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…