I like to think that I’m generally not that much of a stereotype – at least, not an Australian one. I don’t for example own anything in khaki green, I have never been to the ‘outback’ nor have I ever said ‘crikey!’ in my life. But after spending a week in the beautiful Alsace region of France, and living with a French friend and his housemates I discovered that I do a few things which to the French, are so English or at least typical of an English speaker. Most of them, I never thought about being ‘classically English’ – I just thought it was… normal?
Note: In this article being/sounding ‘English’ refers to being a native English-speaker, not necessarily being from England. As much as we judge, praise or mock each others accents we all speak with the same accent when we speak French.
1. I like to hug people
Friends, family and even people I don’t know very well will often get a hug from me. I could never say hello/goodbye to a friend without giving them a hug – and then if we’re really close (by blood, marriage or friendships) they might get a brief kiss on the cheek. What do the French think about this? It’s just “too intimate” as one of the French guys I stayed with said.
No – French people don’t hug, it is for them much less intimate to kiss a person than to hug them. So when I finally saw my friend Pierre who I hadn’t seen in almost two years – my first instinct was to hug him, but the first thing he did was kiss me on both cheeks. I did hold out my arms and kinda forced him to hug me, which he accepted with a laugh knowing my ‘English speaker’ eccentricities 🙂
Sometimes the French will clutch your arms while they kiss you – as an extra sign of affection, but that’s as far as it goes.
2. I put milk in my tea
The first morning I woke up in what I’ll call the ‘French Apartment’ I made my morning cup of tea as usual. I brewed my tea bag in boiling water and then reached for the milk. As I mixed the white liquid to the now strong brew I had made, I could feel two pairs of eyes staring at me.
“You put milk in your tea?” one of them asked with surprise. I nodded.
“C’est tres anglaise!” (that’s very English!) Pierre informed me. They could not get why I would add milk to tea, like I had added coke to my cornflakes. They continued to discuss how tea was good, milk was good – but together? It’s not tea… It’s not milk.. Only an English girl would do something like that! Or at least someone who speaks English as her first language and is still technically one of the Queen of England’s subjects…
3. I must have popcorn
I happened to go to the cinema while in France and once I bought my ticket and I went to the sweets counter to buy my popcorn as usual. I asked Pierre if he wanted anything, he said no. I explained to him I couldn’t go to the movies without buying popcorn. He laughed and said “that’s very Anglo-Saxon’ of you.”
The image of the American movie-goer with a massive tub of popcorn for each person was something that he strictly associated with Anglo-Saxons. And I suppose that its true… I mean, a movie without popcorn? Something’s missing!
4. Was it a drama or a comedy?
One cultural clash French and English people often experience is that we just don’t get each other’s sense of humour. For example, the French don’t understand all the sarcastic humour English people have. They call it pince sans rire (pinch without laughing) or what we would call ‘dead pan’ humour – it just doesn’t translate well. So most French people won’t get it when you try to be sarcastic.
Maybe because French people don’t emphasise their words like we do when they speak, so if you can’t emphasise or exaggerate a word it’s hard to show you’re being sarcastic.
My own personal culture clash with French humour happened when I went to a French movie with Pierre. When we walked out of the cinema I told him it was a drama to which he replied ‘no, it was a comedy.’
How do two people walk out of a movie and one thinks it was a drama and the other a comedy? I knew it wasn’t a matter of ‘understanding’ the film, I understood pretty much every word. Is it because one is English and the other is French? Maybe.
When I told him I thought it was sad when Character X cheated on her French boyfriend who clearly loved her, but then refused to sleep with her lover and had her boyfriend break up with her anyway, Pierre replied “But no, it was funny – because no one ended up sleeping with anyone, isn’t that funny?”
“Um… no!” I thought in my head. What a strange, slightly sadistic sense of humour the French have…
5. ‘That’ accent
The more French people I’m around, the more I start to realise I’m not French. I can just hear how my accent is so different from theirs, no matter how much I try to imitate how they’re speaking. When I try to figure out how exactly I speak they always respond with the same thing ‘it’s just… English, you speak with an English accent when you speak French’.
I try not to beat myself up about this, I know I’ve spent 22 years in Australia and 3 months in France – clearly I’m going to speak with an accent. Although I did feel happier when Pierre told me that just how I thought his French accent was cute when he spoke English, he thought the same of me when I spoke French.
“Don’t worry – it’s cute. An English person who speaks French sounds nice.”
“Oh really? And what accent doesn’t sound nice in French?”
“Hm… Italian, Italian’s weird in French. And… Spanish too”
So can I at least take some consolation in the fact I’m not Spanish/Italian?