A Very French Taboo

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Close-up of a Canadian $20 Bill

 

If you really want to offend a French man, don’t ask him if you can see his wife naked—there is always the risk you will end up in one of Paris’ seedy swing­ing clubs. Instead, just ask him how much money he makes. That would cer­tainly stop the con­ser­va­tion dead.

 

Each soci­ety has a taboo. I could go on and on about North Amer­i­cans and their obses­sions for breasts: from the Janet Jack­son Super Bowl “boob scan­dal” to the pub­lic breast­feed­ing con­tro­versy, nip­ples and cleav­age def­i­nitely draw way more atten­tion on this side of the Atlantic Ocean than it does in Europe. On the other side, French are almost patho­log­i­cally shy with money. Go figure.

 

French like to pre­tend money and every­thing around it just doesn’t exist. Some peo­ple are very well-off and that some peo­ple aren’t—to French, it is some­what of an axiom. Some are born in rich fam­i­lies, inher­ited a for­tune or mar­ried into money (which is slightly vul­gar). At the other end of the spec­trum, some earn the min­i­mum wage and strug­gle to make ends meet. Ends of a story old as time… what’s going to change it anyway?

 

In France, if you are rich, you do not show it. Peo­ple already know you are rich: money talks for itself. For instance, the real bour­geois live in Paris’ posh­est neigh­bor­hoods: in fact their apart­ment takes the whole floor or even bet­ter, or they own an his­toric pri­vate man­sion that has been in the fam­ily for gen­er­a­tions. The “de”, the par­ti­cle indi­cat­ing you belong to a noble fam­ily, is like an insur­ance against any eco­nomic strug­gle. Not that it is always true: plenty of “noble” fam­i­lies are far from being wealthy these days. Yet, they keep on pre­tend­ing. Money is not just cash in the bank, it’s a sta­tus, a way of liv­ing and behav­ing, of car­ry­ing on the “rich genes”.

 

Mak­ing money is not cool. French Pres­i­dent Nico­las Sarkozy’s slo­gan dur­ing the elec­tions, “work more to earn more” was received with a lot of crit­i­cism. In fact, regard­less of whether they sup­port him polit­i­cally or not, a lot of French have issue with the way the Pres­i­dent is osten­si­bly dis­play­ing Rolex watches and expen­sive clothes and par­ty­ing on his mil­lion­aire friends’ pri­vate yachts. This is seen as ter­ri­bly vul­gar. As said above, when you have money, you just don’t show it. This is just… Amer­i­can. And French don’t really believe in the “Amer­i­can Dream” – his­tory taught them that for­tunes are more often inher­ited than made. Besides, French tend to value their qual­ity of life over mate­r­ial things. That can explain why so many peo­ple are against open­ing stores on Sun­days — yes work­ing on Sun­day is ille­gal in France. Sure, giv­ing busi­nesses the right to open on Sun­days may help the econ­omy but a lot of French fear that some employ­ees will be forced to work against their will. And ulti­mately, free time and leisure mat­ter more than money.

 

The money ques­tion some­times reaches absurd lev­els of taboo. Salary, for instance. When I was a stu­dent, I used to work with a staffing agency doing odd jobs. We would always be paid around the hourly min­i­mum wage. The key word being “around”: some places paid us exactly €8 , oth­ers would fork out €8.25 , €8.45  even. When you are a poor stu­dent, it makes a dif­fer­ence, as ridicu­lous as it seems. But we would never know how much we would be paid until after the job was com­pleted, when receiv­ing the pay slip by mail.

 

One day, I got tired of it. I had the choice between two tem­po­rary jobs, so I called the staffing agency and asked what would be the hourly salary for each, to help me make a deci­sion. Obvi­ously, I’d pick the better-paid one. My inter­locu­tor shrieked, out­raged: “But we can’t tell you that! If we were to dis­close employ­ees their hourly rate before they com­pleted the job, nobody would ever accept the lowest-paid one!” Irrefutable logic – what could I say?

