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, the French place a great deal of value on fashion and maintaining a presentable appearance.
In the world of style, the French combine their love of logic with wit, flair, and elegance. This is most famously manifested in French fashion and cuisine [The French Culinary Experience: Great Food and Wine]. They even have their own term “haute couture,” or “high fashion,” for their elaborate and uniquely French approach to design, which includes perfume, makeup, and accessories. It’s not only a major industry, but has iconic status worldwide. If you live and work regularly in France, you will find it is important, especially for women, to be well-dressed and properly coiffed.
For the French, style and flair in presentation is essential. They despise boredom, or “ennui,” and enjoy arguing so much that they will take the opposite side just for the fun of debating. They need to feel intellectual validity in everything they do, and if their attention is not engaged, they will actively show their displeasure by going off on tangential conversations, talking on their phones, or simply getting up and leaving a meeting.
Of course, humor is not typically expected in business meeting, but the French do love to be amused, as long as it is done intelligently. They enjoy wordplay, satire, and rhetorical devices, rather than practical jokes or slapstick comedy. If you watch a talk show in France, you’ll notice contributors try to outdo each other with quick-witted responses and clever observations. Whether deciding what to wear, what to say, what attitude to adopt, or what side to take in an argument, the French will do it with panache.
At one point in time, one knew when a Parisian girl had found a boyfriend: she suddenly came to her senses, became more conscious of her hair, and started wearing lipstick. Although it may not be as obvious to know when a French girl has a boyfriend nowadays, style and dress consciousness remains an essential characteristic of French culture. For men, “de rigueur” (the regular) includes donning suits with bright ties and pleasant smelling aftershave. For women, it’s about looking “soignée,” or cared for by showing attentiveness to hair, skin, clothing, and accessories. In fact, a French woman or man making a quick stop at the grocery store might not look any different than one dressed for a vacation. It’s rare to see the French unkempt.
Have no fear that you are overdressed for a social event. Dress for cocktail and dinner parties includes nice shoes and dark suits for men and simple, elegant dresses and shoes for women. Don’t be fooled if a host or hostess advises you to not dress up. It doesn’t quite mean you can show up in jeans and a t-shirt unless they’re neat, pressed Armani jeans with a Yves St. Laurent or Christian Lacroix top.
A rather agreeable quality about the French is their appreciation and eye for elegance and style in other people. “Vous êtes très élégant(e)” (“You look wonderful”) should be received as an honest compliment rather than a come-on. One French woman walked into the Galeries Lafayette in Paris one day and received a non-verbal compliment from a man, evident in his gaze. She refers to the 30 seconds as the greatest love affair she’d ever had.
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