Summer Journalism Internship In France: Navigating A Different Culture

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When I was studying at the Université de Sherbrooke I took a course called “Business Communication.” The course textbook dealt with subjects such as how to properly organize information, how to write formal business letters, and how to write effective resumés.

One of the chapters also talked about the importance of physical communication and how it varies with each culture.

People smoke at bus stops, in bars, and at restaurant patios and terraces. Sometimes it feels like a scene out of Mad Men. I have even seen a bar called “Au Chien qui fume” (The Smoking Dog).

For example, in some cultures a strong handshake is a sign of confidence, whereas in others it might come off as aggressive.

After having worked as an intern in France for the past three weeks, I can confirm the importance of such guidelines when working in a different cultural environment. I am used to walking into a room and greeting people with a simple “hey” or “what’s up?” – but once you fly over the Atlantic it is another story.

I do not know if this applies to all of France, but so far whenever I have run into a man I know, that man says hello by shaking my hand. For the record, it is usually not a strong handshake. Women, on the other hand, say “hello” and kiss you on both cheeks.

This actually led to a funny mishap while I was working at the radio station. I was in the recording studio with my fellow intern Harmony, when Samuel the technical manager walked in. His plan was to shake my hand and kiss Harmony on the cheeks, but he almost set off to kiss me and shake her hand. Sometimes you have to plan these things in your mind before you actually go ahead and do them.

One habit almost all French citizens share regardless of gender is smoking. For instance, during one of my assignments, Harmony and I attended a conference at the university’s medical faculty. We found an important attendee and stepped outside to interview him. The interview took about three minutes, but then we spent at least another 40 minutes talking with him about various unrelated subjects while both he and Harmony were going through their respective packs of cigarettes.

The irony of two people smoking outside a medical conference never came up.

Then earlier this week I attended a special end-of-the year barbecue where I talked with students and teachers. One of the teachers, who easily noticed I am Canadian by my accent, asked me what had struck me about France so far during my stay. I mentioned the smoking, which he found surprising. He defensively told me how France had passed laws that ban indoor smoking.

I did not have the courage to tell him how in Canada there are cities where you cannot smoke in public parks. Meanwhile here in France, people smoke at bus stops, in bars, and at restaurant patios and terraces. Sometimes it feels like a scene out of Mad Men. I have even seen a bar called “Au Chien qui fume” (The Smoking Dog).

Another cultural staple: alcohol. At that same barbecue, people seemed surprised by how little I was drinking. In my defence, I was on the clock and I still had to record a few interviews. Once I was done, they insisted I try the region’s local wine.

This happens even at formal events. I attended the opening of a new faculty building where people such the president of the university were in attendance. After I was finished interviewing everyone I needed, I was encouraged to try the food platters and have some wine. Well, when in Rome…or in this case Rouen.

What are some of the most striking cultural differences you’ve noticed while working or studying abroad?

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About the author

Simon Arseneau has been travelling around the world since he was two years old. Although he was born in a small Canadian town, he spent his teenage years in Chile and Peru. There he learned how to speak Spanish and how to adapt to a new culture. In 2006, he studied English and Intercultural Studies (translation, editing, and literature) at the University of Sherbrooke. In 2010, he enrolled at the Sheridan Institute (Oakville, Ontario) in Journalism- New Media where he learned how to operate cameras, perform interviews, edit material with Final Cut Pro, take digital photographs, use new media technology, and write for the web and print. In July 2011, he participated in the ieiMedia program in Perpignan, France, where he shot videos, performed interviews, and wrote a feature story about blacksmiths working in the region. Simon speaks French, English, and Spanish, and has experience with Italian and German.