First impressions matter. Particularly in a country that is stereotypically known for its rude people and dislike of foreigners, first impressions are everything. I am a traveler. I’ve worked and lived abroad and I have found that I can easily adapt to most situations. Usually, I can imagine myself living in nearly every local that I have visited. That said, I approached my week in France totally wrong!
Upon reflection, I learned some important lessons in Paris. These lessons have helped me in my subsequent travels around Europe. I will carry these lessons with me throughout life because they will be helpful in any future cross-cultural encounter.
Prepare yourself. Paris was my first destination since settling in my London home base. Not that London is easy to adjust to—but it is in English. When I was lost in the streets of London (in what always seemed to be a cold and rainy day), at least I could ask for help in English! As I walked out of the train station and entered Paris, I was entering a new world. As a traveler, I have been in non-English speaking countries before; however, I usually spend more time researching and learning about the language, culture, and country of destination. For my Paris trip, I spent zero time researching what I was going to do or what I was going to encounter. I thought it’d be fun to walk off a plane in an entirely new place without much knowledge. Upon reflection, this was not the time or the place. In preparing for negotiations, you are supposed to spend 80% of the time preparing and only 20% in the actual negotiations. I think the same should apply for cultural encounters. Just as two parties prepare for negotiations, it’s so important to prepare for the collision of two cultures. Preparation is key! I hadn’t prepared for my trip to France and I think this laid the groundwork for some rocky encounters.
Speak their language. I didn’t try hard enough to speak the language of the Parisians. I took French in the 8th grade so all I have in my vocabulary are phrases like “I’m sorry” and “my name is…” and “please” and “thank you.” However, even with my limited vocabulary, I knew that the Parisians spoke English. So instead of attempting to use my meager French, I allowed my embarrassment to prevent me from engaging in a cultural and learning experience. Had I used what little French I knew, I would have been signaling to the Parisian with whom I was speaking that I valued her culture and language. Using language is one way to embrace the French culture and show the other person that you are at least trying! I made a mistake and did not try. When in a new cultural setting, it’s so important to try and understand the language and customs. In these settings, it is often more about effort. Usually, they will take pity on you. They will speak English in response. And in the process, they know that you tried.
Respect the culture. Geert Hofstede defines culture as “the collective programming of the mind that distinguishes the members of one category of people from another.” The natural tendency when one faces resistance is to begin applying “them” and “us” labels. Because we were having a tough time interacting with people (from the people at restaurants to the ticket-taker at the metro), we became frustrated. We tried to joke about it, but frustration turned into anger. The more we distanced ourselves from the French people, the more we began to fulfill the stereotype that French people have about Americans. Generally speaking, Americans are often viewed by the French as arrogant. Likewise, the French generally view Americans as insular as a nation unwilling to learn about other nations and international affairs. We found ourselves in the vicious cycle of these stereotypes because we failed to get to know French people who could provide a new vision of what French people are beyond the stereotypes. Even though we didn’t understand the culture, it is important to approach cross-cultural encounters with a sense of respect. Yes, we are different. Yes, there may be tension. But respecting the differences is vital to the process. Paris was beautiful. I did all the touristy things that one must do while in Paris: the Louvre, Notre Dame Cathedral, Sacre Coeur Basilica, trip to Versailles, and much more. I consumed the fabulous food and wine of a country with such culinary talent. Upon reflection, I did make mistakes while in Paris but they were mistakes from which I gained valuable lessons applicable to future travels and life in general.