Conversation topics in France : your survival guide

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A couple of key principles:

  • Thou shall speak French (or apologize…)
  • Tu ? Vous ? In case of doubt, thou shall vouvoyer.
  • Personal life and professional life should not be mixed.
  • A connoisseur of fine arts thou shall be.
  • Some sensitive subjects are best avoided.

Generally speaking, French people are überproud of their country : “France” brings up a glorious cultural past, intellectual excellence, haute cuisine and a prestigious language.

1* Engaging the conversation {en français}

If you speak little or no French, you should try to mumble a few words anyway (even with terrible pronunciation). Locals will really value your effort, even if you just keep on slipping a few French words once in a while. Your excuses (Excusez-moi, je ne parle pas français /Désolé, je parle mal français) will be welcome with a warm smile and your audience’s indulgence.

Even though English is largely spoken (or at least understood), its status is still that of a rival language threatening the prestige and purity of French. One thing is universally true: it is considered rude to rebuff the language of the place where you live or stay. Your French interlocutor would probably not bother trying to understanding you if you disdain his mother tongue. Remember: in France, speaking French is the rule; foreign languages are the exception.

Also, everyone is to be greeted (even the shopkeeper, someone in the street or the cashier at the post office) before starting a discussion: nothing is ruder than asking questions without a formal Bonjour!

- Bonjour Madame. Comment allez-vous? [informal: Salut, ça va?]
- Bonjour! Bien, merci. Et vous-même? [Ouais ça va, et toi?]
- Bien. {Ask your question}

The person is not necessarily genuinely deeply interested in knowing your mood, health problems or opinion about the weather: it’s more like a way of warming up the communication before getting down to business… small talk.

2* Vouvoyez! {in theory…}

Like German (Sie – du), French knows deux ways of addressing people: the formal vous and informal tu [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/T-V_distinction]. Is it really that simple? No way ! [http://www.iht.com/articles/2000/02/19/blume.t.php] Vous indicates a certain form of respect, and maintains the distance required by the respect to one’s elevated status: your boss, your mum, the priest, the teacher…

Professional acquaintances usually confine themselves to “vous”, even outside of work (see point 3). You will always address older people, officials (ex. policemen) and strangers with vous. This is called vouvoyer quelqu’un.

With children, close friends, and people of the same age and status (ex. between students …) you can use tu. Tip: once you have switched to tutoyer, it’s difficult to go back…
Learners of French may have difficulty distinguishing the two. Therefore, avoid tutoying when in doubt: using vous is safer until instructed otherwise. Thus you will avoid any faux pas.

3* Métro, boulot, dodo

In France, privacy is a precious thing. Personal friends and professional networks don’t always mix. That’s why you shouldn’t be surprised when your new colleagues keep personal details to themselves (at least initially). In the beginning, colleagues wait to know you better before having an informal drink at home.

For example, a professional call at home would receive a cool welcome… Facebook and other social networks have not changed that state of mind: private and professional lives remain distinct. Lunch breaks are private, and dinner is usually not a business moment.

Even so, personal questions denote a real interest in your life and person: with all respect to your privacy you don’t want to disappoint the inquisitor by staying silent… Be friendly and keep the chat going: the French love to debate endlessly :)

4* Be witty!

More than your salary or your castle in the Vallée de la Loire, your argumentative skills will be appreciated. Sparring matches and debates are frequently seen on TV, where the bel esprit is a prized talent. An intellectual grasp on current events or intelligent point of view on social issues should be respected no matter what your opinions. In general, professional meetings are more an opportunity for speaking about issues than for resolving them (the solution will come from the top executives anyway).

Knowledge of the French history is often necessary; politics involve discussing topics like secularism, the central role of the beloved State, public service, or the Welfare State. Participants are expected to understand them.

Mesdemoiselles, you may receive compliments on your wonderful person. Just remember that a gentle flirt is de rigueur ! A bit of flattery does not always commit one to anything more ;)

5* Contentious subjects

Sensitive topics are numerous in French society. Depending on the people, they are not the same everywhere, of course. There is not such a thing as a exhaustive list of topics to be avoided: here is only some indication … Be careful!

Racism, immigration and Algerian War (1954-1962) have left fresh wounds. Algerian immigrants and their families suffered heavily under French colonization. This led to a climate of paranoia, with even the police being accused of inventing a so-called délit de sale gueule (“offence of ugly face”). (Police misconducts are are a hot topic, too)

Religious beliefs are not your business. Asking about faith point-blank is likely to be frowned upon. This is heightened by the official secularity of the State, which deters the publicity of religious beliefs.

It is considered rude to ask about salary, revenues, wealth… Should you be interested in your acquaintance’s job, should you rather evoke his responsibilities, colleagues or enterprise culture.
Fortunately, the following subjects are sure to please: family, French culture and history, art, food and drinks, holidays, travel. A safe bet is thus asking about the last holiday in France; like in many large countries, 60% of French people choose France as their holiday destination. ;-)

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