I’m currently in the process of packing up my life in France, saying goodbyes, and getting nostalgic. It’s a bittersweet time. On the one hand, it’s been a long time since I’ve seen my family and friends in the US. On the other hand, I’m not sure I’m ready to say goodbye to everyone I’ve met in France. Who would have thought just after a few months that I would meet so many new and wonderful people?
Before coming to France, I had heard a few stereotypes about the French. One of the most common–it’s hard to make friends with French people. Then I arrived in eastern France, and I had French people tell me it’s especially hard to make friends with people from Lorraine. So, what exactly was the deal? Did I end up in a desert of loneliness by getting placed as a teaching assistant in eastern France?
After nearly 9 months in Nancy, I’m happy to report that–no–contrary to the clichés, the French are not unfriendly, nor is it impossible to befriend them. To be honest, I actually found that I had quite the opposite experience during my time here. From the teachers and staff at my school, to students at bars, to everyday people at local events, I was lucky enough to meet many lovely and genuinely kind people from Lorraine and other parts of the world.
I’m not going to say that there aren’t differences in socialization between French culture and American culture. Oh, because there are plenty. Everyone’s favorite example: les bisous. The act of greeting people when you are at a social/friendly/casual event with kisses on the cheek rather than the standard Anglo-Saxon hand wave. What I am going to say is that a misinterpretation of behavioral differences is what often leads people into thinking that it is difficult to socialize with the French.
I can only speak from personal experience, but I find making friends in France is about the same level of “difficulty” as making friends in any other environment. Because let’s face it, making friends is hard anywhere. It requires mental energy and conscious effort. It requires a certain amount of self-awareness, putting yourself out there, and being willing to accept that you just might not click with some people. It’s an investment of time and energy. It’s definitely way easier to stay at home and watch Netflix where the risk and energy expenditure is very low.
So, as someone who moved to a foreign country alone with no contacts, these are some of my observations on how to make friends in France. But to be fair, I think these are general ideas that could work most anywhere, not just France.
1. Figure Out Your Own Interests
I’m not sure if this is an obvious piece of advice or not, but having a good idea of your own likes and dislikes is a helpful place to start when it comes to making friends. Knowing what you enjoy will allow you to put yourself in situations where you can find people who share similar interests and hobbies.
For example, this year I really wanted to practice speaking French. So, I made it a point to be a regular at Café des Langues (a local language exchange group that meets once a week). This allowed me to meet other people with shared interests in language learning. I also found that people who are interested in speaking other languages are usually also interested in one of my other interests, cultural exchange.
Another example of how I used my hobbies to help me meet people is my interest in politics and debate. I ended up frequenting a student debate group where we discussed topics as wide-ranging from “What is it to be French?” to “The United Republic of Europe” to “Defend your candidate for the French presidential elections.” These are the types of discussions I would be drawn to in English, so to get to discuss them in French was all the more exciting (although admittedly intimidating at times).
I found that the more I stuck with an activity, the more people began to recognize me, and the more I began to recognize them. Because I’m naturally drawn to things that have to do with culture, language, and conversation I found it organic to start talking to the people around me. I think this could work with many types of interests though–sports, gardening, music, theater, cooking, crafting, going to dance clubs etc.
2. Take Time To Understand Your Surroundings
Once you’ve figured out what you like to do and where you like to go, the next step is to give yourself some time to acclimate. I learned this one through trial and error. When I first arrived in France, I was still seeing my life from a specific perspective. I had just recently graduated from university. I knew a specific set of social norms that came with being a student at an American university. I knew a set of cultural references, but hadn’t thought too much about how obsolete those references might be in another country.
When thrown into a new environment, sometimes the best thing to do is just observe. Listen to the topics people are talking about. Are there certain subjects that reoccur more often than others? Take note of how people interact with each other. What is their body language like? Try to decipher the emotions. Can you figure out what makes people smile or frown?
Don’t just assume that the behaviors are going to be the same behaviors that you are used to from your old environment. It’s ok not to know what’s happening for a while and just to let things settle in for a while.
3. Speak Their Language
Of course, it’s helpful to speak French if you’re going to come to France. English can only get you so far in a small city. While I do take this one literally, I also take this one figuratively too. To me, that means finding common ground with others. This relates to point number one. The more you know about yourself, the easier it will be to relate to others on a variety of subjects.
