As I approach the one-month mark since my arrival in Paris, I am coming to realize just how much I have learned about the language and culture, as well as everything that I still have to master. This past weekend, I traveled with some other students to the small town of Giverny, where Claude Monet painted many of his most famous pieces, about an hour from Paris. Walking through the more tranquil, slower-paced streets of the town and interacting with the people there really made me realize how distinct Paris really is in terms of culture from the rest of France. Multiple people, from my coworkers to family friends who live here in France, have told me how Paris ‘is not really France,’ and has a subculture all its own, and as I spend more time here, I am beginning to see what they mean.
In some ways, I see elements of American culture in Parisian culture, although I am beginning to wonder if there are simply commonalities between the cultures of all large cities, regardless of the country in which they are located. To me, the morning commute on the Paris metro is very reminiscent of my experiences in New York City, as stoic-faced residents walk briskly to their trains and barely utter a sound. Another major similarity I have noticed between Parisians and New Yorkers is a tendency to keep to themselves. Perhaps this is a way to adapt to the large, often disruptive, groups of tourists in both cities, but Parisians rarely acknowledge events that do not directly affect them, no matter how shocking they may seem to others.
Despite these similarities, there have also been a fair number of aspects of Parisian culture that I have found challenging to adapt to. Personally, one of the most difficult ones would be the difficulties I find communicating in another language. I always try to practice my French by speaking with employees at restaurants, museums, etc, but it is inevitable that I make mistakes in speaking, or am unable to catch what someone says the first time. More often than not, the French take this as a cue to begin speaking in English, and though I try to keep speaking in French, they often continue the rest of the interaction in English anyways. This has also happened a few times at work, where clients will begin speaking to me in English the moment I hesitate to say a word or speak with too strong of an accent. It was easy to view these actions as simply rude when I first arrived, but as time goes on, I realize that in many ways, they are derived from cultural differences.
In America, it is common for many immigrants to maintain close ties to their heritage, sometimes living in communities with others of their ethnicity or nationality, where they can speak their native language and continue their traditional practices. Because of this, it is not uncommon to encounter people who do not necessarily speak English fluently. Meanwhile, in France, there is a stronger belief in assimilation when it comes to immigrants. Anyone who settles in France is encouraged to adopt a strictly French identity, leaving behind many of the traditional practices of their home countries and speaking French rather than their native language. Thus, if someone is not able to speak French extremely well, it is generally accepted that they are not a French citizen.
I believe my interactions with French people have also been a result of general language abilities. It is generally expected in American culture to be patient with those who do not speak fluent English, and to do your best to help with communication as much as possible. This could be because it is relatively uncommon for Americans to speak numerous languages fluently, so those who come to our country are essentially given English as their only option to communicate, and it is expected that we respect them. Meanwhile, many French people speak English well, so it is likely that they believe that by speaking English, they are simply being courteous. I know that I have experienced moments where I wished that I could speak languages like Spanish or Chinese to help me communicate with people I encounter in America, so I realize that many French people are taking advantage of their ability to make the conversation easier.
Thankfully, the more speaking practice that I get, the more conversations that I am able to have fully in French, though my time in France has also allowed me to understand my earlier experiences. Though stereotypes of ‘rude’ French people have undoubtedly influenced my initial thoughts, I am beginning to get past them to understand exactly how cultural differences shape behavior.