There’s plenty of advice out there on moving to France…. visa, taxes, where to live, opening a bank account. But there’s not a lot of advice on fitting in, and maneuvering daily personal interactions with neighbors, contractors and business people. It shouldn’t be that difficult. After all, apart from the language, people are people, right?
Then you move here and the frustration begins…. why can’t I find a decent contractor? Why do salespeople ignore me? Where should I get my car repaired? Why won’t they call me back or answer my emails? Why can’t I get anything done here?
That’s when you realize there’s possibly more to the problem than just your language skills. Time for an explanation and fine-tuning your people skills. Your French people skills.
Let’s remember that as an American, you’re from a country with a capitalistic mindset. You have a problem, you call 24-hr customer service, and they tell you how to fix it. Time is money. The Protestant work ethic: work hard and success will come. You have medical bills, college bills, car loans, a mortgage. You work to get ahead. Your life revolves around your work. You hate taxes, but all in all, you keep most of what you make. The American way of life.
But now, you’re in France, a country where it feels like lunch breaks are more important than money. How can banks and post offices all close at lunch? How do they get anything done?
The answer lies in priorities. In addition to placing work on a different priority, the French are very social creatures. Their society and daily life is built on social relationships. Before covid, everyone greeted family, friends and colleagues with “Bonjour!” and either a handshake or bises (cheek kissing). Eye contact is important. (Rule #1 when toasting: look someone in the eye as you clink their glass.) If they see a friend in public, they stop and chat far longer than Americans. They laugh, commiserate, and bond, while completely blocking grocery aisles. (I dream of doing this one day, because it means I will have made so many friends that I will cross them in public!) They really do spend hours ” à table“, in fact, surveys show the French spend more time dining than any other Western country. So when you come to France, if you learn one thing, learn that personal relationships with the French will make your life not only more pleasant, but easier.
But they have jobs, bills to pay, too. Why don’t they have the same pressure to be efficient?
Well for one thing, the French have different financial pressures than Americans. They can’t get fired as easily, and if they lose their job, the French equivalent of unemployment insurance is very generous. In France, it’s harder to qualify for a loan; so they take on less debt. They mostly use debit cards– not credit cards. College and medical bills are minimal. And most importantly, there’s no point in killing yourself to make money since the government takes half. (France is now the European country with the highest effective tax rate.) You came from the US precisely because you liked France’s joie-de-vivre, their legendary lifestyle of 2-hour lunches and fine food and art. But it irritates you to no end when you’re waiting in line and the cashier and customer are talking about babies and vacations. You look at your watch and curse. Let me help you. Or rather, let me explain why you need to make friends with the French, so they will help you.
Firstly, many friendships are made over meals… invite a neighbor for an apéro (cocktails and food), or a barbecue. They’ll be curious to know what they’re eating so play it safe and do home-cooked food so you can answer the questions. They’ll ask what’s in it, how it’s cooked, and if they REALLY like it, will want the recipe. As an aside– shortly after moving in, I invited my neighbors over for an apéro at 7PM thinking it would just be a couple hours; they ended up staying until midnight! Although I was appalled and exhausted at the time, I now realize that it was a great success that they felt so comfortable eating and chatting with me. I now play tennis and do artsy get-togethers with the wife, and we “plant-sit” for each other during vacations away. So, take the time to find common activities and talking about family. You’ll be glad you did. A French friend will help you, advise you on where to go for an oil change or who to call to fix something. They’ll help you write a letter in French or accompany you to a business. They will let you know if you what is a reasonable expectation, what is taking too long, or costing you too much….. and most importantly, what to do if something goes wrong. If you call a plumber out of the blue without a friend’s referral, good luck. You’ll probably pay too much or get bad service. Remember, the plumber doesn’t know you. He can spend 8 hours a day working for the same money with people he knows, or 8 hours a day working for strangers that are demanding and unfriendly. Which would you choose?
Nonetheless, if you really do need to just contact a contractor out of the blue, remember that a typical Frenchie isn’t like Americans…. He works to live; he doesn’t live to work. If you were thinking of asking him to shorten his 2-hour lunch break, think again. His lunch break is important to him (depending on your attitude– maybe more important than your project), so you’ll need to be patient.
So other than asking French friends for advice and learning patience, what can you do to help things along? You can slow down your American pace and do what the French do. Take long lunch breaks and learn to enjoy making it yourself instead of “grabbing a quick bite”. Make appointments to meet with business people, instead of expecting answers over the phone. In France, your bank assigns you an account manager. Don’t expect to get answers over the phone or on a website. You make the time to meet if you have questions on banking, debit cards, transfers. This is how I learned that French debit cards have built-in travel and medical insurance…. nowhere is this on the bank website! Questions about your local town services that aren’t findable by Google? Go to the “mairie” (town hall). It’s all about face-time. If it feels more like a waste of time, on the flip side, you’ll be pleasantly surprised when you go to a doctor’s office and find he/she takes to time to ask questions, both about your health and what you think of France. I have never felt rushed by a French doctor. They are personable and come across as real people, unlike many US doctors.
And my last bit of advice: develop that ineffable intangible quality of “charm”. In France “le charme” is not just flirtation between man and woman… it’s also social “grease”, useful in getting things done. It’s getting a cashier to smile, complimenting someone on how they look, commiserating with someone over a sarcastic joke, making a self-deprecating remark. It can make all the difference in someone’s day…. it can transform someone’s daily chore into a “moment de plaisir”…. and simultaneously transform you, an anonymous customer, into a person of interest. It costs you nothing, and no promises…. but it might get you better service, a waiter’s suggestion, a garage owner’s coupon, a helpful plumber.
Bonne chance et bon courage!