(Culture clash. Photo by: www.liveandlearn.com)
I recently came across an article by Crucial Conversations about how to handle culture clash in the workplace (http://www.crucialskills.com/2014/07/when-cultures-clash-2/). They’re a company who writes books, conducts training and webinars and provides information on how to talk effectively about difficult things without letting emotions get in the way. Their advice is really great and if you haven’t checked them out already you should- having good communication skills will help you in all aspects of your life. Anyhoo, this article reminded me that culture clash is something that not only happens in the ever growing global workplace, but also in the study abroad experience. One of the main reasons that I had a hard time adjusting to life in Paris during my first semester was culture clash. I had not researched current French culture besides what I learned in French class (which really was nothing) so when I got there, I didn’t understand why Tatie and the French didn’t understand me and why they did things differently than I expected. Let’s take a look at what culture clash is, how to avoid it, and what the most common ones are between French and American cultures so you know what to look out for.
What is culture clash?
It’s a misunderstanding or disagreement between 2 or more cultures. It can be linguistic, behavioral/cultural, religious, or a combination of all three.
How do you avoid it?
It’s important to understand that just because you aim to avoid culture clash doesn’t mean that you will be all-knowing about the other culture. It simply means that you will not butt heads over the differences or take offense to what the other culture is doing/believing/behaving. The best way to do this is to read news stories, observe people of that culture, and ask questions to gain a better understanding. In an article I wrote for StudentUniverse, I found out about an offensive hand/arm gesture in France called a quenelle from a Yahoo! France article. What is just a way of standing around in the USA is considered Anti-Semitic body language in France. You wouldn’t have known that if you didn’t read about it in advance and it’s one of those things that you don’t want to discover abroad! News stories are often really great ways to find out the values, beliefs and norms of a culture- best sources are the ones that are actually from that culture (ex: Yahoo! France, Le Monde….). A story written in English about the French culture is good but not as good as a French person writing about French culture. Observation is also a really great way to learn about cultural norms. Just sit in a Parisian park or a café for a few hours and you’ll really pick up some French behavior. But the best thing to do is to ask questions. Ask your program director, your host family, your classmates. Find out why the people of the host culture are doing the things they do to better understand. It doesn’t mean that you’ll always agree with them but at least you won’t be fighting them tooth and nail about your differences.
( A great place to observe French culture. Photo by hipparis.com)
Common Franco-American Culture Clashes
Is that convenient for you? In America, this is a snotty phrase that someone uses when they don’t really care if something works for you and they want to show you how little they care. It is always offensive even when said in a nicer tone. In French, est-ce que ça vous convient is very formal, polite French. I use this phrase all the time with co-workers to find out if the new meeting time will work for them. It’s not brash or rude, it’s just common courtesy in French culture/language. If someone in French asks you this, they are genuinely trying to find out if something will work for you and are not trying to be rude. Don’t take offense to this and be sure to leave the snot off when asking this question in return.
Am I bothering you? This is the not so distant cousin of “is that convenient for you”? Anytime I’ve used or been asked this question in English, it’s always with an attitude. My fellow Anglophone isn’t really interested if now is a good time for me to do them a favor or if it’s ok to interrupt what I’m currently doing to talk to them. It’s another snotty, snarky way of showing your disregard for the other person. French culture is all about not bothering people as it’s considered rude to assume you can just stop someone in their tracks for your own personal needs. In France, if you call someone (particularly if it’s for a work related matter or favor), be sure to ask je te dérange? before continuing your conversation. Often times the person will say non, meaning they can stop what they’re doing and talk to you, but if they say yes just ask when is a better time to contact them. If your cell phone dies and you need the time or if you’re desperately lost in Paris and need help from a stranger, be sure to start your conversation with either of these phrases: Veuillez m’excuser de vous déranger, Pardonnez- moi de vous déranger, Excusez- moi de vous déranger…. If you don’t start the conversation like this, you are being rude to assume the person is able to help you at that exact moment.
Please, Please, Please! In French, you can never say please enough. All French major/minor students know that the conditional is the best way to ask for a favor but did you know that most French speakers also add in “please” with it? This is really common in written communication. For example, if I wanted a classmate to help me with translation homework, I would say pourrais-tu stp m’aider avec ce devoir de traduction? Stp/svp are the written abbreviations of s’il te plaît/s’il vous plaît- you only write this but don’t actually say s-t-p /s-v-p. In French culture, it’s true that you can get more bees with honey (or please) than without.
(Please, please, please with sugar on top. www.houzz.com)
Should I stay or should I go now? Raise your hand if you’re American and have left while someone was eating or had it happen to you- your hands should all be raised. In the USA, our motto is time is money so for us, time is very important and we don’t like wasting it on things like eating or keeping someone company while they eat. In France, eating is a pleasurable experience and it’s even better when shared. It is very rude to just get up and leave while someone is eating, especially if it was only just you two. Now there are times when duty or class calls and you have to leave during lunch. In these situations, make sure to mention this at the beginning of your meal and be bummed that you’ll have to leave early. When it’s time to go, be sure to excuse yourself and the occasional je suis désolé(s) doesn’t hurt either.
Pour on the honey or go straight for the hive? Remember that thing about being polite and never saying please too much in French? Well that goes hand in hand with this next point- being direct. Since American culture is all about time is money, we don’t like to waste time talking around things when it’s more efficient to just be direct. Direct speech and manner is very American but is not very French. Going straight for the proverbial bee hive whether it be for something positive or negative is seen as brash in French culture and you won’t get very far. You don’t have to go crazy with beating around the bush but starting off your conversation with Bonjour, ça va? et puis-je te parler can go a long way.
(Pooh was onto something. Photo by www.pinterest.com)
Cultural immersion is the best but also most difficult part of studying abroad. You don’t have to completely embrace and agree with French culture but you must accept it. Knowing these few ways to avoid cultural clashes will help you to have a smoother transition into French culture/life and make your experience abroad less stressful. Bonne chance!