Before you begin working your way to foreign language fluency, it helps to understand the culture behind the language you’re learning. After all, language exists to help a group of people express their ideas and beliefs. France is an old country with a rich history and culture. As you begin your French language program, gaining a strong grasp on this history, the values, and the etiquette will help you rapidly achieve success. In particular, having a conversation in French is a great way to connect with the people there, but you’ll want to make sure you avoid certain topics to gain the most from the experience.
French culture is very social, so don’t expect to live on your own island while you’re there. Isolation and social anxiety can put a damper on a comfortable stay in France. Finding ways to build rapport with your neighbors [Forming Friendships in France] can add quality and meaning to your stay in France. If you struggle with shyness, try taking small steps to be social, as it could go a long way! The French take pride in having good conversations, and they value skillful dialogue and expressiveness. There will always be timid people; there are even timid French people. However, you should try to make some kind of contribution to the conversation. You can practice by anticipating some common questions and phrases. Ask yourself the common questions and repeat common phrases that you hear regularly as you are passing by conversations and observing business transactions, and be sure to respond to yourself as if you’re talking to another person. This is good preparation for actual conversation.
More so, get to know the people in your community by visiting merchants like the butcher and bakery regularly. French culture is based on healthy relationships among neighbors. If they are just a little familiar with you, they will go out of their way to provide great service. They will love the attention and want to please you by selling you their best products and services, catering to your desires. This is true throughout France, from Provence to Paris.
While the French will discuss a great variety of topics with a new acquaintance, family is not one of them. In the US and UK, asking questions like “are you married” or “do you have any kids” is commonplace. Just don’t ask these questions with a French acquaintance, unless they bring it up. Don’t offer information about your family, and don’t ask for information about theirs. Pets are a completely different story, especially if you identify a common love for cats, dogs, or other common animal.
The French would much rather discuss current public topics, a controversial sports match, or the latest international business trends than find out how old you are or how much money you make. And they really don’t care that your daughter is on the Dean’s list. Perhaps the worst thing you can do to try to liven up a conversation with a French business associate is to air your company’s dirty laundry, even jokingly. And don’t disparage industry competitors or former employers.
General chat about politics and religion are acceptable, but that doesn’t mean you should share your personal political convictions, religious beliefs, or anything else that might be too personal.
When it comes to humor, avoid dry humor and forget irony altogether. Try to be charming as opposed to funny. Try to be witty instead of telling jokes. Do not ever tell jokes that rely on base humor or that are sexist, racist, or intolerant.
The French love to chat, especially about politics, but there are certain things that are better left unsaid. An example is their war history is a touchy subject, with the Second World War, Algerian War of Independence, and the French war in Indochinabeing particularly painful. Any of these wars could have impacted the life of whomever you’re speaking with. They may have family members that suffered dearly as a result, and any reminder, however slight or innocent, may open old wounds. Unless the subject is introduced to you in conversation, you should avoid it. Globalization is also a touchy subject for the French, so tread lightly, or not at all. When discussing politics, you may notice the French are partial to their own political system, so any negative comments made by them during the conversation will more than likely be said about your country’s system.
French conversations in general, should be kept light and brief. Although they love to talk, the French get bored easily and often comment about the British and Americans’ style of conversation being too long and drawn out, in other words rambling on and on, and otherwise dominating the conversation without letting others get a word in here and there. A successful French conversation consists of chatting, interrupting, and being interrupted. The key is to keep it moving and flowing.
French life is characterized by long, zealous conversations on varying subjects. Though food is a bit more important, it is often just the gateway to conversation that can last for hours. Conversation is not only carried out over the dinner table; the French can converse anywhere, making a trip to the market or a chance meeting with a friend much lengthier than expected.
To onlookers, French conversation resembles an aggressive squabble, but the French are raised to be competitive, so conversations include loud tone, quick responses, interrupting and a lot of gesticulations. Conversations can be emotional and sensitive, but this doesn’t stop them from using a fair share of offensive satire and wit.
During a conversation, remember your manners and that “brevity is the soul of wit.” Foreigners bore the French when it takes them too long to verbalize an idea. So no soliloquies or rambling. The French don’t like to bore anyone, so try not to bore them. Don’t use too much slang in any language, and be sure to swallow all your food before speaking.
French conversation doesn’t have a lot of taboos, but you should avoid asking someone how much she or he makes or paid for something. Furthermore, “what do you do?” is not the norm in France. Also, discussing politics is one thing, but asking someone about his or her political or religious affiliation is impolite. Overall, just try not to ask too many personal questions during an initial meeting. The French like their privacy.
Lastly, try not to make fun of French heroes, as the French take pride in them. Use judgment when discussing historical events, especially war. Older citizens may become sensitive to discussions about the Second World War. Furthermore, the Algerian War may stir up issues with colonization and racism, so be sensitive to the vibes of your group members.
The French adore lively conversation. The only thing they adore more is an American or British person who can keep up. It’s not enough to be prepared to talk shop with your French business counterpart. Be prepared to debate and voice your opinion. You must be able to speak well, with passion and confidence, and not just about the business at hand.
Know what’s going on in the world. Stay abreast of local news. Check out the internet and newspapers to find out what locals might be interested in discussing. As the French say, “It’s not enough to be witty. It’s important to use it wittily.” How you speak and conduct yourself are as crucial to bonding with the French as what you say. A profound take or an unusual opinion will inspire your French conversation partner to take notice. If you can’t come up with a brilliant perspective, then show sincere interest in what your French friend is saying. Ask questions. Be engaged.
A highly respected British fundraiser claimed that the secret to furthering a conversation with a French person boiled down to two words: “Oh vraiment ?” (“Oh really?”). The idea is to encourage your host to carry on talking about whatever he or she is passionate about. Add your complete attention and receptive body language, and you’ll win their respect.
The French love to discuss wine, cuisine, sports, and current events. They love to hear about your impressions of their country and culture. But remember, avoid getting too personal and try to steer clear of topics that the French generally prefer to keep private.