Cultural Topics

Cultural Topics

Making the Effort to Adapt to the Cultural Differences

  • People watching at the Charles de Gaulle airport shows two kinds of Americans returning home from a trip to France:  Those who adapted to a different culture and tried to fit in; and those who thought everything in Europe should be done as it is in the U.S.  The former group had a wonderful vacation.  The latter group had a horrible vacation; complaining about the lights going off in the hotel hallway, the small size of cars (for over-stuffed American suitcases), etc.

Understanding and Appreciating Cultural Differences

  • If this is the first or second time visiting France, spend a few hours learning the culture before departing.  Things are not always done the same way as they are in the U.S.
  • The webmaster highly recommends the book, Savoir Flair!  211 Tips for Enjoying France and the French, by Polly Platt.  The book is a little dated now (published in the 1990s), but it is full of good cultural tips that will make a trip LESS STRESSFUL.  Differences such as customer service expectations are discussed in an entertaining and helpful manner.


  • The French expect visitors to attempt to speak their language, as travelers are a guest in their country.  They will rarely use their English, even if they can speak it well.
  • The corollary is that they will respond positively to the effort shown:  Some years ago, the webmaster walked into an Orange (Wireless) store looking for an international cell phone.  He had scribbled down the French equivalents of calling plan (engagement) and similar words; and he attempted to ask for assistance.  Pleased with his effort, the elderly clerk quickly escorted him to a younger co-worker who spoke English well.
  • Therefore, readers should take a “French for Travelers” course at a local county college, Berlitz school, etc. before the trip.
  • If this can’t be done, at least buy a small travel dictionary, learn a few key phrases, and check out the French for Travelers books at the local library.
  • One recent reader suggested that Pimsleur has an excellent introductory French four CD package that will teach the first time traveler enough to get by.  The website is

The Five Magic French Phrases  (Excerpts from Savoir Flair Tip No. 36.)

  • Bonjour monsieur; bonjour madame; bonjour Mademoiselle—Good Day
  • Merci—Thank you
  • s’il vous plait—Please
  • excusez-moi—Excuse me
  • bonsoir monsieur; bonsoir madame; bonsoir mademoiselle—Good Evening
  • au revoir monsier; au revoir madame; au revoir mademoiselle—Goodbye
  • “With these words, and only these words, you can dress like Batman and walk down the sidewalk on your hands and French people will love you…  Eve Francois, assistant buyer at the W.H. Smith bookstore in Paris:  I see many Americans coming to buy books, and it is really shocking for us that they so often don’t say hello, even in English, before they ask a question or give a book to the cashier.  Ellen Sugarman, of Miami, an investigative reporter and author was refused service when she asked for the Herald Tribune at a sidewalk kiosk in Paris without saying hello first.”

French versus American Customer Service

  • Polly Platt suggests that the French have grown up with a different cultural setting than “the customer is always right” that pervades modern American marketing.  She suggests:  French employees selling wares are used to “certain codes” to trigger good customer service.  Foreign tourists don’t always know these codes.  Therefore, employees don’t always give them good customer service
  • She recommends that customers not just barge in aggressively.  Rather, say hello, be pleasant and relaxed.  Treat the vendor as if you’re in his/her home, not just a place of business.
  • Also, don’t expect to be waited on immediately, even if no other customers are present, and don’t look cross if this happens.

Building Long-Term Relationships Makes a Difference

  • If the reader plans on returning to the battlefields periodically, there are great benefits to building a long-term relationship with the same businesses.
  • The webmaster has been staying at the Hotel du Commerce in Aubreville (See links) regularly since 1997.  When leading a tour in 2005 one of the female participants developed a urinary tract infection.  As her situation worsened, Mr. & Mme. Labrosse called a local physician and the pharmacy in the next town over.  At their request, the physician made a house call and the pharmacist re-opened his store—all at dinner time on Friday night!

Holidays / Closed Days / Lunch Breaks / Fridays and Saturdays in Verdun

  • Most museums, shops and banks are closed on Mondays and on public holidays in France.
  • This becomes very important if your vacation is centered around visiting key museums.
  • Many businesses close for lunch from 1200 to 1400 hours.
  • Also, in many small towns the bakeries and butcher shops are often open for just a few hours in the morning.
  • In Verdun, shops generally close at 1800 hours.  The exception is Friday and Saturday (at least during the high tourist season); when shops stay open until 2000 hours.

Restrooms (for Women especially)

  • On the autoroutes (driving to and from Paris) there are many open-air rest areas (equipped with restrooms) and full-service rest areas (equipped with restrooms, restaurants, gas stations and stores).
  • However, once the traveler leaves the autoroute Rural France is not restroom-friendly.
  • Restaurants/bars do have to provide restrooms to their customers because they serve food and drinks.  However, the cultural norm is that one sits down and orders something, before dashing off to the restroom.  (Of course, this takes time.)
  • Stores do not have to provide restrooms to their customers unless they serve food.  Even if one asks kindly to use the employee restroom, the likely response will be no.
  • There are a few other places where one can find a restroom, including:  1) the public restrooms situated in the parking lot behind the Ouassaire de Douaumont and 2) the public restrooms in the visitors center at the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery at Romagne.

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