French – American Culture Shock

Have you ever been in a situation where you had a culture shock?  Well, needless to say, I have.  I had huge culture shock at least twice in my life.  The first time when I moved to the US almost as soon as I landed to Newark Airport, and believe it or not, the second time, when I came back to France five years later.

Culture shock can be a lot of things; they can be fun, weird, and even downright embarrassing at times.  But one thing is certain, culture shock exists.  To me the worst culture shock I ever had was actually when I actually came back to France after having spent five years in New York City, and I thought I was still very French.

The Culture Shock of Going Back Home

Culture shocks don’t happen only to people going in a foreign country, it happens to anyone having spent a long enough time in a different culture. My own quote.

Usually culture shock doesn’t take too long to manifest, as they usually happen right at the airport.  The first biggy for me happened right there.  I asked a question to a French airport attendant, you know, in good old French, and what does she do?  She answers me in English. Wow, what happened to me in five years?  Does it say on my forehead that “lived in the US for the last five years”?  I got a little offended and mad at the same time, and asked that woman (in French) why the heck was she trying to speak English to me?

I must have been carrying along something that wasn’t there five years ago for sure, because no one had ever spoken in English to me on that side of the Pacific Ocean before.

More Culture Reminders

The second culture shock I encountered was when my (now ex husband) asked me to bring him a cup of coffee on my way back, since I was going to get something eat while we were waiting for our next flight from Paris to Lyon.  At first, I just said sure, and as I was walking away it hit me! Dang! We’re in France, I can’t bring you a cup of coffee here! You’ve got to walk to the café and get your tasse de café over there.  Plus, they don’t ever serve that watery dark drink called coffee there, it’s only espresso type coffee, and in much smaller amount.  You forget these things easily, you know.  Especially after five years.

Another culture shock, for my ex husband, was when he was greeted by other men in my family who greeted him with the typical cheek kiss.  Which is not even a real kiss, per say, but a cheek to cheek thing while you kind of kiss the air. Very common in France for friends and family regardless of gender.  Yes, that was a culture shock for him all right. But he did get used to it, though.

Culture Shock when I Moved to the US

The first time I saw people walking the streets of New York with a carton cup of hot coffee, it was really fun to me. I had never seen that before, in any European country I had been to or in the French Caribbean Islands.  This was my first.

The second thing I thought was strange was that strangers would pick up a conversation with me.  In France, rarely, people speak to strangers.  I know I have rarely talked to stranger in France, unless I had a good reason to do so. So, this was a culture shock when it happened to you for the first time.

Then they were the fact that strangers used my first name to call me, which is not common at all in France.  Or should I say, doesn’t happen at all.

Culture Shock is Inevitable

When you’ve lived in a country most of your life and spent only five years outside of it, you would think that you are going to feel home again as soon as you get back.  Well, you’d be wrong.

When I first got back to Paris after five years I felt like a tourist.  As a matter of fact, I’ve must have sounded so awkward when I asked for my metro tickets, that again, the clerk was trying to speak to me in English.  I got so made that I told the guy “listen, I’m French and I’ve lived in this darn city for five years”.  I said it just like that but in French, of course.  But while I did say that, I also understood where he came from, so to speak. I was totally acting weird in a way, and there was no way that poor guy could have known that I was from there.  I couldn’t blame him.

Then, another big culture shock was about the good old “tu” and “vous” French pronoun thing. You know, in English you don’t ever have to think how you address someone, unless you require “your majesty” in front of your name, maybe. But for everyone else it’s “YOU”.

In French, however, it would be better if you’d remember not to use the same pronoun if you speak to your mom or if you speak to her boss, and that’s exactly what I did.  I started to use the familiar “tu” pronoun when speaking to my mother’s boss (who is also a friend), but being that he is 50 years older than me, I’ve never use “tu” but “vous” to address him.  I felt so embarrassed when I caught myself.  Gosh it’s tough to get back home.  I had to remind myself of things that I had never even had to think about before.  That’s what another culture does to you.

Overall, I had fun with my culture shock, and I could only understand my mother and brother better when they came to see me in the US.  They had quite a culture shock as well.

So, what about you? Did you ever had culture shock? If yes, tell us all about it in the comment area below!



19 thoughts on “French – American Culture Shock”

  1. Culture shocks can be very good, because they challenge you and help you to grow as a person.

    1. Hi Jay,

      That’s true, getting to know different culture open your mind as I was just mentioning in my reply above.

      Thanks for coming 🙂

  2. Wow, Sylviane, that’s quite fascinating. I know what it feels like to be a tourist and feel a bit awkward and out-of-place with the customs and behaviors in other countries, but still I’m just a tourist. In a way I can be as goofy as I want and it doesn’t matter because people forgive you for being a dumb tourist 🙂

    But I bet it’s a completely different experience living in a culture and adopting the ways of that culture… and then going to live in a another one! I had no idea you couldn’t get a cup of coffee in France! I know about the “you” thing but I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t know when to use it right anyway.

