Cultural Comparisons: French Exchange Winterim

by Alexandra Scates

For my winterim trip this year, I had the opportunity to go on the French exchange.

I knew a bit about the contrast between their society and ours, specifically regarding family life and their school system, however hearing about these things and actually experiencing them were vastly different for me. Below are a list of cultural differences that I observed while in France, and how they affected the way that I lived for the three week duration of my trip.

  1. At the school that we attended, students went to school from 8-5 pm, everyday except for Wednesdays, when they got out at noon. Even though I wasn’t an active participant in many of their classes, by the time the end of the school day came around, I was exhausted. They all seemed to be adjusted to this difference, and had no change in energy throughout the day. For me however, it was difficult to form coherent sentences in French by the time that we had returned to their home. The students also got a two hour break for lunch at around noon, for which they spent a fraction of their time eating, and the rest socializing in the foyer.
  2. Another difference that I observed while attending school was the way that teachers speak to and interact with students. The teachers were a lot more strict with the students, but this did not create an atmosphere of respect. I observed a lot more disrespectful behavior between teachers and students, and many overall unproductive class periods spent simply trying to settle the class down.
  3. There were many days after school while heading to the bus that groups of students would stand in the parking lot and smoke cigarettes. This is a common occurrence in the French culture, as cigarettes are more common for teenagers than other substances often used by teenagers living in America. Another student in my group even heard one of the students at school say, “I don’t smoke. Only with my friends or at parties.”
  4. Every Friday night that we spent in our host families, they had something called “aperitifs”, which was basically a few hours of appetizers, drinking, socializing before dinner. They were shocked to find out that we did not have this same concept in the US, as it is such a normal part of their culture. As it was explained to me, the purpose of this time is to spend time together as a family after working hard all week. It is a time to catch up, tell stories, and spend time together as a family.

Overall, I had a great trip full of many learning experiences, many of which were about the language itself, while others I learned from being immersed in the culture. I am very grateful to have been given the opportunity to travel to France, and hope to have the chance to return in the future to learn even more about the culture.