It’s OK or nothing

There’s a book called Kiss, Bow, or Shake Hands that’s directed primarily to US citizens who want to conduct business overseas while avoiding cultural mistakes. As the title suggests, it addresses differences including  greetings, negotiating methods, and business practices. There’s even advice on what gifts to bring to a social occasion or in the case of France, what to avoid, such as roses or chrysanthemums since they are generally associated with “love” and “death”, respectively. Since Bill and I are retired, in our social interactions we aren’t really bound by the strict business rules suggested in the book even though we find these comparisons fascinating. Along those lines, when an article appeared in the online newspaper The Local, I was anxious to read all about “The biggest culture shocks foreign students face in France.”

Undergraduate students in France pay an annual tuition of 170 € while that increases to 243 € for those seeking a master’s degree. The magazine US News and World Report says that American students at state-supported universities in 2021 paid on average $10,338 for a year at school.

No seat reservations on this train

While lots of French students stay in dorms or other dedicated housing, most go home for the weekend leaving their international comrades in deserted accommodations. Because of that they tend to “party” on Thursday night and may skip some classes on Friday or at least leave early to avoid the weekend rush. We experienced this when we boarded a standing-room-only train in Bram that had begun in Bordeaux and stopped in Toulouse, both big university towns. No more Friday trains for us without seat reservations.

When I was preparing to take the language exam to qualify for French citizenship, one piece of advice that I saw repeated in several sources regarded the essay portion of the test. While grammar and spelling were important, it seemed that equal weight would be given to the organization of the piece; that is, there should be an introduction, a discussion, and a conclusion. Students learn that format from an early age as well as how to discuss an issue by seeing both sides of an argument before making up their minds. We see that a lot when friends ask us our opinion about a topic and why we believe that way.

Photo by Victor Freitas on

The last subject that the article raises is cigarette smoking. As in the US, it’s not allowed indoors in public places but once outside the classroom almost one quarter of French students will be smoking. This compares to about 16 percent of young Europeans and 10 percent of Americans aged 18-24. My favorite part of the Kiss, Bow, or Shake Hands book deals with gestures since they can be so easily misunderstood. What looks to an American like a “V for Victory” sign with the index and middle fingers raised might be interpreted by a Brit as just the middle finger insult especially if the palm faces the gesturer. The same goes for a thumbs up in the Middle East and Latin America but in France that thumb means “OK”. Join your index finger to the thumb to make an American “OK” circle and in Paris you’ll get nothing since that means “zero”. And I thought learning French words was hard enough!

6 thoughts on “It’s OK or nothing

  1. How odd that it equates “V for Victory” with a middle-finger salute, since that was Churchill’s signature. Or maybe that was how he meant it?

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    1. Depends whether you have your palm facing you or away from you. Away from you is for Victory or the number 2 but that’s not what the photos of Churchill always show. 🙂


      1. I’m reading book three of Manchester’s biography of Churchill. Churchill was not aware of the meaning of the V with the palm facing him. Most aristocrats wouldn’t have been. He had to be told to turn his palm out.

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  2. As you know, mums are such a big part of Americans’ fall garden displays (at least in New England, where I’m from) that I was all set to display some the first fall we were here. Luckily, I was told about their meaning here before I made that faux pas! 🙂

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    1. We still buy them because they are so beautiful but we put them in the back courtyard where only Bill and I can admire them!


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