    Sometimes I feel like I have culture shock when I’m with my husband’s family. They are Dominican and speak Spanish and English so sometimes I have no idea what they’re saying. But they also have different traditions and for example, on holidays, when my family gets together they rip open presents and eat a lot all day and talk loudly then take a nap. When his family gets together they all sit in chairs in one room and talk, then everyone eats a little and they sit and talk some more. Funny 🙂

    Thanks for sharing this, I really enjoyed reading it!
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    1. Hi Carol,

      I’m glad you enjoyed this post 🙂 I couldn’t help but smile while reading about the customs of your husand’s family. I knew that last name was Spanish!

      No doubt every culture is different. I have spent two years with Koreans almost on a daily basis and their culture was so different from what I had known thus far. You know, they don’t shake hands, they bend down to say hello and they eat sitting on the floor a lot of times.

      It’s always a good thing to get familiar with other cultures I think. It opens your views on things.

      Thank for coming and have a great week end!

  3. Hi Sylviane

    I love this post and yes I relate to it and have had quite a few culture shocks. Mainly when I have travelled as apart from a year living in the UK I have always lived in Australia but I have done quite a bit of travelling.

    I remember when I first went to Asia I was horrified at people spitting in the streets.
    In Algeria I was shocked when I visited a butcher shop to see parts of the animals hanging in the doorway as you walked in! I could not stay.

    I have many of these examples but even going to live in London when I was 21 was amazing. I grew up in a small city in Australia which was really a bit country town back then. I had never experienced underground railways, cities that were so busy and open 24/7.

    Then when I came home I thought I was at the end of the earth. I forgot shops closed at 5.30 in the afternoon and did not open Sundays.

    So I really relate to your experience.

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    1. Hi Sue,

      I see you had quite a few culture shocks yourself, and the more you are going to go to an Eastern land the more the shock. Some are fun, but some are horrible like in the case of that butcher as you mentioned. As a matter of fact, there are some countries I have no desire to go at all for such reasons 🙂

      Thank you for coming 🙂

  4. Hey Sylviane, Sounds like your trip home was a very needed one. I think anytime you stay in one place for a few years you pick up on whatever your surroundings are. When we travel I always enjoy learning about the different ways of peoples heritage.
    Great Aritcal I enjoyed it.
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    1. Hi Carol,

      Ahaha, you’re right, it was a needed one. I love the way you put it!

      Thanks for coming by 🙂

  5. Hi Sylviane, this is such an interesting way of looking at the concept of culture shock. I for one would often myself in awe whenever I get the opportunity to travel to other countries. I guess what’s really important is the fact that we have the ability to accept and respect others for who they are and the choices they make. Thanks!

    1. Hi Emilia,

      Of course accepting anyone from any culture is the beauty of letting people experience such culture shocks. There would be no culture shock if we were not able to visit other lands freely.

      Thank your for coming and I apologize for the late reply. Just been very busy lately 🙂

    1. Hi Shalu,

      Sorry for the late reply, I’ve had one of those crazy week 🙂 Yes, culture shock do exist for sure and that’s kind of a normal thing too, since we all have different customs, habits, languages, you name it…

      Thank your for coming, dear 🙂

  6. This was hillarious Sylviane,

    I have so many stories too. My own father who did not learn to speak english until he was a grown man had spent so many years with english speakers that he searched for his words in French when he went home to visit his family. LOL..

    In some ways, i think it is easier to go to a country where you look different. I.e. when i went to japan, people made assumptions onthe way i looked and treated me accordingly. Same for all the other asian countries (even though I am half asian I do not really look it LOL). This was my experience.

    THe one thing i have to say that i do not experience here is lots of strangers talk to us here in La Garde. I especially love the little old ladies on the bus holdin their dogs who sometimes randomly talk to me and my daughter. But in Marseille people did not talk to us so maybe it’s just depends on where you are?

    You’ve inspired me to write my next post Sylviane. I’ll link back to yours because i just loved your stories.
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    1. Hi Annie,

      I agree it’s easier to go to a foreign country sometimes than go back home. I can totally relate with your father’s story 🙂

      Yes, in smaller towns you will have more strangers talking to you, especially older folks. I agree.

      I’m so glad I inspired you and thank you so much for linking to me 🙂 How funny, sometimes I browse your blog for inspiration too 🙂

      Thank you for coming and can’t wait to see what post you are going to come up with 🙂

  7. Hey Sylviane,
    In my opinion each and every country possess its own character and thus culture. Indeed, there are going to be a lot of cultural differences which may develop into a shock. But we should respect each and every culture. Thanks for this post.

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