French-Spotting and Relationships in North America

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Nicastro's, Ottawa, September 2011

I was queuing at Nicastro’s (an Italian store where you can buy overpriced delicacies from the old world—I’m a sucker for their European-sized pickles) when I noticed the couple in front of me. The guy was holding about a week’s supply of French cookies and the girl was openly eyeing huge $10 jars of Nutella.

“French” I told myself.

French-spotting is a game I love to play, especially during prime French tourist season, i.e. summer and fall.

The guy suddenly turned around to survey the queue behind him. I caught a glimpse of his blue Fédération Française de Foot t-shirt. “The queue is so long” he sighed. “I know, c’est chiant,” his other half replied.

One point for me.

I’m no detective. It’s just that French aren’t that hard to spot. Do you see a lot of Canadian guys wearing skinny jeans, a pack of Marlboro Light sticking out of the back pocket, a three-day stubble and a “the world is against me” attitude on their face?

French guys are a different specie. Yes, I know, I’m generalizing.

First, French guys aren’t as tall as Canadians. North Americans are usually bigger, and by big, I don’t necessarily mean fat. Feng, who is about 5’8, always complained he was short. I disagreed until I met his friends, all above 6’2. Most French guys I know are between 5’7 and 5’9—the ideal height to fit in a French car or in a packed subway. On the other side, Canadians need to be able to fight bears and stop hockey pucks, so evolution made them taller.

But differences aren’t just physical. Take for instance the relationship between men and women.

First there is the whole “date” thing, a long courtship process for which there is simply no proper French translation. French have words for you’re in a relationship, when you’re single, when you’re sleeping together but are not romantically involved, when you’re romantically involved but not sleeping together… but there isn’t such a thing as “dating”.

Dating is so heavily codified you’d need The Da Vinci Code’s symbologist to understand all the subtleties. It starts in high school, where guys are supposed to take women to the prom—a relatively formal event for which women shop for princess dresses and guys really hope to take that dress off in the car at the end of the night. And dating apparently only ends when, as Beyoncé put it, you “put a ring on it”.

Generally speaking, French guys are way more flirtatious than their North American counterparts, maybe because they aren’t scared of being arrested for sexual harassment. On the plus side, you can have the chance to go for a coffee with a nice stranger you just met on the street. On the downside, it means having to put up with aggressive fondling in packed public transportation and catcalls to anyone wearing a skirt in the street. And French don’t just flirt in places where you are supposed to, like bars and discos (although the former is more of a boob-watching place). They’ll be happy to French kiss you in the middle of a demonstration.

I also always felt that, in North America, both sexes worked hard to display outdated stereotypes. To be considered for a date, a guy must be good looking (that means tall, clean-shaved with big white straight teeth), pay for everything and have a car. Women, on the other side, are expected to dress a certain way (show some legs and cleavage) and be fully waxed even though the guy won’t notice it because, as The Rules say, you don’t have sex until the third date.

Men are always portrayed as sexual predator who would give up everything but Monday Night Football to have sex. Women are apparently only interested in collecting a gazillion of pairs of shoes and eventually getting married to benefit from financial security.

Frankly, I find the whole thing a bit cynical.

Sometimes, I have nightmare of having to go back to high school—a North American high school. There is no way I would manage to master the dating thing.

I’m still French when it comes to relationship.

Eh oui.


About Author

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


  1. Interesting study on the French culture and their interfaces with the outside world! I think I should do that too for Filipinos: more than once have I been in a foreign country, looked at a foreigner, wondered whether he or she was Filipino, and got it right!

    • Nationality-spotting is fun, isn’t it! Although I must admit I’m not so good at telling SE Asians apart, especially if I don’t know the name of the person. With a name, it’s easy.

    • I kind of know what you mean, at home, French can be super traditional and I think French don’t help out as much as Canadians. That said, when dating or when it comes to sexual stereotypes, I think the gap between sexes is bigger in N. America. Hard to explain!

  2. Hi Zhu! I’d be awful at the heterosexual this high school dating thing because I can’t stand objectification of women. Just the other day I saw girls going to school with makeup and overly short skirts. It’s a difficult game to play.

    • But homosexual dating looks so complicated! I sometimes read a French gay magazine name Têtu (means “stubborn” in French, it’s kind of like GQ) and it looks very complex… all these codes, my!

  3. I haven’t lived in North America, but already think that it one thing is clear – girls get a serious obsession on getting married, weddings and life with husband. I find it outrageous that some girls at age 23-24 are dumped and think that this is the end of their lifes – that no guy will ever marry them anymore.

    Have you read “Average American Male” or “The Lie”? It’s rather meant to be written for men… but you overlook that – it’s actually a quite funny book to read!

    • I haven’t read the book bu thanks, I’ll try to find it.

      I completely agree with you, marriage is a weird obsession here… probably came from the marriage industry which makes big bucks.

  4. Gosh….I dated six years before I got married and six years it seems to be I was ‘blinded’. When I looked around now, it seems that everyone just get married within a year or two and get separated just as quickly.

    Asian men are not as romantic as the westerners, hope I am not stereo-typing or something but Asian men are generally conservative and it all depends on their upbringing as well as the environment they grew up in as well.

    • I see what you mean, Asian men (at least those who are the most traditional) are quite different. Not worse or better just… different. A bit on the macho side!

  5. This made me laugh so hard! I had a conversation with my German husband about the game playing that goes on when dating (waiting 3 days to call, then the woman not answering even if she’s at home so that the guy thinks she out leading an exciting life) and he didn’t get it, nor see the point. When it comes to dating Germans are direct and there’s not a lot of game playing going on.

    I find French men more romantic than Canadian men (in my limited experience with French men) and I agree, they’re much better flirts. Interesting to see how the cultural factors come into dating 🙂

    • So I guess Germans guys are closest to French than to Americans… which makes sense, the whole Europe thing.

      I wouldn’t say French are direct but there are less rules for sure.

  6. “It’s just that French aren’t that hard to spot. Do you see a lot of Cana­dian guys wear­ing skinny jeans, a pack of Marl­boro Light stick­ing out of the back pocket, a three-day stub­ble and a “the world is against me” atti­tude on their face?”

    Hmm, I don’t know. Keep the attitude and skinny jeans, but replace the Marlboros with more expensive cigarettes and stubble with an ugly beard and you’ve got a hipster, which are everywhere now! LOL

    I don’t want to generalize, but dating here was frustrating for me! Don’t get me wrong, I love my fellow Canadians, but the men tend to be too reserved, meek and well..boring sometimes! The European straightforward approach does have its appeal! (Although, sometimes aggressiveness can get annoying too, depending on who its coming from!)

    • I find Canadian men a bit phony when flirting. I.e. they probably have been told to have certain expectations and they have been explained the rules of the game… and they play within.

      Not that I would know!

  7. “On the other side, Cana­di­ans need to be able to fight bears and stop hockey pucks, so evo­lu­tion made them taller.”

    Too funny! I really laughed, Zhu. Great post!

  8. