Lost in Frenchlation

To begin with, I think it’s important to be aware that what I’m seeing and experiencing right now is but a very small part of the whole of French culture. Paris being a bustling European metropole, it doesn’t represent the more rural parts of France neither can it even be compared to other big cities in the country. There are a lot of French students coming from other parts of France like Lyon, Marseille, and Toulouse. Even for them, Paris is something else and I learned that the capital has a special status among French people.

Having lived in Paris for five weeks so far has already taught me a lot. What struck me most is the way that day-to-day conversation, formalities, and communication in general differ from what I am used to from Swiss culture. The difference between French politeness and bold, even rude behaviour is a paradoxical concept that I am still trying to grasp.

For example, Parisian officials and civil servants are known for their at times rude behaviour and indifferent attitude. My impression was that they give you just minimal advice and try to handle their clients as quickly as possible. Customer service in France is therefore certainly a different experience than looking for help with a problem in Switzerland. Bureaucracy in general can be exhausting. It’s hard to gather all the information needed for subscribing to an insurance, a public transport pass or applying for accommodation.

At the same time, there exists a very pronounced politeness among people in Paris. As I have been told, especially the “native” Parisian people still stick to this. Nowhere else have I been told “Pardon” so many times – and said it myself – than here in Paris. If you just slightly bump into someone in the street or in the metro, you immediately apologise in a very polite way. It’s not just the word, but also the body language conveys that the person really is sorry. This has sometimes caught me off guard and sometimes seemed to me a bit exaggerated.

In the end, I have had almost just as many interactions – at counters, in shops or with bus drivers – where I was immediately helped. Also, being polite yourself gets you through even the most excruciating quest to find an important piece of information. After all: just a simple “Merci!” really goes a long way.

The same applies to the academic environment. In a university context, professors are very correct and formal, while at the same time behaving in a way that, for me and the other international students, was very strange at first. Their position in relation to the students is a very superior one. Students are not treated as equals, but more like pupils. Generally, a lot of the professors in the tutorials come across as quite passive-aggressive. Being at university to me feels more like it was back in high school. Even in the tutorials, you’re supposed to be listening and take notes just like in the lecture and there is no space for discussion and scientific exchange. You will be punished when you come late and your contributions are being counted.

Part of this is due to the fact that French culture appreciates when you’re being direct and concise, as I was told in my language course. Writing emails but also academic papers, you are expected to get straight to the point. There’s a whole art to writing an email that “doesn’t bore” its recipient. Even though I consider myself being concise and direct when asking for something, I learned that I have a lot to learn if I want to adhere to the French sense of structure. As I’m writing this, I notice how I have already become more structured at how I approach certain tasks. Even if I didn’t like the very rigid French academic environment at first, I have come to appreciate the beauty of this classicist heritage which the Sorbonne seems to be very proud of.

The aspects mentioned in this post are – in the end – all minor cultural variations to which I feel like I have adapted quite quickly. Generally speaking, Parisian people are very assertive in their day-to-day interactions which can sometimes come across as impolite or less considerate coming from my cultural background.

Siri Würzer

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