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Expat Advice: Culture Shock in Epinal, France

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Epinal, France

An expat in Epinal, France gets candid about the culture shock she experience when moving to France. She advises newcomers to get out and meet people. She started an English-speaking group in her small town and met lots of locals that way.

What is the name of the city or town that you are reporting on?

Epinal

Did you receive any cross-cultural training for your move abroad? If yes, was it before or after the move?

No

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If they speak another language in your new country, do you speak the language? If yes, did you learn the language before you moved or while abroad? If no, are you planning to learn the language?

Yes, but I learned the language while in the process of moving, so it was full of on-the-fly challenges!

Were you worried or concerned about culture shock before you moved abroad?

No, I didn't expect there to be any major differences, and from what I'd experienced as a tourist, everything about French culture seemed to please me.

How significant was the culture shock you experienced when you moved abroad?

On a scale of 0-10, with 0 being no shock and 10 being extreme shock, I experienced somewhere around a 4.

Expats often talk about going through the "stages of culture shock." Examples include the honeymoon phase, the irritation-to-anger stage, the rejection of the culture stage, and the cultural adjustment phase. Do you feel like you went through these or any other stages as you settled into the new culture?

I did feel like I experienced the stages of culture shock, although at the time I wasn't able to pinpoint culture shock as the source of my feelings. I spent several months rather frustrated with my language learning efforts (which were intensified by living with many young French people who spoke rapidly among themselves).

What, if any, were some of the changes you noticed in yourself that might have been caused by culture shock? These might include things such as anger, depression, anxiety, increased eating or drinking, frustration, homesickness, etc.

Culture shock actually caused several surprising behavior changes in me, including making me feel somewhat dependent on my significant other craving more time with him, because he was one of the only people with whom I could hold a conversation (this was a foreign experience because I'm normally very independent). I was also slightly depressed and anxious about interacting with our flatmates in the evening, because I felt often that I was left out of the circle. I also let my diet get out of hand, and while I never felt homesick because I truly preferred living in France, I did miss the ability to be easily understood by my friends and family, and therefore felt a bit lonely and isolated. I felt like I couldn't let my true personality and humor show because of my limited language abilities, and because the conversation was usually too fast for my to get a word in edgewise.

What are some things you appreciate most about the new culture?

In France, there really is time to stop and smell the roses, and when one does things here, one does them fully, instead of splitting attention in 5 directions at once. Mealtime is meant for good food and fellowship. Weekends are meant for enjoyment (not bringing work home). In general, the culture is more slow and appreciative of simple pleasures.

What are the most challenging aspects of the new culture?

The humor is darker (people don't find it rude to joke at the expense of others) and people are much more direct, which can come across as brashness or rudeness. Also, mealtimes are very rigid, so my stomach had a hard time adjusting to the hunger between meals.

Did you "commit" any embarrassing or humorous cultural blunders? If you did and you'd like to share them, please do tell!

Several times, the different layout of the calendar (starting on Monday instead of Sunday) made me miss important appointments. I had an appointment at the consulate on a Tuesday, and when I glanced at the calendar to buy my ticket, I saw that it was on the second day of the week so my mind automatically thought "Monday." After 2 hours on the train to get there, the staff informed me that my appointment was the next day, but were kind enough to accommodate my mistake and get my paperwork signed that day. It happened once more after that before I realized why I kept confusing my Mondays and Tuesdays, and now I always double-check the date & day of the week instead of relying on the column under which the date appears on a calendar. Also, when meeting with the mayor's assistant for our pre-marriage interview (so he could customize our ceremony) I accidentally used the familiar version of "you" ("tu") instead of the formal version ("vous"), which resulted in a puzzled look from him and an embarrassed yet slightly amused look from my husband. Fortunately, afterward my husband assured me that my accent made it kind of cute, and that most French people understand when it's a foreigner. The rules on when to use which version are still not crystal clear for me (and I have no idea when one can switch from "tu" to "vous"), and from then on I've always been very careful about how I address people I've just met. Sometimes I even craft my sentences specifically to avoid needing to say "you."

Do you have any advice or thoughts about culture shock you would like to share?

As much as culture shock can make one want to hibernate and escape to cope, it's much more useful to put oneself in the thick of things, and letting your needs and struggles be known. I found relief from the loneliness and frustration by seeking out ways to apply my skills and connect with people, for example by starting an English-speaking group in the small town where I lived. I found lots of locals were interested in practicing their English, and there were even a few North Americans that came across the group on Facebook and thanks to my posts on expat forums.

I also found it really useful to join expat communities on Facebook to ask questions and gain a sense of support, even from afar, although I caution against relying too much on social media and digital connections. We, as humans, need real connection. The internet is a great tool for reaching people and maintaining connection, but there's no replacement for actually getting a coffee or hitting the cinema with people. That's what truly helps us feel like a part of the new culture we're in.

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