Demystifying the French

As I told you in my last blog about la politesse, while finishing it up, my friend, Janet Hulstrand, asked me if I would read and review her latest book: Demystifying the French. How to Love Them and Make them Love You (What you’ve heard about them is not entirely true….).  I love reading most anything and, as it turned out, this was a very special read. I learned a lot. The book is small and can be read quickly. You can earmark pages you want to return to and give more thought to it. I highly recommend that anyone visiting France for the first or the twentieth time, read this book. I think that means I give it five stars!

The book is broken down into two parts. The first part is made up of what she calls: Essential Tips for Even Very Brief Encounters. Saying Bonjour is Tip #1!! Only five of them but five that will make a huge difference in how you perceive the French while you are here. The second part: Understanding the French Mentality solved some real issues for me. Ah ha moments, oh that’s why so and so did that.

The following is an interview that I did with Janet. Warning: this is longer than a four minute read. If you have the time, it is well worth it.

When I think of you, Janet, and your writing, writing a “primer” for us étrangers is not the first thing that comes to mind.  Why did you write Demystifying the French, and when did you start? 

I wrote this book because it really makes me sad to hear people from the U.S. and other countries talk about the bad experiences they have had in France, with its “unfriendly” people. The students who come from New York to study literature in Paris with me each summer are often warned by friends and family that the French are “rude, arrogant, and they hate Americans.” This is just sonot true! But it is true that Americans (and other foreigners) often get off to a bad start in their interactions with French people because there are a few simple rules of etiquette that they simply don’t know about; and knowing them can make all the difference in the world. 

I wanted to write a book that would explain what those rules are, and show how easy they are to follow, so that the experience of traveling (or living) in France can be a really good one, even if you don’t speak a lot of French. 

I actually started the book a few years ago, as a few posts on my blog, though I wasn’t thinking of it as a book then. I was teaching a class at Politics & Prose bookstore in Washington DC, called “Demystifying the French.” Last year I realized that this topic could be expanded into a very useful and fun book, and have a wider audience. And so now here it is! 

I love the subtitle of your book (“What you’ve heard about them is not entirely true”).  I love the French, and I have discarded so many preconceived notions that I had before moving here.  How much damage do we inflict on ourselves by not making French culture as important as sightseeing when we are planning a visit?

For me the richest part of a travel experience is always human interaction, much more than sightseeing. I added that second subtitle because as I was working on the book and I told friends and family the subtitle (“How to Love Them and Make Them Love You”), a few people said, “Why should I want to love them, and why do I care if they love me?” I realized these people were a bit resistant to my main message, and were not necessarily natural francophiles. So the added subtitle was an attempt to intrigue those people who weren’t necessarily inclined to care about pleasing the French, and to let them know that I do realize that sometimes the French can “require special handling.” This is NOT the same thing saying that they are rude, or arrogant, nor is it an indication that someone is unfriendly. It’s just that they’re operating according to a different code of behavior. We alloperate according to a particular code of behavior. Often we’re not really aware of this until our code of behavior collides with someone else’s. Which often happens when Americans find themselves in France.

When I finished reading Part 1: Essential Tips for Even Very Brief Encounters, I thought to myself “If everyone read this, they’d have a course in Basic Diplomacy 101!!”  We Americans get away with so much these days, but the French don’t let us slide at all.  How did you pick these five basic tips?

I tried to pick five things that seem to me to be of truly fundamental importance to the French, and also things that, if you don’t know them it can cause unpleasant misunderstandings, or at least uncomfortable interactions. The first tip is one that almost everyone who writes about this topic stresses: that is, the importance of remembering to greet someone properly before launching into conversation. This is really hard for Americans to remember, because we have a tendency to go straight to the business at hand, and we don’t necessarily give a lot of thought to social niceties like saying “Bonjour” first. But in France, you can’t skip over that without being considered rude. So it’s important to know! 

Part 2 is a deeper, more complex look into how, as you say, the French “tick.”  I found it rich and thorough.  You must be quite pleased with how you have presented the French as interesting human beings worthy of being known as they are, not as we think they are. Are you getting a favourable response from expats and from your French friends?

The book has just been released so I haven’t had a chance to get very much feedback yet. The few expat friends I have heard from have been very favorable in their responses, and that makes me happy. I am anxious to hear what my French friends think too, because of course they are coming from an entirely different perspective. I hope they will like the book, though it’s not really written for them; and I hope that it will indirectly help them understand Americans a bit better too, though that is not the purpose of the book. 

