during WVU-V will be devoted to exploring and understanding differences that, while relatively trivial, can sometimes produce some awkward situations or unintended reactions.

Perhaps the most important thing a "student" of culture should keep in mind is that our mission is not to alter the behavior of our hosts but rather to understand and to adapt to them.  While in France, we are learners, not missionaries of the "American Way of Life" (whatever form it may take).  Many customs in France may seem quite perplexing, but there is often a hidden logic that goes far to explain French behavior.

More of the hidden secrets below, but first an important general note.  In a recent set of surveys be Dr. Pauline Nelson of Bethany College, French and American respondents answered overwhelmingly that  FAMILY  was the most important value for their own culture.  Number two for Americans can be left aside.  For an American student of French, it is vital to understand that FOOD is second most important cultural value for people in France.  Very few things will help or hinder your integration into French culture more than your willingness to enjoy a meal in a communal or familial setting.  The link to the National Public Broadcasting report below gives some insight into this from a very American perspective:

   http://www.npr.org/ramfiles/me/20021001.me.12.ram (the RealAudio report)
NPR Morning Edition for October 1, 2002 (look for the report called "Dinner Party Problems.")

Now for a few other "secrets" of French culture.  One of the hidden customs that is now disappearing even in France is the "gentleman" going through the door before the "lady."  This occurs when going into a public place like a restaurant or café.  The reason is obvious when you think about it.  No man would let a woman enter first into such places without exposing himself first to the "dangers" that may lurk in an area accessible to just anyone.  This is surely a tradition that dates from the days of the sword on the belt and the feather in the cap!

Most of this page will deal with questions more contemporary in nature.

Here are a few brief examples:

Of course inside the real home, practices can also be fairly ritualized, and they often reflect a very strong distinction between public and private space.  One thing you will notice is that French homes are almost always surrounded by walls, whose function is to set out strict delineations between the public and the private spheres.  The French are in fact perplexed by the American tendency to have open yards and gardens around their homes.  Inside the house, space is also clearly delineated.

Quite obviously the most important room in the house is the dining room.  A meal in France is not simply a moment dedicated to the nourishment of the body;  it is indeed a time for social and even spiritual replenishment.   It also takes place in the most hallowed of French spaces -- the dining room or "la salle à manger".  If you know French, you know that the word "salle" refers to  a room providing space to be shared with others.  The French generally do not eat alone, nor to they eat in a bedroom, bathroom, or even a classroom!  

What the French eat can be equally perplexing to Americans.  While exceptions are infinite in both cultures, it seems often that Americans tend to define themselves by what they refuse to eat or drink.  The French tend to take pride in the variety of foods that make up a fine meal.  They use one of the most important terms in the language to describe this variety:  «équilibre».  You will surely notice that even the simplest of French repasts includes at least three "courses" and the more formal will run to seven or even ten -- each composed of a series of foods of differing nature, and each often accompanied by a different wine or other drink.  By our standards, the French diet includes a variety of items -- both animal and vegetable -- that are not even available in the States.

Our own experience in the past has shown that among our students, the reaction to this situation can be classed in three categories: 1) delight, 2) indifference, 3) disgust.   The categories are generally equally represented among American youth, but your success in understanding France can be greatly affected by the one into which you fall.  If you are delighted by French cuisine, you are already one up in the eyes of your hosts.  If you are indifferent, you can always manage with a certain facility.  If you are "disgusted" -- the word literally means having "no taste" -- you will have more difficulty fully enjoying your experience "à table" -- as will your hosts, whether they be your family, your friends, or the servers and chefs in the restaurants where you dine (remember, when you enter a business, you also enter a "home".  You will need to be aware, though, that your job in France is not to reform or to convert French eating habits to fit yours -- and  of course this would apply to any other culture you seek to adapt to.  As we noted earlier, the surest strategy involves good humor, generosity of spirit, and a willingness to sacrifice some of the "convenience" of being back home.  The rewards of such a successful adaptation can  be great, and they are certainly worth the effort on your part.  The meal in France, whether in you host family or in our restaurants on the road, is among the most sacrosanct of our activities.

Needless to say, the behavior that surrounds the nearly holy ceremony of meal can at times differ from the practices we know in America.   We have designed a few pages that will help illustrate some of these "subtleties".

Following are a series pages based on photos we took of our son Alexander when he was a very young man.  He is demonstrating some acceptable and unacceptable practices around the dining table.  Try to guess what he is doing right or wrong.

Follow this link the "A Table!" pages.

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