As of right now, I have spent four full days in Paris, yet it feels as though I have been here for months. Time is a difficult concept for me to grasp over here, the six-hour time difference is still having a slight effect on me. In general, the concept of time holds a different meaning here in Paris, a meaning much less important, than it holds in America. Yet, if there’s one thing that my time abroad has already taught me, it’s the importance of self-awareness.
I know, I would’ve been expecting something a little more profound or interesting, too. However, in all honesty, the best way I can summarize what I’ve learned here so far is how hyper aware I am of being American and speaking English. What I mean by this is when you’re surrounded by all French, all the time, it becomes very obvious as to how, for lack of a better word, un-French I really am.
In a way, this realization is a little discouraging. I look around and I see people who have lived here their whole life. They know the metro and all of its lines like the back of their own hand and they see the Eiffel Tower every day. I hear people who speak perfect French. Some of the most difficult phrases for me to say roll effortlessly of their own tongues. I compare myself to them (an unfair comparison, I know) and feel disheartened. I wish I was as “French” as they are.
Yet, as with most things in life, there is always a silver lining. For me, this lining is the opportunity to struggle, learn and grow in order to hopefully one day resemble the Parisians that I am so jealous of. It’s become a sort of goal of mine.
Right now, I believe I am in that struggling and learning phase, hoping that the growth is soon to follow. Yet, while I am struggling and learning, allow me to school you on something that many Americans seem to struggle to learn (see what I did there). What I’m talking about is the infamous “Parisians are so mean” stereotype.
Now when I think of this stereotype and I almost immediately get second-hand embarrassment just thinking about what an American did that may have elicited a slightly rude response from their French counterpart. In my opinion, it comes down to respect. Come on, America! Remember how I was talking about self-awareness earlier? It’s time that we consider that same concept here.
For starters, The Parisians, and all of France really, are very proud of their country, their culture, and their language. Additionally, they are just an overall more respectful culture than America. I mean, they have a separate subject pronoun that is to be used in order to be polite. With this being said, if you show that you have some respect for the French’s language, country, etc., too, they really appreciate it.
For example, though I speak and order in French in every café or restaurant that I’ve been to, most of the time the servers can pick up that I have an accent. Sometimes they ask where I am from and sometimes they don’t. However, today I had an amazing conversation with a server. He asked where I was from and when I responded that I was from the United States he was surprised and interested. He asked what I was doing in Paris, and I told him that I would be interning here for two months. He expressed how cool he thought that was, wished me good luck and even complimented my French.
Okay so maybe that seems like a normal conversation, and maybe it was. Whatever the case, a slight smile remained on my mouth throughout the rest of the day because of the waiter’s apparent interest and dully-noted compliment.
You see, respect is a very important concept in France and I’m going to go out on a limb here and say it is not a major priority for a lot of Americans. For example, in the same situation that I just described, maybe a lot of Americans would not even try to order in French, assuming that everyone knows English (another stereotype, that is not true). This, perhaps, would be perceived as rude by the French, and in turn they might be more inclined to be rude to the customers.
Of course, this is all speculation. However, the thing I am trying to say is how important respect should be, no matter where you come from. Being self-aware; knowing what is “right” and what is “wrong” in regards to a culture is crucial to better understanding those who are different from us. That advice seems really cookie-cutter and basic, but it the honest truth. It doesn’t take much to empathize and understand. A simple google search will probably tell you all of the “do’s and don’ts” in a matter of minutes.
Whether you’re an American in Paris or a German in Spain or a Italian in Greece, I think the key to understanding cultural differences is the combination of self-awareness and respect. And maybe google, too.