Tag Archives: cultural programming

Where is the bowl supposed to go?

You wouldn’t necessarily think that cooking utensils could be cultural stumbling blocks. But I have found pots and pans to be, well, potholes on the slippery path of cultural identity.

Let me clarify. We’re talking about the differences in nomenclature of various cooking utensils. (Hint: “nom” in French means name.) When I first arrived, these differences caused me moments of culinary confusion.

Example: A “casserole” in America usually refers to a specific dish of food, as in “I’m making a casserole for dinner.” In French, “la casserole” IS the cooking dish itself. To complicate matters, the French casserole is what we would call a “pan”, with or without a handle. Not the Panhandle, for you Texans.

I would say to my husband, “Where’s the casserole?” meaning Pyrex dish. He would say (in French of course) “Why are you looking in that cupboard, it’s in the one beside the stove.” Momentary pause in which I would give him a blank look. Then, after a minute, the “memory translation function” would kick in, and I would make the connection.

You might think this would be rather simple, but no, evidently some words and their meanings are deeply embedded in our memory bank. So it took me awhile, and a process of consciously focusing whenever the word casserole came into the conversation. Which was frequently as I do a lot of cooking.

One other thing that comes to mind is the way you set the table. Specifically for breakfast. In France, you place the bowl (for tea or coffee) directly to the right of the breakfast plate. In America, it is placed to the upper right.

So when I would come to breakfast and see this way of setting the dishes I would think “Why doesn’t he set the bowl in the “right” place?” And then I would adjust it to my “culturally programmed” right place. We never said anything about it until one day he casually mentioned that he always set the table the way they did it at home. Only then did I click to the realization that he was setting it – culturally right – for him.

Not life shattering, but just another example of those little cultural differences that make up the fabric of our cultural identity.

On another – unrelated to this post – note. If you’re interested in traveling to or living in France, I’ve found an interesting site. It’s Jeff Steiner’s “Americans in France” at
He calls it a “Resource for people that would like to live or travel in France”

A kiss is just a kiss, A smile is just a smile…

Well, that’s what the song says. But…here in France I’ve learned that a smile is not such a simple thing.
Oh yes, everyone smiles when they’re happy – that’s universal. But, here in France, I’ve learned that the cultural code for smiling – that is, how it can be interpreted – is not so simple.

Example. As an American, we are “culturally programmed” to smile from birth. If you don’t smile, even when you don’t feel like it, people’s reaction tends to be “What’s the matter with him/her?” “Are they angry, not feeling well, or just plain unfriendly?”

But in France, people don’t trust the “American” smile – teeth showing. Why not? Because they think it’s not sincere, even fake.

Of course, it’s perfectly alright to smile pleasantly once in a while. But it is not a “tooth” smile, more an upward curve of the lips, and the smile is in the eyes. Even with friends or family, the French smile far less than Americans.

Don’t get me wrong. In fact, the French have a well-developed sense of humor. But, you start to pay attention to the eyes and the expression on people’s faces to understand what’s going on with them.

And you thought a smile was just a smile…