Friendship in France

We Americans! We’re a bunch of insincere and pompous phonies. Liars, even!

Or so the French seem to think. Our tendency to strike up a conversation with just about anyone, and go on and on past the small talk and into deep ideas and details about ourselves, is incomprehensible to the French.

In my reading of Au Contraire! Figuring Out the French, the nature of friendship–and how it differs there from here in the U.S.–is so far the most interesting and easy-to-illustrate aspect of French culture.

I have found myself in several situations over the past few months doing just that–explaining how friendship in France works–and with complete strangers to boot. First it was a man at a wedding reception, someone I didn’t know, someone who sat down beside me to say hello because he had heard that I was from Grand Junction, a town he had been to a few times and had really liked. An hour later he knew a whole heck of a lot about my town and myself and my daughter going abroad and I was teaching him about French culture. Next it was a lady who was in line near me to get passports. We started talking about where we were going (I’m not really going to France, just want to be prepared in case there is an emergency while my daughter is there) and she made a comment about the French. I thought I better explain to her that much of our perception of the French stems from our differences in how we build relationships. And then there was a parent at parent-teacher conferences, a mom I sat near at my daughter’s swim meet, the man at the…

Well, since I’ve explained it so many times, I’ll share it with you, too. It really is quite fascinating.

Visualize a French person with about five concentric walls built around him. The outer wall will be the highest and each successive wall going in and toward the individual will be shorter. Now visualize an American, also with concentric walls surrounding him. The American’s outer walls are low, but as the walls get closer to the person, they get higher, taller.

Now, imagine that you are trying to develop a deep and lasting friendship with each of these two people. With the French guy, it will be extremely difficult to “get in.” It may take weeks, months, years to scale those outer walls. But, once you’re over that barrier, there will be a mutual agreement to commit to the friendship and it will become easier and easier to get close to the person, to get to know the real him.

Now, the American. I’m sure this will sound familiar.  You can approach almost any American and start a conversation. And as long as you’re not creepy or overstepping boundaries or holding a person up from whatever it is he or she was just about to do, most Americans will keep chatting with you. Just like I did with the guy at the wedding reception and the lady in the passport line. Not only did we chat, but I shared a lot about my life, including that my daughter was going to France and oh by the way let me tell you something interesting about the French culture.

The thing about the American’s walls, however, is that even though it’s easy to get in, it’s difficult to continue climbing upward and inward to the real core or the real self of an American. In fact, we Americans may not ever truly know our closest friends and family members. We usually have a lot of mediocre and somewhat superficial friendships.

As I said, once you’re over the outer walls with a French person, you’re in and expected to commit to a truly amazing friendship. With Americans, a friendship might be based on a shared interest, a hobby, or just the fact that two people are coworkers. Once someone loses interest in the hobby, quits a job, or goes his or her separate way in life for whatever reason, the friendship might be over. Not so true with the French.

Another difference in friendships between our two cultures is that Americans are into “doing” whereas French people are into “being.” We like to do things with our friends–go out for coffee, go hiking, take the kids to the park, go to a movie. The French are more inclined to just hang out together. They might talk about what they should do and what it would look like, but no one minds if the group never gets around to doing it. To them, talking about it is fun enough.

Also, Americans don’t like conflict. We tend to not bring up anything that will cause an argument or jeopardize the friendship. The French consider this to be boring and tedious. In France, people like to argue. They look at it as entertainment, as educational, as something that friends can do together. French friends can be direct and frankly critical and it is not at all a problem between them.

I really like that aspect of their culture.

In America, the backbone of the culture is the individual. In France, it’s friendships, groups, the “circle.” In our country, most of us can easily carry on if a friendship or relationship falls away. In France, you are expected to put your heart into a friendship, now and forever. A common expression between friends in America is “I owe you one.” The French language has no equivalent to this. They do not keep score. If you’re not friends, there are no obligations; if you are friends, you’ll do nice things for each other no matter what. And it is baffling to them to hear us say to our new “friends” or to those we were once close to and happen to run into, “Yeah, I’ll give you a call,” or “We should get together sometime and catch up,” when neither party has any real desire or intention of doing so. Liars!

So the French find it weird that we’re so open and chatty with whomever, wherever. To them, that seems arrogant and cocky. Wait, isn’t it the French who are supposed to be arrogant and cocky?

15 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Linnea
    Mar 03, 2014 @ 21:55:26

    So interesting!! I would like to read a book like that about EVERY culture…especially with all the international folks (including a French guy) I met during my recent travels!


    • randee
      Mar 04, 2014 @ 00:50:34

      Yes, you’d love this book and something similar for every country/culture would be perfect for someone like you who gets around. 🙂


  2. girlychristina
    Mar 03, 2014 @ 21:58:06

    This was a wonderful post as I learned more about the differences in cultures. I really liked the way you described how the cultures differ in how to get “in” with Americans and French, and I totally agree. Americans are open to chat away with a stranger and I believe that’s why we have that saying of “friends come and go” to be especially true in America…basically everyone is our friend. =)


    • randee
      Mar 04, 2014 @ 00:54:03

      Good point, Christina! Since we’re so willing to be friends with everyone we realize that we can’t have a super deep relationship with all of them and that there will naturally be that ebb and flow.


  3. Connie
    Mar 04, 2014 @ 12:03:56

    Well said

    Sent from my iPhone



  4. Lynette d'Arty-Cross
    Mar 04, 2014 @ 20:49:00

    A great post! 🙂 I am French-Canadian and understand the walls that you describe. Frankly, I have been somewhat mystified by how American friendships work, even after having lived in your country – you provided me with an “a-ha” moment. Thanks for the explanation!


    • randee
      Mar 04, 2014 @ 22:13:03

      I wondered what someone who has some experience with this might think about the post. Thank you for your comment. I’m getting all this from this wonderful book I’m reading. I, too, wonder how friendships here work. 🙂


  5. betunada
    Mar 05, 2014 @ 13:21:25

    interesting insight(s). you put it out there, laid out the basic elements, then jumped in and … discussed. two more things: SORRY: you’re on WordPress?
    GREAT: you’re on WordPress? medium-sized internet, sum-times…
    (hey): when my french nephew comes to town … (heh) …


    • randee
      Mar 05, 2014 @ 19:38:11

      My daughter is going to France next year for her junior year of high school through Rotary Youth Exchange!

      Hence my reading up on the French culture…


  6. Holistic Wayfarer
    Mar 07, 2014 @ 13:32:54

    Very interesting. We learn so much from this thing called culture. If you missed it, are you interested in participating in the Race (on front page of my blog)? I’d be happy to give voice to your experiences and promote your blog.



    • randee
      Mar 07, 2014 @ 16:07:24

      It sounds really neat, but I myself have not been to France and will not be going. Nor am I anything interesting – white, female, western U.S. I’m not sure if my contributions would be that helpful?


      • Holistic Wayfarer
        Mar 07, 2014 @ 17:01:40

        LOL White American woman = boring, huh?
        I wasn’t calling on nonAmericans.

        Have you ever had a moment where you felt the divide between cultures, felt very white? That’s the heart of it. If you can in fact answer the questions, you are most certainly welcome to. Will my readers want to keep reading? Don’t make it into something self-conscious. Point is, have you interfaced with other cultures — and felt the differences? If not, then not.

      • randee
        Mar 08, 2014 @ 15:10:44

        Well, yes, of course I have. I will try to think of specific moments and see what comes to mind.

      • Holistic Wayfarer
        Mar 08, 2014 @ 15:12:03

        I want this to be something you enjoy thinking through, something meaningful to you. =)


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