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Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Why France Can Be Hard on Les Américaines

Before Christmas I was talking to an older woman I know from church.  One of her daughter-in-laws is American (fancy that) and she is both puzzled and a bit irritated at her son's wife who is not taking to life in the Hexagon very well.  She still doesn't speak French, she said, and she hardly leaves the house.  She comes to family events and then refuses to sit and chat with everyone. She's not working, doesn't do much of anything and seems very unhappy.

This is not the first time I've encountered this kind of situation.  Doesn't happen often but when it does, what I hear breaks my heart.

For every "American in Paris" book out there that says that integration was a breeze and claim they are now fluent in French, living in a fabulous apartment in Paris with their charming successful husbands and perfectly bi-lingual chères têtes blondes, there are many other untold stories of isolation, depression, problems learning the language, dealing with the extended French family or finding a decent paying job.

Hell, I read some of these books and feel like a failure.

If you are one of those living the fantasy, read no further.  But if you are an American thinking about moving here or you are already here and feeling low, here are a few random thoughts I offer to you from my experience that might help:

Living the Shock:  Yes, there are a zillion books out there about how hard it is to adjust to any foreign culture. Read away but understand that reading about it isn't the same as living it.  If you think that you can arm yourself with enough knowledge to escape the worst of it, think again.  As far as I can tell there is no correlation between the number of books about the target culture read and how you personally will be able to handle it.  You may be in for a rough ride (or not).  The only cure I know of is time.  It just takes awhile to adjust.  Never ever compare yourself to other American migrants who seem to be doing much better.  You have no idea what is going on inside their heads.  They may be suffering, too, but they just aren't letting you see it.

Dealing with Differences:  People are people, right?  Just treat the people around you the way you wish to be treated and you'll be fine.  Yes and no.  The first sentence is so general that it is useless.  The second can get you in a lot of trouble.  Think about it - you the American want the people in France to treat you the way you would expect to be treated back in the United States.  That's not going to happen.  They may behave differently toward you because you are a foreigner (and, if you are honest, don't many Americans do the same thing to the French in the US?) or they may treat you as they would another French person.  Either way, it won't be what you expect and there is very little you can do about it because you can't control what other people say, do or feel.

This is the source of a lot of anxiety.  Americans in general have a very high internal locus of control and are taught that they can direct or influence people, places and things if they just try hard enough.  When that doesn't seem to work, there is a tendency for Americans (and I think American women in particular) to turn on themselves and start thinking it's all their fault.

Humility is good, beating yourself up is bad.  It won't help.  It can lead to severe depression and actually make it harder to integrate.  How well does anyone learn anything if she's come to the conclusion that she's stupid or an incapable?

Being an Amateur Anthropologist:  The obvious things like learning the language and table manners are actually not that hard to figure out because these things have explicit rules.  It's the implicit that is tough because not even the French can necessarily explain to you why they act in a certain way or why something is right or wrong.  I cannot count the number of times I did something that raised eyebrows and so I asked, OK, explain to me why and the answer was "Parce que c'est comme ça" (because that's the way it is).  These people are not fooling with you (or me), they really don't know. It just never occurred to them to ask.

One way to deal with this (and to keep yourself from going crazy) is to think of yourself as an amateur anthropologist writing a thick description of another culture.  Your job is not to make value judgements, nor is it to speculate why.  You are just there to observe and you modify your behaviour to test your hypotheses.  When I do X, I get a very strong negative reaction.  When I do Y, no one notices.  So if I want to fit in, I need to do Y.

Making Mistakes:  What I described in the previous paragraph is a negative feedback system.  Culture seems to operate that way.  Do something right and no one notices.  Do something wrong and suddenly it feels like someone just dropped a ton of bricks on your head.  It's very hard on the ego.

My sense is that the French are very hard on foreigners and on each other when mistakes are made. They can be very critical and very sensitive to criticism.  I have seen people I love turn around and leap with glee when they detect a spelling mistake in a note the concierge leaves for apartment residents.  I was once walking my garden barefoot and the neighbor's daughter came out to tell me that I needed to put on some shoes.  Her mother came out just after and yelled (and I mean yelled) at her for being disrespectful to an adult.  I once tried to count the number of negative remarks my French spouse made to me in the course of a morning.  I ran out of fingers in the first hour.

Sometimes this constant criticism is crushing.  I don't know what it's like for American men married to French women but it comes up quite often in my conversations with American women married to French men and they take this behaviour very personally.

