The Top 10 Cultural Differences Between France and the U.S.

Katie Hale is a student at Luther College and an ISA Featured Blogger. Katie studied abroad with ISA in Paris, France.

Rue de la Huchette
Rue de la Huchette

I’ve been in France for almost two months now, so I’m starting to get used to “le rhythme Français,” but there are some definite differences that have taken getting used to. So here are, in no particular order, 10 of the major cultural differences between France and the U.S.

10. Dogs

You will see dogs everywhere. On the metro, in shops, on the streets, dogs are welcome in more public places in France! Unfortunately, you will also see their poop everywhere. People don’t really seem to care about picking up after thier pets. Eyes to the sidewalk and watch where you step!

Edgar, our host dog, likes sitting at the table. Our host mom spoils him rotten!
Edgar, our host dog, likes sitting at the table. Our host mom spoils him rotten!

9. Brands

You may be surprised about the number of “American” brands you see here. I know I was shocked to see a Ford and Chevy dealership, as well as to find Goldfish crackers and Neutrogena face wash in the grocery store. However, just because something is the same brand doesn’t mean it’s the same, especially when it comes to food. Europe is much stricter about preservatives in their food, so it tastes different. The Lays Barbecue potato chips in France have much more diverse flavor than those in the U.S.! Also, be prepared to pay much more. My roommate and I found Skippy peanut butter in the grocery store, but it was 8 euro for a tiny jar!

8. Meals

I could write a whole blog post about this, so I’ll try to summarize!

The French have a saying about meals: At breakfast, we eat like kings. At lunch, like lords. At dinner, like servants. Whether or not that’s true definitely depends on the situation!

In general, meals consist of several courses. With my family friends in Lyon, dinner would start with a bowl of soup, then we’d have the main dish, and then cheese or yogurt with fruit. My host family in Paris generally just has the main dish and dessert, but there are other families with more courses. It all depends!

7. Bread

We generally only think of baguettes as “French bread,” but if you walk into a “boulangerie” (bakery), you’ll see that there are so many more kinds than that!

Bread is so much a part of a French meal that it’s viewed more as a tool than as a part of the meal. Rather than just eating a piece of bread by itself, you use a piece of bread to help push something onto your fork, or to clean your plate in between meals. We generally use the same dish for multiple courses, otherwise the cleanup would be astronomical! Also, it’s generally set on the tablecloth next to your plate, not on it!

Tips: DON’T buy bread at the beginning of your commute back home. It will take every ounce of self-control you have not to eat it on the way home! Also, my French Tourism & Gastronomy told us that if you buy a baguette and it’s warm, aka straight out of the oven, DON’T put it in the paper bag they give you, because that traps the gases still trying to escape and makes it really tough. The more you know!
Tips: DON’T buy bread at the beginning of your commute back home. It will take every ounce of self-control you have not to eat it on the way home! Also, my French Tourism & Gastronomy told us that if you buy a baguette and it’s warm, aka straight out of the oven, DON’T put it in the paper bag they give you, because that traps the gases still trying to escape and makes it really tough. The more you know!

6. Driving

Cars are smaller and roads are smaller. Most cars are standard transmission rather than automatic. You can park either way when parallel parking. As far as I can tell, Peugeot is the most common car brand. French drivers are crazy in general and are not afraid to use their horns! Also, jaywalking is not really a big deal here!

5. Smoking

That cute guy in your French class? He probably smokes, and the only reason your teacher gave you an extra-long break in the middle of class was so she could have a smoke break. Smoking is really common here, and there are cigarette butts everywhere. It’s disgusting! Thankfully, smoking is banned in most public places, like the Metro or restaurants, but the terraces and patios of restaurants are fair game.

4. Teacher-student relations

When I was going to classes with my friend in Lyon, I saw how people really don’t make personal connections with professors. Also, everything is much more formal. There’s a certain etiquette to writing an email to a professor. You have to start with “Chère Madame/Monsieur le Professeur” and end with “Veuillez recevoir, Madame/Monsieur, l’expression de mes salutations distinguées”, and professors generally use last names. This hasn’t been my personal experience at the Catho. I think since we’re in the program for international students, things are a little different, but this is what it’s like in a normal French university.

*Side note: never use “Madame” with a first name (ex: Madame Catherine).  This implies that the person is the owner of a brothel. So unless that’s what you’re going for, it’s always Madame + last name!

3. Other university life things

Classes are much longer. At the Catho we have 3-hour classes with a break in the middle. Sitting in class for that long takes some getting used to, but it’s definitely do-able!

Going to college isn’t quite the lifestyle that it is in the US. There aren’t generally residence halls or school sports teams. Any music and sports activities are club, not part of the curriculum.

2. In the home

Windows don’t usually have screens in Europe. I was prepared for this, but surprised by the notion of “airing out” a room. For 10-20 minutes a day, you’re expected to open the window to get some air circulating. This was a very foreign concept to me because if I opened my window in Iowa in the middle of January I’d end up with a snowdrift in my room!

