… probably the most appropriate first word for my first article on this blog. And possibly the most important French word of all!
A word that opens doors
The French often have a reputation for being arrogant and not very open to foreigners and/or foreign languages. This may be true for some, but in my opinion, most French people are simply insecure about other languages. French people tend to place a very high value on correct language. They are generally uncomfortable with the idea of making mistakes in any language, be it their own or a foreign one. This often results in a defensive attitude, which is interpreted as arrogance or unfriendliness by the people concerned, i.e. foreigners.
This knowledge may help a little to understand the reactions better, but it does not solve the situation that has arisen. So what can you do?
No matter where (bakery, asking for directions, lift etc.), ALWAYS start your conversation with „Bonjour“. This word opens doors. It is by far the most important word in the French language for any foreigner – and the French themselves!
And when I say „always“, I mean „always“. In Germany, it is quite common and not necessarily impolite to start a conversation for example with a shop assistant, with a simple „Excuse me, please“. For example: „Excuse me please, where can I find the cheese?“ You will usually get a satisfactory answer.
In France, on the other hand, they will probably turn around and answer your „Excusez moi…“ with a „Oui, Bonjour!?“ delivered in a reproachful tone, letting you know that they think you are probably the rudest creature on the planet. However, if you preface the question with a simple „Bonjour!“, the person’s behaviour usually changes dramatically. And in many cases this is true even if your French is otherwise rather weak.
When I arrived, my French was, to put it kindly, atrocious. However, before our move, I was allowed to take part in an intercultural training in Germany and was therefore at least warned about the different customs.
So on my first visits to my local bakery (in an area with little to no tourists), I had the opportunity to observe the other customers in the queue in front of me. Before it was my turn to order, I heard a lot of „Bonjour“ answered by „Bonjour Madame“ or „Bonjour Monsieur“ – every time a new customer approached the counter. So it was my turn, I said „Bonjour“ (when in Rome… well, you know) and painstakingly ordered what I wanted using the phrases I had practised beforehand.
And of course, at the beginning they didn’t really understand what I wanted and I didn’t really comprehend their queries. But I always had the feeling that they at least made an effort. And since I came back every day, we became used to each other after a short time. Admittedly, the fact that I was almost always accompanied by my then 5-week-old son also helped – French people love babies (but more on that in another article).
What I’m saying is that if you put in a little effort, you usually get friendly behaviour back as a reward.
Helpful phrases to start with
„Je suis desolée, mais mon français n’est pas très bien…“
„J’aimerais… deux Croissants, s’il vous plaît.“ (or whatever you want)
„Au Revoir“ / „Bonne journée“ (Good bye / Have a nice day)
„Excusez-moi?“ / „Pardon?“ (if you didn’t understand something)
Oh, if you like it crispier bread, order a Tradition rather than a Baguette (it has a better crust than the traditional version – and I think it is delicious!)
Communication in France
The above is of course not based exclusively on my own experience. There are numerous publications, e.g. in the form of online articles or videos (such as the one inserted earlier by france24), which deal with this peculiarity. Entire books exist on the subject (for example „The Bonjour Effect: The Secret Codes of French Conversation Revealed“ by the Canadian authors Julie Barlow and Jean-Benoit Nadeau).
And they all agree that the little word „bonjour“ has great significance in France. It is an announcement for when you want to talk to someone. You are entering their territory to open a conversation.
Of course, it does not stop there. „Bonjour“ is merely the introduction to the explanation of the general differences in communication and gesture.
It is interesting that all these articles and books I have found online that deal with communication in everyday life are written in English.
In my Google search in German, I only came across pages offering helpful phrases for a holiday in France, similar to what you find in travel guides. I did not find any discussion of cultural peculiarities or differences.
The British and American authors (often bloggers and/or expatriates living in France), on the other hand, work intensively on these topics. Plus they don’t only provide explanations but also offer tips on how to behave properly as a tourist or expatriate. Which daily behaviour does not go down well and what you should do instead.
In German, I only found a few articles dealing with intercultural differences in communication at the workplace. (Confirmation of a cliché?)
Of course, I assume that there is more than enough documentation on the subject, but just nothing that would be easily accessible on the first pages of a Google search.
So if you know of any blogs, books or other articles that deal with the everyday differences between Germans and French – without focusing on working life – I’d be happy to receive such messages or comments.
Communication in the professional environment
In general, you have to know (and accept) that the codes of communication work differently in France than in German-speaking or even Anglophone countries. And this applies to both private and professional interactions. Unlike us Germans, the French tend to communicate implicitly. This means that messages are delivered indirectly. You could also say more „diplomatic“ (if you want to be nice, if you don’t want to be nice, you could say: unclear).
French people often feel run over by our German (direct or explicit) way of giving a lot of information. They are annoyed by our richness of detail and feel they are not taken seriously.
Germans, on the other hand, have to listen very carefully when French people speak to them. The messages often depend on the context and require interpretation. Many Germans who are in a professional environment in France often feel that information is being withheld from them.
You can find more background and good tips on how to improve communication in the article on the connexion-emploi platform (in German): Kommunikation im deutsch-französischen Kontext: wie man Missverständnisse im Beruf vermeidet – Die interkulturelle Kommunikation im deutsch-französischen Umfeld )
One example from my intercultural training is how to prepare a presentation for a pitch. I remember well the mammoth presentations at my former agency, which sometimes comprised up to 200 slides and highlighted every scenario. At the end of the presentation, the project was outlined in every detail in front of the potential clients. This being the basis for any decisions.
In France, such a procedure would simply be impossible. Here, the idea is first presented as enthusiastically as possible in a short presentation in order to pull the audience along, to win them over and convince them of the idea. Then you go out for lunch to get to know each other a bit. And if it fits (camaraderie, project design, etc.) only then you will go into detail.
Of course, this is all very abbreviated and perhaps a bit exaggerated (for better understanding), but after 3-1/2 years in France I can say that in the majority of cases it is true.
In conclusion – and this is my personal entirely subjective experience – a certain adaptation and imitation is key to friendliness. I have not had any xenophobic experiences so far (and I hope it stays that way). Most people have been extremely helpful and friendly to me so far. And if that should ever change, I have resolved to simply ignore these unpleasant specimens (which, by the way, exist everywhere in the world)!
You have questions or want to contribute something? I welcome any messages and comments!
And a special Thanks goes out to Laura Hunt-Guillaumin who was so kind to help me with proofreading and correcting my text.