Are you visiting France and wanting to learn about French culture?
You have come to the right place. We understand that you don’t always have the time to sit down for a long read. So, we’ve done our best to condense French culture into an easy to understand package that you can read in just about ten minutes. In this article, we will cover everything from official languages spoken in France to popular religions, societal values, cuisine, clothing, art and more. If you’re looking for just one of these, feel free to hop around. Without further adieu, let’s dive in and visit France.
A Brief Overview of French Culture
It’s easy to see. French culture and traditions are alluring to foreigners. In fact, certain parts of the culture are world famous. Fashion and the culinary scene are two such parts. And then, there are parts of French culture that are more nuanced. You need to either get to know a local or live in France for a while to truly understand them (yes, Paris is amazing). Whether you are staying in the country for four days, weeks, or years, familiarizing yourself with traditions will help you travel in a new way. Here’s a quick guide to set you up for your journey.
With a population of over 67 million people, it’s safe to say that France is not culturally or ethnically homogeneous. This country is deeply multicultural and multi-ethnic. Since it is illegal to keep statistics on ethnicity there, the exact numbers of the population group are unknown.
However, we do know the religious makeup of the country by percentages. An astounding 83-88% of the country identifies as being Catholic. Five to ten percent identify as Muslim, two percent as Protestant, around one percent as Jewish and Buddhist and less than one percent as Sikh.
The country’s official name is “The Republic of France.” This republic is headed by a President, elected by the people for a five-year term and is responsible for determining the government’s policy. At the head of the government is the Prime Minister who implements laws and policies in accordance with the actions of the government ministers.
While there are many languages spoken in France, the primary language is obviously French. Many Americans are under the impression that when they visit, they won’t know how to communicate with the locals. This is false. In major cities, pretty much everyone speaks English and speaks it fluently.
It isn’t rare to meet someone who speaks multiple languages there fluently; they have a great public education system. Here’s a heads up about French culture though. Try to say bonjour first and ask a local if they speak English (or your language). It is generally considered rude to assume the locals speak your language or to ask a question without first saying hello. Asking ‘parlez-vous-anglais’ (pronounced: par-lay-voo-anh-gleh), meaning ‘do you speak English’ is a good place to start.
If you plan on moving to France for a while, it is good practice to know key phrases like this before initiating conversation with a French person. Not only is it considered good manners but you will feel more confident talking with the locals in your city too. Trust us. It will open up a whole new world to you. People appreciate it when you make efforts to understand and acknowledge their culture. Don’t just be a tourist. Be a traveler.
Social Conventions and Formalities
If you’ve ever been to France, one of the first things you probably noticed is how much pride the French people have in their country. With this pride, comes sensitivity towards comments about their culture and customs. More often than not, Americans mistake this sense of national pride and sensitivity as rudeness towards foreigners. We think that this can’t be further from the truth. With any country, taking time to respect the culture, learn the language (even just a little bit), and showing courtesy goes a long way.
So when did this sense of national pride and belief in egalite (equality) take hold in France? Going all the way back the 1500s in Europe, French culture was defined by expanding your mind. Today, the French people wholeheartedly pursue knowledge, creativity, style, and sophistication. All of these factors contribute to the beauty that is French culture.
Over the years, French cuisine has taken a shift. Instead of focusing on decadent heavy dishes, it is now marked by healthy, light fare. With this said, there are a few classic dishes that remain. Boeuf bourguignon, anyone? This stew is made from a wine-braised beef, along with seasoned vegetables like onions, garlic, and mushrooms.
Here’s something interesting. Did you know that French fries might not actually be French? A fascinating article from National Geographic proposes that they very could have their origins in Spain or Belgium. Americans only call these thin crispy treats ‘French fries’ because Thomas Jefferson dubbed them that while sampling them in France. During this time, he was serving as the American Minister during the years of 1784-1789.
So, what is common to eat here? Let’s start out with the simple things – bread. Here, it isn’t unusual to see the locals strolling around with a baguette in hand or in the basket of their bicycle. Croissants and chocolate bread are popular breakfast options and light sandwiches are for lunch. The French love their carbs and to be honest, bread is one of our favorite parts about enjoying a meal in the country.
When it comes to dinner, understanding French culture can get a little more complicated. First off, there are so many different types of wine to choose from. And let’s face it, we’re not all connoisseurs here. Whether you are dining out or enjoying a time with friends who are local, don’t be afraid to ask for a recommendation. Chances are, the pairings will be absolutely perfect. And if you’re confused about what something on the menu is, ask politely. Or, you can use one of the apps to translate the language for you. Yes, those exist. No, they’re not always spot on accurate.
There is so much to be said for French cuisine, so we will keep it short and sweet. After all, the fun part comes in discovering it for yourself. Just know that for foreigners (especially Americans), some things on the menu might be hard to swallow – at first. Fish are served with eyes and organs are on the menu. Make sure you know what you are ordering but don’t be afraid to try something new.
As with any culture, there are formalities to recognize, good habits to practice, and a way that manners and politeness are expressed. French culture is no different. So, whether you are visiting or planning to move to France, there are a few things you should know. First off, the way that you say the word ‘you’ matters.
Since the French language is a little bit more formal than others, you should refer to the person you are addressing as ‘vous.’ This is the formal version of the word ‘you.’ However, if you are chatting with a friend or a child, you can use the informal version of ‘you,’ ‘tu.’ To make things a little more tricky, you also conjugate the verb differently depending on whether you say ‘vous’ or ‘tu.’ Make sure to keep one of the conjugation apps handy on your smartphone.
Another thing you should know is that everyone says hello or goodbye. Make sure you greet someone before asking them a question. If you fail to greet someone before you ask them a question (even if you’re a lost traveler trying to find your train platform), the locals will see it as a lack of courtesy. It is also important to say goodbye to someone when you are out (e.g. leaving a restaurant or small store or ending a conversation).
Another tip we have for you is that locals downplay compliments. This is an intrinsic part of French culture. For example, if a French woman approaches you and compliments you on your shirt or dress, do not simply say ‘thank you.’ Doing so would most likely be taken as haughty. Instead, say something like “Non, pas du tout! Vous êtes trop gentille.” If you don’t speak French, in English this would mean “No, not at all! You’re too kind.” Downplaying compliments shows both modesty and humility, which the French respect.
Here’s our final tip about the French language. When in doubt, let the locals take the lead. While it’s customary to greet one another with a kiss on each cheek, don’t initiate. For example, if someone tells you that you speak French well, you don’t have to worry so much about whether to use ‘vous’ or ‘tu.’ If you know you are a beginner to the language, you can always ask someone whether they prefer you to use the formal or informal address. The locals would rather be asked than have a foreigner assume which greeting to use.
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