The conclusion that some come to is that France is not a safe place to make mistakes and that can be either an accelerator or an impediment to integration. There is no doubt in my mind that negative cultural feedback systems work.  Fear can be a very powerful motivator but then so is encouragement and positive feedback.   Lack of the latter can lead to an American migrant simply giving up.

Letting Time Take Care of It:  Remember that no one has the power to change people, places or things.  Il y a des cons partout (there are idiots everywhere) and every migrant who has a bad experience with someone in the host country needs to take a step back.

The longer you live somewhere, the more experiences you will accumulate, the more people you will know, and the better you will feel, until the exact opposite happens and you'll wake up one day and wonder how you could have changed so much.  At that point you'll have a different fear:  losing yourself. When you look in the mirror, have coffee with a friend or walk out of a government office with exactly what you came for, you'll have this flash of "Who in the hell is this person?  Is it still me or is it some alien that's invaded my body?"

Dealing with Bad Situations:  Sometimes the situation really is a bad one and would be bad regardless of where you are living and who you are married to. I've heard some true (and truly terrible) tales of that charming husband changing drastically once he arrived on his own turf:  mental and physical abuse, controlling behaviour and the like.  It happens but isn't it interesting that you don't find many autobiographies about that when you peruse Amazon for stories about Americans in France. (Or, for that matter, similar tales about French women in the U.S. married to Americans.)

Finding Your Way:  Only you can determine whether it's just a question of culture shock or if you really are in a bad place.  My best advice if you are struggling is to first give up the idea that going at it alone is always your best strategy.  Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't and asking for help does not make you a failure.  Consider the possibility that those who did integrate and built lives here supposedly solo are not telling the whole truth when they write about their experiences. Maybe they just got lucky.   Or perhaps they suffered a great deal but that sort of thing doesn't sell books or make for a very popular blog, does it?

Oddly enough, sometimes it is other Americans who are not helpful.  Folks, this is not a race.  It's not a competition.  It's not about who has the best French accent or whether or not someone has a "real" job or who does or doesn't spend time with the American community in that area.  There is no prize for "Most Integrated American Living the Most Authentic Foreign Experience."  But sometimes we act as if there was such a thing.  And when you think about it for two seconds, that's really dumb.

Getting Help:  So once you've rid yourself of other people's expectations, where do you go for help?  Personally, I think it's perfectly OK to go back to the source and by that I mean other Americans.  Look, the French husband, colleagues, friends and so on may not get where you are coming from because they've never been a foreign woman in their own country.  Not their fault and it's not yours either.

Find another American or an English-speaker who you trust, and perhaps has a situation similar to yours,  and sit down for a long lunch where you can get what you are feeling off your chest. Or find an organization that can point you to people who can help.

Let me be crystal clear here, if you are having trouble adjusting to life here this can be the very best thing you can do for yourself and the people around you.  Getting your head on straight will put you in a frame of mind that is much more conducive and open to integration.  Another possibility is a cross-cultural counselor.  I've never used one but I know they exist (and if anyone has links or one to propose, please do so).   The American Church has a program for Americans called Bloom Where You're Planted which I've heard is quite good.  In the past I was a member of AAWE (Association of American Wives of Europeans) and I thought they were very good folks.  There is also a professional association for women called EPWN (European Professional Women's Network).

Temporary refuges or a place to live permanently?  Does it really matter?  When you die, do you really think the more integrated foreigners here will have a better shot at heaven? Or that someone will inscribe "Lived in France for 30 years and still couldn't use the subjunctive correctly" on the family crypt?

Just relax and do the best you can.  Concentrate on being happy, not on complex verb tenses or whether or not you did or said something "wrong" at dinner last night.  Take it one day at a time. If you are really struggling and in a very bad place, find help (and please feel free to send me an email if you like).   Integration is a process, not a race. A journey, not a destination.   And remember that nobody gets to be valedictorian of this class.


Catherine said...

Great post. It makes me wonder what my Hungarian husband would have to say about our move to Canada 2 years ago. He speaks English but it still wasn't easy.

Anonymous said...

You give the example of the toughest situation for any expat: sitting in a large group of friends/family who are chatting away. After 17 yrs of immersion this is still an unpleasant experience for anyone--not just the girl mentioned.

Everyone else in the group has the ability to jump in and out of the conversation except the one without the language skills. Where I am at (not France), one is fully expected to eat lunch and have coffee breaks together with coworkers in this way. And one's job performance reviews are related to how one fits into the group.

