This article is part of my series, “Meet the Expats.” This time we’re talking to author, editor, and writing coach Janet Hulstrand, who lives in Essoyes, a village in Champagne. Janet has written a charming and informative book called, Demystifying the French: How to Love Them, and Make Them Love You, a guide that delves into the cultural differences between the French and the rest of us. It’s a must if you plan to visit or live in France. I’ve asked Janet some burning questions about the culture gap and how to bridge it.
Lisa: Why did you decide to write this book?
Janet: For many years I’ve watched Americans get off to a bad start in France simply because there are a few absolutely essential rules of etiquette that are not necessarily obvious to foreigners. Since not knowing them often leads to that myth of the French being rude, or cold, I wanted to present these rules in a very quick, easy to understand format so that Americans (and other foreigners too) would have a better chance at having a positive experience in France. In the first part of my book I outline and briefly explain five of those rules. The second part goes into more detail about “the French mentality,” for those who want to dig a bit deeper.
Lisa: What’s the biggest myth about the French that needs debunking pronto?
Janet: The biggest myth is that the French are “rude, arrogant, and they hate Americans.” Two of these three labels are definitely not true: most French people are not rude, and they do not hate Americans. As for the third: well, though I am a pretty committed Francophile, even I have to admit that there is a characteristic national pride that can, and sometimes does, translate into a kind of arrogance. The French are not alone in this, of course.
L: One of my biggest pet peeves is when I’m with an American friend in Paris and they’ll just launch into English without first asking, “Parlez-vous français?” as a courtesy. You talk about this, too, in your book. What are some other key things you’d like travelers in France to know about French habits and culture in order to have the most positive experience on their turf?
J: The most important thing to know is the importance of beginning any interaction with a French person with the word “Bonjour.” I think it’s also important, especially for Americans, to be willing to slow down a bit, and adapt to a generally slower pace of life. This can be hard for us to do, but it’s one of the great rewards of spending time in France. I have a whole chapter in the second part of my book on “The Importance of Taking Your Time.”
L: What is the most frustrating trait of the French mind that will tweak the last nerve of an American in France?
J: I think it is probably the inclination of French people to approach almost any situation in a reflexively negative manner—“C’est impossible!”—which is precisely the opposite of the typically American approach to life.
L: This is what makes me the most crazy, too. I also write about this. Why do you think they default to the negative?
J: I think there are multiple reasons for it: some are fairly straightforward, having to do with a host of rules, laws, or cultural expectations that frown on, or outright forbid, certain behaviors or actions. Others, I think, are quite nuanced and complicated, having to do with a general approach to childrearing and education that, unlike the American approach, does not shy away from negative remarks and criticism; and even a different system of law (the famous Napoleonic Code!). In any case, I think it is an overarching cultural trait that affects French life and French attitudes in a myriad of ways, and one that Americans find very difficult to understand.
L: Any advice on how to deal with that?
J: I think the best way to deal with this is to be bemused by it, rather than annoyed. Because the thing is, the French are every bit as good at problem solving as Americans are. They just have to precede the facing of every challenge by saying that whatever the challenge is, it is not possible to solve it. Then they go ahead and solve it, just like we do.
L: Is there a surprising characteristic about the French that you only discovered by living among the locals?
J: I’m not sure about surprising characteristics. But one does continually discover surprising details of etiquette. There seems to be no end to the very specific little rules that order French life. It takes a long time to discover some of them. I think it helps to fundamentally accept that the French are complicated, and that is part of what makes them so interesting.
L: Visitors to Paris may not understand that Paris is not a good representation of the rest of France, nor of its inhabitants, any more than New York City represents the United States. What do you think are the biggest differences between Parisians and, well, the rest of the French? Are there cultural differences, or is it just a shift in attitude and lifestyle?
J: Paris is, like New York, almost a nation unto itself, and the power of Paris and Parisians over life in the rest of France is huge. Perhaps it is not so surprising, then, that people in other parts of the country tend to resent Parisians and the power they hold. Not all Parisians are worthy of that scorn, of course. That’s the problem with generalizing. It’s important to remember that one is always dealing with individuals, for better or worse, and individuals, generally speaking, do not conform to stereotypes.
There is quite naturally a shift in mindset and lifestyle that has to do with city vs. country, or major international city versus regional urban center. But there are also real cultural differences in different parts of France that are rooted in the long, complex, and fascinating history of this “Hexagon.” I think it’s one of the most interesting things about France, that in this country, which is roughly the size of Texas, there is so much regional variation—of geography, language, cuisine—and cultural habits as well. I’ve been coming to France for 40 years now, and have explored much of the country. But there’s always still so much more to discover.
L: One thing I’ve noticed about Parisians, at least in their approach to fashion, is that they are very conservative and conformist—everything is codified. Do you think this is also true of French culture in general, of the French mind? And if so, how?
J: The French are a wonderful people, and they have many great qualities, but flexibility is not one of them. There can be a certain rigidity required to follow all those rules, or even most of them. That’s the downside. The upside is that it makes for a very orderly, and somewhat predictable world. Predictability, of course, has both good and bad aspects.
L: What has life in France taught you about how to live? How has it enhanced your philosophy of life, your view of the world?
J: Oh, there is so much! Mostly the importance, and the beauty, of taking the time to enjoy life. To do things well. To enjoy perfection in the little details of daily life. To practice l’art de vivre, and to fully appreciate it when you see it all around you. Being in France, surrounded by people who believe in these things and who find ways to put them into practice fills me with a deep contentment. All things being equal, I’m always just a little bit happier when I’m in France.
You can buy Janet’s book, here
Discover her world at JanetHulstrand.com