 

Things are very dif­fer­ent in Canada. While peo­ple don’t obsess with money, it is per­fectly accept­able to talk about finances, debts, and to pass on money-related tips. Cana­di­ans also believe in upward social mobil­ity: start small and make your way to the top. After all, this is an immi­grant nation and a lot of peo­ple are com­ing here to improve their lives. I got used talk­ing about money now. I just hope I don’t embar­rass my French friends too much…

 

 


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About Author

French woman in English Canada. World citizen, new mom, traveler, translator, writer and photographer. Looking for comrades to start a new revolution.

24 Comments

  1. When I was in Paris, I was so surprised at how late the stores were open until on Champs-Élysées (11:30 p.m.) and even some stores were open on Easter Sunday. I thought they’d be close like Canada where it’s quiet and empty on the streets.

  2. Interesting – I learn a lot about my country’s quirks and habits from you. Yeah, we are fairly open about money matters – to an extent. In some ways, I prefer France’s tendency to keep quiet as to such personal matters.

    Stores used to be closed here on Sundays! I think that is a very civilised thing to do.
    .-= Beth´s last blog ..Right and Wrong – Living by the Rules =-.

  3. Asking about one’s wages isn’t just a French taboo, but perhaps a big taboo in France compared to the rest of the world. Although I remember an incident when I went back to the Philippines after spending a good six years out of the country, and I saw one of my childhood friends, and I asked him how much he was making in his new job. He said he was offended I asked the question, and advised me not to ask that question to anyone else. Good thing we were friends, and he said I had a good excuse, that I didn’t grow up all throughout in the Philippines, so apparently, it’s taboo in the Philippines too.
    .-= Linguist-in-Waiting´s last blog ..Men are Dumb =-.

  4. French is a Catholic nation while Americans – whatever their faiths are – have inherited Puritan work ethics. That’s why French and Americans have vastly differently values.

    But today fun is a big business. One really can make big money for having fun.
    .-= khengsiong´s last blog ..The Violinist =-.

  5. I’m not sure I agree with the notion that Americans have no reluctance in talking about salaries. If someone is working at what is clearly a minimum wage job then one doesn’t have to ask what he/she makes. But a little farther up the pay scale people can be paid significantly different salaries for essentially the same work. The attitude is that it is no ones business what another makes and to ask is quite rude. If someone has money and boasts about it or flashes it around that person is regarded as some synonym for vulgar. Good manners generally apply across cultural boundaries.
    .-= Tulsa Gentleman´s last blog ..Ruby Tuesday – Knockout! =-.

  6. They do show their wealth sometimes… I’ll never forget walking across the high bridge from one building in Galleries Lafayette in Paris to the other, when I passed a woman with bobbed hair, shades, Chanel-looking suit, fur over shoulders… the whole shebang… and just to top it off she was carrying a little dog!

    The French have a crazy attitude to money you are right. They are the only country in Europe that would dare call itself “socialist” when it already had pay-tv and private freeways in the 1980s….
    .-= Gledwood´s last blog ..Fairytale: The Fisherman And His Wife… =-.

  7. It is very sensitive for most people to ask how much is your monthly salary. I do confirm with close friends but never never a common topic among colleagues & even casual friends.

    Most Singaporeans are asset rich and most do have cash flow problems. Most are obsessed with the 5Cs, as Cash, Condominum, Car, Country Club & Children heheheheh…… most never stop to smell the roses I’m afraid.

    What a wonderful post here Zhu, I’ll be careful when I’m with a Frenchman hehehe…

  8. I knew this before I moved to France and was very careful to not ask anyone about their financial situations because I didn’t want to offend anyone and just assumed no one would ask me either, but no! I got asked all the time how much I earned!! It wasn’t usually people I knew well, interestingly. I think it’s because they assume that as an American I have no problem talking about such vulgar things. I always said that I earned well per hour but didn’t get to work many hours, which is true, and hoped I was outfoxing them at their own game.
    .-= Soleil´s last blog ..Still Kicking =-.

  9. I know, I irk many people here by talking about money, but it’s kind of a second nature for me because my family is very business-oriented. Yet we’re lucky that our close friends enjoy talking about money so that I do not stand out as the odd person 🙂

    For some reason, I’ve discovered that many people in my family think that the French are poor in comparaison with canadians. Maybe because it’s because people are less ostensible? Honestly, I have no clue on that one!
    .-= Cynthia´s last blog ..Et je ne fais jamais que passer =-.