Also, this depends on the home, but oftentimes what we think of as a “bathroom” is actually separated into 2 rooms: the W.C. [vay-say] (toilet) and la salle de bain [sahl de ban] (shower/tub and sink). My house has a combined W.C./salle de bain, as did my friend’s apartment in Lyon, but it’s very common to have the rooms separated here. It can take some getting used to, but it’s kind of nice to be able to take a shower without worrying about whether someone will need to use the bathroom!

1. Money

Pretty much everything is more expensive here. Of course, it depends on what you’re buying and where you’re looking for. Jeans, shoes, and clothes in general are expensive. Coffee is as well, especially Starbucks! Your best bet for an inexpensive lunch is to eat in a bakery. Many of them have lunch combos for a sandwich, dessert, and drink for anywhere from 6-10 euro! You might think of cafés as being inexpensive, but a meal at a café can be almost 20 euro a plate! Besides bakeries, you can also go to Rue de la Huchette. Located near Notre Dame and the ISA Paris office, this narrow street is filled with various restaurants and eateries, some sit-down, some fast food, some ethnic, and some French.

One of the many Greek places on Rue de la Huchette—this cost me 5 euro!
One of the many Greek places on Rue de la Huchette—this cost me 5 euro!
Did I mention you can find dessert, too?

Another option you have for saving money on food is grocery shopping and packing your own lunch. Ask your host family if you can use some space in the fridge for groceries. My roommate and I buy deli meat and cheese, plus yogurt and other sides. Then we each buy a baguette, slice it and freeze it. All you have to do is pop the frozen bread in the microwave for 25-30 seconds and it becomes soft and warm and wonderful. We’ve saved a lot of money by packing our own lunches. You can also try the CROUS, a cafeteria for students with full meals for 3.15 euro. While Paris is definitely an expensive city, you can save a lot of money if you get creative!

In conclusion:

Paris is completely different from anything I’ve ever experienced back home, and there are lots of other things I could’ve talked about here. Basically the most important thing is to go into your study abroad experience with an open mind! Don’t expect everything to be the same as it is back home. You came to a different country for a reason! So try new things, go out and explore! The world is your oyster. Why not make the most of it?

Have questions about study abroad in Paris? Feel free to ask them below!

The world awaits… discover it.

19 thoughts

  1. You make me homesick! The Greek shop on Rue de la Huchette is the same from the time I was a student at La Sorbonne in the 80s! It wasn’t exactly cheap either but their food kept me full.
    I think that you are summazing the major differences between France and the US pretty well.
    In a funny way I did the same when I moved to the States.
    Enjoy the discovery of my native France and Paris where I spent ten glorious years.

    1. Thanks so much for your comment! :) I love the Greek restaurant so much–it’s one of those places where I go to treat myself occasionally :) And you’re right, the gyros there are so filling!

  2. Just so you know ‘saucer avec son pain’ is very rude in France. I know we tend to do this, but you can’t do this at a fancy diner or at the restaurant. If the sauce is particularly delicious you can ask for a spoon. But the rest of your article was very good and accurate, thanks.

    1. That’s interesting to hear, because that wasn’t my experience at all! Like I said, I just followed my host family’s example. Maybe it’s a regional thing? Thanks for reading.

  3. Thanks for sharing… Another aspect worthy of mention is that there are many different cultural variations depending on the region and town in France. Much like in the US you would find between various towns and regions, even though the 2 countries are not on the same scale. Paris and Lyon are part of France but not necessarily representative of the country as a whole. Spending time abroad and in different cultures can be very enlightening and a definite awakening process for everyone. Enjoy the adventure!

  4. This is strange always wanted to be a foreign extanged student but find it difficult to leve home

  5. This is cool I’ve always wanted to be a forighn extanged student but I find it hard to leave home for so long

  6. Hi! I’m a French student living in Norfolk. Your comments on your trip are really pleasant to see. Also, I can say that you experienced a big stay, I’m glad for you. However, as you mentioned, you stayed at Paris, and you studied in “La Catho” of Lyon. These places are part of upper class, so things are also different in other regions. France has many different cultures and traditions, and it takes a while for a foreigner to know them all. Nevertheless, thanks for your comments, I was looking for US/French cultural differences and I think I’ve found what I was looking for. Hope you experience is as great as mine in your country.

  7. Hello,
    Would it be possible if you could elaborate more on the meal section? I am doing an assignment on the that particular french saying. I’ve read on other blogs that it’s the other way around.
    It would be great to hear from you soon.
    Thank you!

  8. Hi! Thank you so much for the information! I have been curious about France and other countries. I’m an American living in the US, but every once in a while I daydream about what it’s like to live in France, Italy, Greece, etc. I love that dogs are welcome almost everywhere. I wish I could take my pup everywhere I go. Too bad they don’t have rules for picking up after your dog. Also I was concerned about smoking. I hate cigarette smoke and (don’t laugh) I remember watching Sex and the City and in France they smoked EVERYWHERE except for an art museum. lol

    In reality I will probably always live in the US, but I would love to travel to foreign lands. I’m not big on change and even a little afraid of it so moving to another country and possibly getting stuck there is not really the type of thing I would risk, but I thoroughly enjoyed reading your blog and feel like you answered a lot of questions for me! Thanks!

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