I think they will probably be intrigued. The French tend to be very interested in analysis, and in human psychology; and I think they will be interested to see themselves from a different point of view. I hope it will be clear to them how much I love French people and their culture, even though I make a few jokes at their expense. I make plenty of jokes about myself and about Americans in general too, though. Hopefully it’s pretty well balanced in that way. 

When I finished your book, I found myself wishing someone had either handed me a book like this or taken me aside to explain to me the really important social aspects of living here in France before I came. Do you have any suggestions that might encourage prospective visitors to pick up a book like this as well as their sightseeing books on France and Paris?

I actually require the American students in my literature classes who come here each summer to read up on this topic before they come, and I tell them there will be a quiz! And the reason I do this is because I reallywant them to have the best possible chance to have a good time while they’re here, and to have not only positive experiences with the French people they encounter, but experiences that will show them that all the negative things they’ve heard about the French are just simply not true. I guess from now on I will require them to read my book! J

After five and a half years of living here, I have learned much of what is in your book —usually by trial and error and much embarrassment.  Chapter 4 was an eye opener: “The Importance of Stability, Order and Being Correct.” As your friend, Ellen Hampton says, “Because the French are so socially progressive and liberal about relationships, they are often mistaken for liberals.”  I now understand much better why the French administration drove me crazy in the first couple of years I was here.  Do you think there is any way around the frustration of that emphasis on “correctness?” Or is that one of the important parts of our education of living here?

Well I think one of the most important things that can be learned in living in any foreign environment is patience for the fact that things are often not done the way you feel instinctively they should be. This is in the nature of experiencing a different culture. And I think that patience is probably the best cure for frustration with those other ways we encounter when we’re not living in our own culture. It’s certainly better, and more effective, than wishing others were more like us, or trying to change them. 

Your chapter on “The Importance of Food” is so true.  Because I follow a strict medical regime that excludes alcohol and bread, the French have a hard time relating to me and how I eat.  I’ve been invited to four French dinner parties and never invited back a second time!  Your chapter helped me understand them better, and not make it personal to me.  But I constantly wonder if there is a way to explain my regime that would allow me to have more encounters of eating with the French.  Do you think it’s possible? 

Well, I think things are slowly changing in France in this regard. I was surprised to read just the other day about the number of vegan restaurants in Paris, which was apparently one of the factors that pushed it to the top of someone’s “healthiest cities” list. I think I also just heard something about a Meatless Monday effort in France, which is aimed at improving planetary health. So I think things are slowly but surely changing. It’s certainly a lot different now than when I was first bringing student groups here back in the 1990s and asking if they could make some accommodation for vegetarian students. “Oh, yes, we have a lovely quiche lorraine,” my contact at one restaurant said, very enthusiastically and kindly. When I gently reminded her that quiche lorraine does have meat in it, she said, “Well, just a little bit! They won’t mind that,will they?” And when I said, mmm, yes, they probably will, she sighed and said. “Well, okay…We can make it without meat, but that will be so sad!!!”  

I think today things are getting better for people who have particular dietary restrictions, whatever the reasons may be. If you can find a way to explain briefly what your restrictions are, and assure them that this situation is not “sad” for you, maybe that will help. Because the French really do want you to enjoy your meals! 

Is there anything else you want to add? 

Well, maybe just one thing. I hope people will read the glossary of Demystifying the French through from beginning to end. Unlike most glossaries, it’s really part of the book, and it’s one of my favorite parts.

When will your book be available for purchase? In the US? in France? The book is available for purchase now, and this link to my blog will let readers know where they can purchase it.  Thank you so much, Sara, for letting people know about it! 

If by any chance, the above link did not work, try this: https://wingedword.wordpress.com/demystifying-the-french/

Let both Janet and I know how you like the book. Welcome to enjoying the French!!!

A bientôt,

Sara

Author: sara somers

I am retired from my first profession, am from Oakland, California, living in Paris, France. I love books and movies and watching everyday life in Paris out my window. Please enjoy my musings as I grow into the author others say I am.

3 thoughts on “Demystifying the French”

  1. Hi Sally, I’ve just ordered Janet’s book on Amazon! It will be released here on 1/26, and I can’t wait to read it. Great interview.

    Love, Lisa

  2. Hey, Sally- I have bought Janet’s book – 2 actually (one for both Barb & myself). I sort of wish it had an option of voice so that I can both practice SAYING the words correctly and learning them. Anyway, I am certainly enjoying reading it! Please pass along a big THANK YOU to Janet! Looking forward to seeing you in May!

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