Sounds like that girl is getting her relationship performance group review for her performances.

What does someone do? Look interested in everything that's said? Jump out and say something for the conversation even though one doesn't know the language?

I have always avoided such things as much as I could, although it is not easy and not fun to avoid a party.

Greetings from Scandinoovia!

Victoria FERAUGE said...

@Catherine, Good point. The problem is not always the language. I met one American woman here not so long ago who was French teacher back in the US and her French was outstanding. However, it didn't seem to be helping. I know that my French spouse (and I only found this out much later) had problems at work in the US. Some of his colleagues at Boeing were suspicious and thought he was a spy for Airbus.

@anonymous, That's brilliant - yes, she was definitely being judged by a panel (though not of her peers). When the conversation is buzzing and people are moving from one topic to another, that's very hard and even the reasonably fluent can be left behind. The French also interrupt a lot and that doesn't help. I knew a Japanese woman here and this just drove her insane.

Business News Australia said...

Very well thought of. It can be applied to everyone who are struggling with verbal communication after a move to a country.

Anonymous said...

Victoria, the description of the expectations directed towards the American 'foreigner' in the group of relatives who were fluent native speakers reminded me of a visit to Quebec with a trilingual boyfriend.

Some of the assembled relatives had very little English, and/or no apparent desire to try and speak it with me. I had only a few years of very basic French learned in my Canadian Anglo school system - which was also not Quebecois French.

The group of relatives seemed to feel that as a girlfriend (and potentially eventually a candidate for spouse/partner, it was my duty and responsibility to speak French, and to learn it for the future. I was from a mainly English speaking province and region, and rarely visited Quebec. My boyfriend was a fluent French speaker from birth, but did not see himself as Quebecois, or even solely as a Canadian, as he grew up mainly overseas in a non-European country (but attended a French language school with children of expats from a range of countries) he did not express any desire to speak French in Canada, did not really value it, and was not interested in helping me even if I had seen fit to take up lessons as a viable option. I did try a refresher via correspondence course, and the boyfriend was very critical and not supportive at all of my efforts or interest. His mother and siblings were also French speakers, and his father was an Anglo (who was somewhat trilingual as well, but with a very pronounced Anglo accent).

My boyfriend's mother despised Americans and was not diplomatic or subtle in letting me know that (even at my American father's funeral).

No amount of effort on my part was going to change that situation, and luckily I was not living out of my own milieu, region or country. I cannot imagine what it would have been like if I had.

Ellen Lebelle said...

You're spot on in your analysis, Victoria. I managed to integrate really well. I had wonderful in-laws and I think that counts for a lot!
I threw myself into integrating from the beginning and even though I joined AAWE at the beginning, I let it drop because, at the time, I didn't fit in with what I perceived the American community then. Later, I rejoined in order to have some American influence for my kids and I discovered this sisterhood of all sorts of women from all sorts of backgrounds having all sorts of experiences here. I've remained a member ever since. And AARO has brought me many more friends, bringing in some men, with their different experience. So, now that I'm retired, I find I really have more friends among the Americans than among my French neighbors. And I do have lots of neighbor friends, having lived in Nogent sur Marne for 36 years, now!

Christophe said...

I love reading your posts, Victoria.
I would just comment on 2 things.
I think this is unfair for the mother in law to expect her daughter in law to participate in a group conversation, especially if she doesn't speak the language well. This is one of the most difficult thing to do for a non native speaker regardless of the language. It's just pretty hard to pick up things when multiple conversations are going on, people are interrupting etc.

But I would be as upset as her to see that there is no interest in learning the language, or lack on communication in much smaller groups (like just the inlaws).
I am a little upset at my wife who shows no interest in speaking French at all when we visit with my family. In fact, my parents are the ones who make the effort to speak English with her so that she doesn't feel isolated - and I often translate a lot of things.
But I think it would be really nice to see some efforts from her side. It hasn't been the case for 10 years and that really bothers me, especially since she understands quite a bit. But again, understanding and speaking are 2 different things.
She claims it's her personality and that even when we visit her parents, she doesn't speak much and that she doesn't want to make mistakes...

Sauve said...

I found myself very much in the situation of the daughter-in-law of the older woman. I've been here for awhile now and I loved it and love it. Except when going to my inlaws. It wasn't that I didn't like them although I'm sure they didn't like me until this year. It was because as I was trying to learn to speak French I was constantly being interrupted to be corrected on either pronunciation or grammar or verb tense. This happened even when they would ask me a question and I was answering. So I simply stopped talking to them other than to hello.

