Q. As an American bachelor who has recently moved to France for a few years, I am intent on creating a social life for myself that includes as much contact as possible with French people. I keep hearing about cultural differences, and am a bit shy about making overtures to French women for fear of violating some major cultural taboo. Is there any guidance you can give to help me overcome what is becoming a (I think) ridiculous obstacle?
A: Your question is worthy of a research project, and the findings will probably vary with the age group of the people you question, so perhaps your first step should be to talk with other men of your generation who have been here for a while to get a sense of what they have discovered. Having done that to a limited extent myself, and drawing upon my experience of many years here, I can offer the following suggestions:
1. The rampant sensitivity to so-called harassment issues that one reads about in the US has not yet reached these shores, and French women like to be noticed and appreciated for their femaleness. This means you can feel safe making certain comments, giving certain looks, or talking about certain subjects that clearly imply that you, as a male, are aware of your companion’s gender and take pleasure in it. This, however, does not include lewd or inappropriately suggestive remarks, which would be a strike against you.
2. In the same spirit, women want their male companions to “take charge” – e.g. by making restaurant reservations, ordering wine, getting a taxi, and otherwise generally structuring the time they are going to share. As the relationship deepens, these expectations change, but at the outset, traditional roles are respected to a greater degree, I believe, than in the States.
3. If you are not a student or artist, you are probably already aware that dress here is much more conservative than at home. If you wear your plaid trousers and red jacket out to dinner, don’t be surprised if your companion refuses your next invitation.
4. The family is more sacred and protected here than in the US, and parents do not want their sons and daughters bringing home the people they date unless the relationship is serious. Don’t be offended if the women you meet do not introduce you to their parents for quite a while.
5. Strong family ties also mean parental influences are important and respected. Sunday lunch, for instance, might be a ritual in your new girlfriend’s family that nothing will induce her to miss, even your invitation to spend the day on the beach in Deauville. If you get really involved, be prepared to deal with her strong loyalty to her family.
There is a whole world of subtle, unexpressed expectations which are the real minefield in intercultural relationships and go beyond the scope of this answer. In general, however, I would venture to say that, in France, a hint means much more than it would at home. If a woman invites you to her apartment in the evening “for coffee,” you can be sure she means more, and will be vexed if you just drink and run. Open up a third ear to what may seem like throwaway remarks, and take some time to explore them. My experience is that, various myths notwithstanding, French women like the Americans they meet, and this should give you a head start in your attempts to include them in your life.
Jill Bourdais is a psychotherapist practicing in Paris both privately and in a hospital setting. A specialist in couple/family problems, she also teaches PAIRS, a skills-building course in intimate relationships.