French vs. American Culture: 7 Surprising Differences

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Before going to France, I mentally prepared myself for la bise (standard kissing greeting), the later dinner times, and the copious amounts of bread I would undoubtedly consume. Other than that, it wouldn’t be so different there, right?

It’s funny how our cultural traditions are so engrained in our lives–sometimes, we don’t even consider the possibility of other ways.

Here are the things that threw me off during my time in France. Some, I still don’t understand. Others, I learned to love. (As context, I spent one semester studying abroad in Bordeaux, and one year teaching English to French university students in Dijon).

French vs. American Culture: 7 Surprising Differences

1. The standard coffee is an espresso.

esspresso cup with jam and apple in the background

If you order un café at a restaurant, don’t expect a steaming, milky 8 oz. mug. “Coffee” for the French normally means a shot of espresso–sometimes with sugar, sometimes without. While I wasn’t a coffee-drinker before study abroad, I now love the deep, earthy taste. I’ll even occasionally order espressos in the US, just for the nostalgia.

Fun fact: it’s not uncommon for people to drink coffee at every meal–even during 8pm dinners.

Tip: if you want the standard coffee with milk, ask for un café crème–not un café au lait !

2. Bakeries grace nearly every corner.

French bakery pastries

Given French stereotypes, I guess I should’ve expected it. Still, it seemed too nice to be able to buy fresh bread and pastries every morning, with less than a five-minute walk! You would find boulangeries even near very residential areas.

3. Shower heads sometimes don’t stay put.

French shower head

Most shower heads I encountered were removable, which is normally quite convenient. Some showers, however, didn’t come with a wall fixture to keep the shower heads in place–which is not quite convenient. Sure, I could’ve turned the water off while I lathered my shampoo, but my host family’s shower was so temperamental that finding the right temperature once was hassle enough. I eventually DIY-ed my own shower head holder with two Command hooks and a rubber band (cue crying-laughing emoji).

4. The lined paper might give you anxiety.

French notes

The standard notebook paper in France (top left) has a LOT of lines. I knew that I wouldn’t be able to focus if I took notes on said paper, so I scrounged around for alternatives. Unfortunately, most stores only offer graph paper or super-lined paper. I was able to find a pack of good old college-ruled in HEMA, however.

You might also notice that French students tend to write in cursive and in pen. This was another thing that really surprised me, especially since we were expected to take our math exams in pen! If you’re curious about the French university system, check out my post on the differences between college in France vs. the US.

Tip: HEMA is a great store for more American-style school supplies, like college-ruled notebooks. It’s a Dutch company that sells the most eye-catching things for very reasonable prices.

5. Some university students (and even profs!) take “smoke breaks”.

Pack of cigarettes

Despite the horrid photos on cigarette packs, smoking still feels rather chic in France. During class breaks, a handful of students (and sometimes even the prof) would head out for a smoke. If you’re sensitive to cigarette smoke, definitely be prepared–you’ll notice it in places where it’s uncommon in America, like campuses, restaurant terraces, etc.

6. Drying racks are used more frequently than dryers.

drying rack

Since energy is crazy expensive in Europe (and since Europeans tend to be more environmentally conscious), most families will use drying racks for their laundry–even if most of them have a dryer, and even if it’s winter!

7. The wifi passwords are like nuclear codes.

French wifi passwords

The above photo is actually of a real wifi password–and it’s not even the worst I’ve seen. Some of the ones I encountered seemed to go on for paragraphs. It was incredibly frustrating at the time, but quite amusing now.

Have you ever lived in France? What were the cultural differences you noticed?

For more cultural differences, check out my posts from when I was living in Dijon as an English lecturer:

What I’m Going to Miss or Not About France
What it’s Like to be Asian in France: My Experience
Healthcare in France vs. the USA
Living in Dijon, France: What to Expect + My Experience

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  1. Haha!! Loved this!! I am the same about clothes racks. We have three of them and they form a sort of Olympic event to get around them at the weekend as they block doorways. I think genuinely, that tumbledryers shouldn’t be the norm everywhere in the US (or indeed the uk) as they are very expensive and waste a lot of power when they can dry naturally. Yes to thelong wifi codes!! Ahrgh, the shower heads are a nightmare!!!!

  2. So interesting to read! We haven’t owned a dryer since we moved abroad, and removable shower heads are definitely the norm here, although thankfully, normally with a holder on the wall. Although ours periodically falls off the wall. Grr. 😛 Funny how even the lined paper is slightly different that what we’re used to! I am very sensitive to cigarette smoke–to the point of walking in a wide circle away from any group of people smoking so that I don’t fall into a coughing fit, so the smoking thing would probably get old pretty fast. I don’t think smoking is very popular in Malaysia, it would be pretty rare to encounter it indoors at all. We took the kids bowling last year and there were a couple guys sitting right behind the “bumper” lane and smoking…not 15 feet from a “no smoking” sign. I hate to be the bad guy, but I went and got the manager to get them to leave because why do you get to break the rules and make us miserable and make little kids breathe in smoke?

    1. Huh, I didn’t realize that dryers were that much less common abroad! And no, absolutely–I stand with you on getting the manager. Sometimes you have to ruin others’ “fun” when it infringes on your own health!

  3. oh whoa, number 4 surprised me the most! the lines are so close and cluttered together 😱. Also, thank you visiting my blog and wishing me a happy birthday – I really appreciate that! x

    – a new reader 💖


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