Try telling that woman with the American daughter-in-law that she might be creating the problem and it only exists for her.

I continued to learn on my own from DVD, radio, and books. Lots of reading by the way. They didn't catch on that I understood much of what they were saying even though my husband told them I could understand quite a bit of spoken French so for 2 years I would hear and understand snatches of negative observations regarding me.

The culture has not bothered me quite as much as it has apparently bothered some other Americans. Perhaps that is because I worked in hospitals and was in close contact with both staff and patients from other cultures or because I moved from Texas to California when I was 12 and then all around the USA later on. I think it is because I avoided contact with emigrants from the USA and Britain even to the point of reading their blogs or the books they've written. Frankly, I didn't want to bring my culture lock-stock-and-barrel here. Whatever the reason, regarding culture, I have assimilated comfortably although I seldom take part in conversations. As I have aged I've become less chatty and I don't intend to change that about myself. Then end of the story is that I am quite happy to be living in France and I don't enjoy going back to the states that have changed so much since 9/11. If I didn't have family there I would not go at all.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

@Business News, Thank you.

@anonymous, Those damn expectations. I really do think there are much better ways to get people to do things than yelling at them or making them feel uncomfortable. One of the nicest things that ever happened to me when I was learning to speak French was a word from my sister-in-law who told me that I'd made a lot of progress - my vocabulary was much better and I was using more complex verb tenses. Made a world of difference. She noticed!

@Ellen, I think we would both agree that any American woman wanting to marry a Frenchman needs to check his parents first. :-)

@Christophe. I agree and the phone too. That was the worst for me.

I see what you mean about lack of interest. I wouldn't say that French is easy by any means but I've studied Latin, Russian and Japanese and French. Honestly, French was the easiest of all of them.

Fear is a huge problem when it comes to learning or speaking a language. But the more frightened you are, the harder it is. I don't know how to loosen someone up - I used alcohol for many years and that turned out to be a big mistake. I'm going to look into the psychology of second language learning and see what I can come up with.

Anonymous said...

Bonjour - I have heard stories about not fitting in, being interrogated and criticised. Sounds very much like my childhood! So, in a way, I am already prepared for the worst. Having lived in NYC, however, gives me some naural advantage of not taking this too personally.

I've tried friendships with French natives here in Seattle. A mixed bag. Many constantly corrected my grammar and accent - I eventually stopped speaking French to them, then eventually stopped the friendship. Many French applaud my progress; my accent is pretty good but m grammar and vocabulary remain weak - this I know and am not too frustrated by it. At least, I have the accent down.

During two visits to Paris (hardly representative of France overall), I felt completely at ease with being ignored, corrected, or yelled at by the poor metro attendant trapped inside her glass cage, dealing with yet another stupid American. This latter episode was truly humorous to me, and it was very hard not to begin laughing.

I deal well with foreign cities and countries, cultures, and languages. Perhaps there is hope I won;t encounter the withdrawl...after all, the reason for moving is to begin a completely new life. Clean slate, fresh start.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

@Anonymous, I think you have found the key - humour! If you can step back enough to see just how ludicrous some situations are you can chuckle to yourself and let it go. Pema Chodron says, "Lighten up!" and I think she's right. Took me years to figure it out.

One strategy I've found for dealing with negativity and really over the top criticism is to simply agree with the person. "Yes, you're right, dear. Everyone in France except you is an imbecile. The country is going to hell and will destroy itself in a few years. Life as we know it is over. We'll be out in the streets begging for baguettes and sleeping under a bridge on the periph. Sad, but that's just the way it is."

Delivered with a cheeky grin. :-)

Two reactions I've had to this. Can make the person really mad because it's not "serious" or the other person starts laughing too. It's worth a try.

Victoria FERAUGE said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tim said...


I never knew Mr. Ferauge worked for Boeing. For whatever its worth I personally am a HUGE HUGE fan of Airbus and am always happy to have the opportunity to fly on an Airbus plane instead of Boeing. One of my heroes in life is former Airbus CEO Jean Pierson who ran Airbus in the 1980s and 1990s(along with Jacques Mitterrand brother of the former French President). Jean Pierson according to several books I have read is probably one of the most hated Frenchmen in DC short of Charles DeGaulle.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

He was indeed a Boeing employee many many years ago and still has friends there.