For example, at the beginning of the school year, I noticed that the host teacher that I had been assigned is a very friendly person. He is always joking with other teachers in the staff room. He enjoys cleverly slipping references to songs into conversations. This caught my attention because I’m also a bit of a music nerd.
Noticing this tidbit gave me an opportunity to strike up a conversation. While it’s helpful that we both speak English and French, language alone cannot carry a conversation. Usually it’s the content of that conversation that really matters. Since the beginning of the year, I’ve had a great many conversations with my host teacher and I’ve enjoyed discussing music, history, culture, and pedagogy with him. It’s developed into an easy professional relationship.
4. Care About Why Others Do What They Do
Ok, so maybe we don’t always have the best luck finding people who share similar interests with us. Perhaps we have very specific tastes, or like really obscure things like nineteenth-century Czech language operas, or our interests are uniquely shaped by our environments and not applicable internationally (ahem…American football). I still believe that that shouldn’t limit us in our opportunities to connect with others.
When I find myself in situations where I can’t seem to find an obvious shared interest with the people around me, I don’t immediately throw in the towel. If there is one thing that I’ve learned from traveling it is that often times, the things we like, the things we find beautiful, the things we feel most passionately about are often shaped by our opportunities and environment.
I love classical music. I realize that my love for classical musical didn’t just come out of nowhere. It came from repeated exposure as a child. It came from the opportunity to play in a school band when I was 9 years-old. It came from hours of hard work, which I can now look back upon with warmth and fondness. It came from all the times I’ve sat in a concert hall surrounded by the power of live music.
I don’t expect everyone in the whole world to feel the same way. Just like how I don’t normally feel drawn to going out to a bar or club, I don’t expect everyone to be drawn to a concert hall. But just because I don’t inherently enjoy certain things doesn’t make them any lesser of activities.
When I was traveling alone in Prague, I found myself at a hostel with a group of solo travelers. I could tell from listening to conversations that my interests were probably different than most of the people around me, but I had a feeling that these people were friendly and kind. There seemed to be an overwhelming interest from the others to go out, to have a good time.
I thought about my options. I could either continue in Prague alone, doing the things that I was comfortable with (guided tours, museums, monuments etc.) or I could join the group for the night. Try something new. So, I went for it. I danced the night away and I had fun.
While clubbing is still not my activity of choice, I can see why people are drawn to it. Loud music to cloud the senses. Contagious energy surrounding your body. A wanted distraction from negative thoughts. I ended up sharing a nice evening with a group of strangers because I went into the night wanting to see the positives in the things that other people were doing. I really wanted to understand why they wanted to go out.
5. Be Open and Share
And finally, this step brings me back to the topic of self. Connecting with people and making friends isn’t just about the environment and the other people. It’s also about being willing to share things about yourself. This might be more difficult for some people than others, especially if you’re self-conscious.
I have always thought of myself as the type of person who wears my heart on my sleeve. I like to think that I’m not too difficult to read and I often say what I feel. So offering my thoughts and opinions to others isn’t much of a stretch for me. I have found that this personality trait has worked to my advantage when trying to make new friends.
I’m not saying that we need to share our whole life stories with every person we meet, but being genuine and honest is something that has helped me connect with others. Sharing can be a small act. If I like someone’s outfit, I let them know. If there is an opportunity in a conversation to slip in a true personal story, I test the waters. If I find someone interesting, I share a related piece of information about myself to keep the conversation going.
I share my truths and experiences with the hopes that the person I’m talking to will do the same. In general, this has helped me meet interesting people from all walks of life.
People might move aboard with the expectation that they are going to learn a lot about another culture. And yes, it is true, I have a learned a lot about French culture. But perhaps more importantly, I have learned a lot about myself, the importance of human relationships, and just how nuanced and complex the idea of cultural exchange through individual travel really is.
The point of this entry is not to say that we need to make lifelong friends with every single person we meet. That would be completely ridiculous, unsustainable, and unrealistic. I avow that there will always be people in this world that we might not get along with one-hundred percent of the time. The point that I am trying to make with this entry is that sometimes we get put in environments where it seems daunting and nearly impossible to connect with others. Instead of insulating ourselves with only things that are familiar to us, we should look outwards to those around us. Maybe if we’re willing to dig a little deeper and challenge ourselves to listen to others and their experiences, we might just find that there are opportunities to make new and meaningful connections no matter where we are in the world.