Taboo Conversation with the French

The French are great conversationalists. There are many social rules that lead to this and may be one of the primary reasons that France developed these famous salons that lead the way for some of the world’s most revolutionary ideas. They are spirited debaters; an agitated conversation in France is a good thing. But unlike an American when they do not invest emotionally in the “argument” therefore when the subject is changed they change face and can drop it whereas an American might find themselves still fuming a few hours later (yours truly included). In conversation almost all is permissible including things that would never THINK to bring up in the states but in a social setting there are just some subjects that you don’t approach.

MONEY is one thing that the French do not talk about. This was something I had the most difficulty understanding when moving here. In the states people have no problem insisting on money that you owe someone and monetary transactions are very precise and openly discussed. For example in France when I wanted to pay someone to compensate for some sort of favor or service they were providing me when I would try to communicate that I was giving them the money, and how much money I was giving them, their reaction was one of discomfort; as if I was explaining something of a highly personal nature. Then the people would never count the money. Being as I am someone who is very bad with money and often miscount this made me nervous: “what if they think i’ve short handed them?”  But a friend of mine explained that this just a subject that is not social acceptable in their culture.

It is an item of trust. The French have a lot of “sous entendu” in their culture: Understandings that are considered a social rule (which they somehow just EXPECT you to know). When someone you know is giving you money, or borrows money from you there is already an understanding that they will be honest and pay you the right amount and in the time that they can. Hence the not counting the money or making a big deal out the exchange.

Another sous entendu is the value of things. The French know very well how much it costs to go to certain schools, how much it is to travel, how much certain things cost. There is no reason to use that as a way to distigush yourself by saying something annoying like “yeah…it costs us a fortune but we just love it” you will be subject to the most severe eyerolling you’ve ever experienced.

Even in Paris where even the students can flaunch around in some of the biggest names in fashion you’re not expected to talk about how much money you are actually making or the fact that you come from money. In the states when someone would compliment me on my clothes the conversation would go something like this:

“Love that shirt,”

“Thank you. I got it on sale at blah blah blah”


“Yeah it only cost me blah blah blah”

“Oh wow”.

It isn’t that this person will go searching for the same deal this is just how this sort of thing is spoken about. It is as if in the states the bargain is the victory. However here you wouldn’t tell someone where you got something much less how much you payed for it!

SUCESS is not considered a good thing here. Don’t get me wrong, it isn’t like the French insist on you staying as you are when you arrive but for them it is not proper for someone to announce that they’ve recently received a raise during a dinner party. In the states flaunting our monetary success is a huge pass-time for many: flashy cars, diamonds, enormous expenses on things and then being sure to tell everyone JUST how much it cost you. But here it just isn’t done. Even the President Sarkozy is highly critisised by the French people for eating at the overly priced bistro “la Fouquet” during his campagne.

The French will not brag about a certain status that they hold because of a work position they have acquired. In fact it is very rude to directly ask a French person what they do as a profession. If they do answer you, you can expect them to be very modest about it. Start more by asking what interests them eventually what they do could slip into the conversation.

One reason is because of the TAX MAN. In France taxes are amazingly high. In Paris alone the taxes that renters pay on their apartments are ASTRONOMICAL so it is crazy to imagine all the taxes that a simple homeowner must pay. But the French are wonderful workers of the system and know exactly how to get off paying less taxes than they truly should ( oh yes Americans are pretty good at it too with their write-offs). The thing is though: you never know who is around you the TAX MAN could be sitting at anyone’s dinner table or be at anyones’ heur d’apperitif so chatting up someone about how much you made in the last year is risky business. So many well-off French people may drive around in dinky cars, or never admit that his rolex is new, or will understate the quality of their homes out of modesty but also at the sheer fact that they could inspire a revue of their revenues.

Another reason is the current mindset in French culture, a socialist ideal of equality for all a beautiful concept with a harsh reality: the extreme division of classes still present in French society, a sad but true fact that people strive to hide. For this however we are lucky because there is just a little less pressure to have it all and at least your more couth friends aren’t going to rub it all in your face.

Plus in all honesty talking about money is absolutely RUDE and no matter what culture you’re in it is just a mood killer.

The election: A time sensitive topic but taboo all the same. This election year truly has people divided but on many different levels of indecision. The issues at hand are very dominant in a country that has had a slow decline in its economy and is starting to feel the pressure of the crise (they held off living their lives relatively normal for the last couple of years). One candidate is for a strong united Europe, favors rights to immigrants, raising taxes even more, and could lead to an eventual collapse of the social security system. Another candidate who’s views in many past years have just been dust beneath the door has brought her extremist political party more support than it ever has; a scary prospect for anyone who favors equality and diversity if you ask me. In any case this subject is currently one that is to be avoided. In general it is considered bad manners to ask for someone’s political preference without it being offered so saying something like “who are you voting for”, “or what do you think of the current president” is a no no. Just like with their jobs the French are not necessarily willing to define themselves by their political stance. The French do love to talk politics but you’ve really got to be in the know for this to be a safe subject.

In the end my biggest advice would be: don’t get into a conversation with a French person about something you do not know every detail on, something that you fully understand. The French are not into “shooting the shit” as we say and will call you on your lack of information RIGHT AWAY. They seek a good conversation, they are not going to be convinced of anything but will appreciate a different look on things if your argument is logical and well founded. Don’t try to impress them just be yourself and they will enjoy your company. It is a pleasure to discuss with the French but you have to do it their way otherwise you will miss out on all the beauty that there education has allowed in their language and their interactions with each other.

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About Emilie

I'm a small girl with big ambitions and very little common sense it seems. I decided after I graduated from college that I would move from my little city of Lafayette Louisiana to the raging monster city that is Paris. In 4 months of planning I have now uprooted everything I had in an amazing town to live in a truly wild place where I have no idea WHAT I am going to do. But isn't that the fun of it all. So here is cheers to getting lost, breaking hearts, starving, and many wonderful adventures that come along with finding yourself.
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