  10. Ghosty Kips on

    Hallo Zhu! I see you found me again, now I’ve found you … my, this place has grown since back-when.

    I think this French thing about money is really odd. It sounds like most people must live in poverty – or if they don’t, they must try and look like they do to save face. Having actually been poor, dirt poor, I can say with authority that there is no dignity in poverty. Sarkozy can enjoy those watches, good for him.
    .-= Ghosty Kips´s last blog ..Nightmares =-.

  11. Excellent post Zhu!
    Though, before reading this I couldn imagine that public breastfeeding could be controversial… I think it’s ridiculous, it’s up to each mother to decide where and how to feed their babies. That’s my point of view anyway.
    .-= Fede´s last blog ..Suerte =-.

  12. @Agnes – I guess there is still a teacher in me!

    @Yogi – Yeah, money doesn’t bring happiness… for sure. There must be some oil family down there, right?

    @Bluefish – The Champs are the exception actually. Because it is officially a “touristic area” they can open later.

    @Beth – I’m a bit split on the issue. I would never go grocery shopping at 3 am, on the other side I enjoy being able to shop on Sunday. I do find it funny that supermarkets are packed whenever a statutory holiday is coming up though. I mean, closing the store for a day isn’t such a big deal… is it?!

    @Linguist-in-Waiting – That’s funny! Chinese are pretty open with money. They may not ask each other how much they make (at least not that directly) but I don’t think money is an offensive subject.

    @Tanya – It frustrated me as a French so I really really feel for foreigners who have to face this weird twisted French logic!

    @khengsiong – I think you are right about the religion difference. Catholicism is funny when it comes to money.

    @Tulsa Gentleman – I think I understand what you mean, and I agree to a certain extend. North Americans don’t talk about their salary all the time, yet I think people tend to be more open than French. It’s hard to explain…

    @Gledwood – Ah yeah, but you see, these Chanel people are the ones French call “nouveaux riches”, i.e. they didn’t inherited their money but made it. This is supposed to be vulgar… go figure!

    @shionge – I like the way you explain the “5 C” – funny! It reminds me of Hong Kong, people seemed to have similar concerns and goals.

    @Soleil – That’s funny! Maybe they thought as an American you’d be okay with that. Weird! When I got my first “real” job in Canada, all of my French friends hinted they wanted to know how much I made (I guess because they were still students, they were curious…). I kept on explaining it doesn’t mean much when you convert to euro, but anyway…

    @Cynthia – And I discovered a lot of French people think North Americans are super rich and that Canada is very expensive! I keep on telling my parents and my friends that life is quite cheap here for me compared to France and that North America has its fair share of problems but no one gets it.

    @Sidney – 😆 I’m not always right!

    @Ghosty Kips – Yes, you get it. French think money is dirty, and being good with money is seen as something slightly odd and suspicious. Yet, people complain that life isn’t easy these days…

    @Fede – I agree with you! I don’t get this “breast taboo” either, much less when it comes to breastfeeding.

  13. i would never ask somebody how much money they earn.
    besides, in the united states at least, you can *look* like you have a lot of money, even when you are poor– thanks to credit cards.
    i agree with you wholeheartedly, zhu, that quality of life is more important than money. but it is easy to say that in western society, because most people don’t live in absolute poverty. having a nice bed to sleep in and a full tummy makes all the difference.

    i would never ask to see a frenchman’s wife naked, or even a french man. even though being naked is a great equalizer- when you are naked, money does not matter so much.
    but i think i’d prefer seeing somebody naked to seeing those little speedos that europeans love to wear at the beach. haha
    .-= Seraphine´s last blog ..Perfect Resume =-.

  14. Hey Zhu Zhu,

    Ah, France and Portugal: the eternal cousins.
    Here it is also a taboo to talk about money; in fact, it is tacky to talk about money. You do not flaunt your money, you do not discuss your money and those who do are considered to be vulgar (or worst: a poor chap who earned a bit of cash and now has the need to show it off).

    LOL LOL so, you now discuss money as well, eh? What will your French friends say… 😉

    I think it is an European thing: not to discuss money.

    Loved this post: thank you :D.

    Cheers

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