The biggest culture shocks for Americans in France

What are some of the biggest culture shocks for Americans in France? We speak to those who have made the move about the most surprising aspects of life compared to back in the US.

Work culture

One of the biggest culture shocks for Americans who move to France for professional reasons is the huge difference in working practices compared to the US.

“Perhaps the biggest culture shock for me has been the work culture. Since I started working at a French company I’ve been amazed by the number of vacation days that employees in France receive,” says Liz O’Dell, Communications Manager for Your Friend in Pariswhich helps people relocate to the French capital. She moved to France in 2020 from Tennessee.

Employees are entitled to 2.5 holiday days per month when working on a permanent contract.

“This was an incredible discovery for me, and has changed the way I view a healthy work-life balance,” says Ms O’Dell.

Diane Wargnier who moved from New Jersey to France and has been running the blog Yes in France since 2012 calls the healthy French vacation culture a “happy culture shock moment”, adding the US could “learn a thing or two” from this aspect of French life.

Liz O’Dell was also surprised about the various benefits employees can make use of in France, such as part of your taxes going towards your own training.

“These funds can also be saved up and can be applied towards virtually any kind of education – pending your employer’s approval,” she says.

Tipping

Coming from the tip-heavy culture of the US, many Americans struggle to get used to France, where tipping is not automatically expected, and no one tips at the percentage that is common in the US.

“Service is included at restaurants and bars but a small tip is appreciated if warranted,” say US couple Bill Richardson, 69, and Bob Halcums, 71, who moved to France from Georgia in 2016 and write the blog Let’s Live in France about their travels, which includes tips for others considering the move.

Late dinners

Many Americans are surprised by how late the French eat dinner compared to the norm back in the US.

“My stomach still growls at around 6pm,” writes blogger Diane Wargnier.

She says Americans are generally “perfectly fine” with sitting down to dinner at around 18:00, whereas most French restaurants do not open until 19:00 or 20:00.

However, other Americans were more struck by the more rigid opening hours of restaurants in France.

“As someone who has become accustomed to being able to go to a restaurant at any time, with many of them being 24/7 in America, I was very surprised to find that after 21:00 I was unable to find anything that was open,” said Ms O’Dell.

Read more: Eating faux-pas: habits to avoid when dining in France

Greeting with a kiss

While France is famous for its two-cheek kiss greeting, the reality of how normal it is and how strange you find it as a foreigner can take some time to get used to.

“This is one of the big ones,” says American Ms Wargnier. She says Americans should get used to “kiss” with everyone from friends and family members to even colleagues – depending on the company.

Oh and whatever you do, do not hug a French person – while the French love a kiss greeting, they do not do hugs – another cultural adjustment for Americans.

Read more: Greeting kisses in France: 5 regional expressions

Opening hours

Many Americans, who are used to a more 24/7 culture of opening times, are surprised that lots of French shops stick to quite rigid opening times.

“As Americans, we were used to most stores and restaurants being open all day, seven days a week, all year long. So it was surprising to find that stores and restaurants are closed several days a week, plus for lengthy vacations, holidays, or just on a whim,” says Lynn McBride, 74, who retired to France 21 years ago from Charleston, South Carolina, and lives in Beaune, where she writes the blog Southern Fried French. “We find it somewhat of a challenge to get things done.”

“I was surprised that everything, most importantly grocery stores, is closed on Sundays,” says Ms O’Dell.

Smoking

While the hazards of smoking are well known, the prevalence of the habit in France compared to the US can come as a shock to some Americans.

“I had always heard that the French, and Europeans more broadly, smoke cigarettes often, however the extent of smoking here still surprised me,” says Ms O’Dell.

“I was particularly shocked that smoking was not seen as a negative at all – not in social or professional settings.”

“Smoking in France is a culture shock that still surprises me to this day,” says Ms Wargnier.

The habit is an attraction for some, however. British artist David Hockney even cited smoking as one of the main reasons he loved living in France.

“To be able to smoke and eat in a restaurant at the same time. Thank God for Normandy,” he said.

Read more: French attitudes to smoking: Six of the latest trends

Sharing opinions

The French love a good conversation. They are not shy about giving their opinions, and will often expect the same from you, which can take time to get used to for some Americans who might be more used to shying away from the thorny issue of politics.

“The French want to know your opinions on so many things and want you to support your beliefs in friendly discussions. They are not afraid to talk politics so be ready to listen as well as speak,” say Bill Richardson and Bob Halcums.

Read more: La politesse: what habits can make you seem rude to French people?

Supermarket options

Another culture shock for many Americans is the difference in what is on offer in French supermarkets, from crisp (chip) flavours to the dairy options.

“The snack sections in grocery stores are significantly smaller than those in America, and the flavours shown were very different from American ones,” says Ms O’Dell. “I had never seen or tried chips flavoured like roast chicken or caramelised onions, and was surprised to see that these are staples throughout France.”

Mr Richardson and Mr Halcums immediately noticed differences in the dairy aisle.

“Eggs are on the unrefrigerated shelf and not washed, while milk and cream are mostly not refrigerated but UHT,” they said.

Work-life balance

Many Americans discover there is a stark difference between work-life balance in the US and that in France.

The importance of work-life balance is “a broader cultural theme that truly separates France from America,” says Liz O’Dell.

“In America we tend to have the mentality that we live to work, everything in your life is centred around working and advancing your career. In France it’s the opposite: you work to live, so you go to your job but only so you can fully enjoy the time that is not spent at work.”

Read more: Seven tips to help you integrate in France

Healthcare

We cannot discuss culture shock for Americans in France without touching on healthcare.

France’s public healthcare system is very different to that in the US, and the first thing most Americans notice is the drastic difference in cost.

“You can also visit a doctor for a check up for as low as €26.50 with no healthcare, something that would be completely unheard of in the US,” says Ms O’Dell.

“Even without public healthcare, prescription medications are significantly cheaper. A medication that used to cost me around $50 out of pocket (even with health insurance) in the states now only costs me around €5 with no insurance.”

Read more: How to register with a doctor in France and get a GP

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