Cultural Misunderstandings

William - Osterville, Massachusetts
Entered on August 23, 2008
Age Group: Under 18
Themes: community, place

Perhaps most misunderstood about France are the people. Renowned for exquisiteness and savoir vivre, the French have garnered varying reputations from tourists. Whatever can be said about disgruntled American tourists, I think they simply did not stay long enough. Therefore, I believe that those who dismiss cultures have not taken enough time to understand them.

The best piece of advice—one I happily borrowed—was to forget everything I knew about France. The France I encountered was not a land of croissants and the Eifel Tower, of bonnets and bicycles, or of short egomaniacs and white flags. The thirty-five hour workweek and endless vacations are more mythical than actual. France is often brushed off as a once-glorious empire, a trivial player on the global stage. Learning French, I was told, is not pragmatic. But the reality is that France is a dynamic, fascinating culture.

To the average tourist, this is not evident. A week spent in Paris can produce false understandings. Stepping off the plane and into Charles de Gaulle airport where the staff is seemingly rude, anyone could be forgiven for having a bad first impression. Once in Paris, one forgets that this splendid setting is actually a city—with busy and unapologetic people. An attempt to ask where the Louvre is—in English, no less—can and does elicit gruff unhelpfulness. The smoking in public—a problem that the French state has taken steps to reduce—and the homeless people in the subway all conspire to create an image of an elitist, hostile country. Why would visit, much less live here? Why do so many people fall in love with the French and their French approach to life?

I spent my junior year of high school living in a city in western France called Rennes. I spoke passable French. I made efforts with French that were empathetically received, despite my shortcomings. This has taught me something: trust your own experiences over rusted truisms. During my experience abroad, I have learned that all the French cannot be herded together into one flock. The rude, hostile French, moreover, are the rare black sheep. My American passport was a source of intrigue, never a point of criticism or scorn.

The time it took me to learn French equaled the time it took to comprehend French culture. French may not be the most practical language to learn today. But learning French is instrumental for understanding the French—and this revelation is surely valuable.

I stayed in France for nine months—longer than most who visit. A brief tour of Paris provides beautiful architecture and haute cuisine, but it cannot begin to provide explanations of the French. But many base their judgments on these brief trips and similar anecdotal stereotypes. Understanding is not necessary for appreciating France, but a small recognition of cultural ignorance and a healthy tolerance for doing things differently can transform a typical trip into a bon voyage.