Multicultural Manners : ‘The French Put a High Value on Privacy’

Confident in her French-speaking abilities, Marilyn accepts an exchange teaching position at a university south of Paris. One day, an elderly French woman using a cane boards the bus Marilyn is riding. The woman struggles to keep her balance, so Marilyn offers her a seat. The woman refuses and reprimands Marilyn.

What went wrong?

Fortunately, Marilyn could ask her university students to explain why the woman had become angry with what Marilyn regarded as an act of kindness. She learned that the French place a high value on privacy and resent anyone who intrudes upon it. By offering help to the older lady, Marilyn called attention to the woman’s disabilities. From the French point of view, that was impertinent. They feel that if the woman had wanted help, she would have asked for it.

Discovering this perspective was useful later when Marilyn traveled alone carrying heavy luggage. Previously, she had thought the French were inconsiderate for never offering to help as she grappled with her bags. Now that she knew otherwise, she asked for assistance and it was gladly offered.


Rule: Among the French, do not offer assistance unless it is requested. Conversely, if you need help, be sure to ask for it.

Norine Dresser is a folklorist and author of “I Felt Like I Was From Another Planet,” (Addison Wesley). Tell her your experiences c/o Voices.