Tag Archives: Social Customs

A Visit to the Doctor

It was just a small cultural exchange.

My gynecologist, Madame C.B., always prefaces her annual checkup by holding up her hands with a slight apologetic smile as she says “My hands are just as cold as always.” This time I told her, “Well, in English, we have a saying that goes “Cold hands, warm heart.” I asked her if there was an equivalent expression in French, and she said, “Oui, nous disons “Mains froides, coeur chaud”!  Then she asked me if I would repeat the saying in English so she could tell it to her young son, who is studying English at school, which I did.  It was a nice, friendly moment.

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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”

On the menu: Expression du jour…

French cartoon icons "Aterix and Obelix"

It started as a game to help me become bicultural. My husband and I invented the “expression du jour” during my first year in France.

Practically every morning after breakfast, we would write on the “menu” (a piece of paper attached with magnets to the side of the refrigerator), a typical French saying, with its English translation opposite. During the day, I would try to use it several times in conversation, sometimes winding up with strange variations.

Have you realized that there are hundreds of expressions in our own language that we use without thinking. They reside in our cultural memory bank and slide effortlessly out to the tip of our tongue (au bout de la langue!) with no conscious thought on our part.

But when speaking a language other than your native tongue, I’ve realized the importance of these “cultural word tools” – and that you can’t be without them. Because you need them to understand the sense of what someone is telling you, to catch the point of a joke, or to make a play on words.

Here are a few of my favorites just for fun. In English “When pigs fly”, translates into the French expression “When hens have teeth” (quand les poules auront des dents). I licked my fingers” translates to “I licked all five fingers and my thumb” (j’ai leche les cinq doigts et le pouce), and “That gets on my nerves” becomes “That breaks my feet” (cela me casse les pieds).

Well, I’ve made a gigantic cultural leap in speaking French! Oh yes, most of it is mastering the grammar and syntax. But understanding hundred of cultural references – from cartoon characters [recognize Asterix and Obelix above – iconic French cartoon figures] to political incidents to literature – and everyday expressions -is essential. Why?

It’s helped me to establish relationships with people. It lets me go beyond surface interactions and find some deeper ways to communicate, because I find that people are more likely to open up when they see that you know their culture, which includes their traditions and sayings.

It’s another major key to the cultural code…

Thanks to http://www.myfreewallpapers.net/cartoons/pages/asterix-and-obelix.shtml for the photo for the photo of Asterix and Obelix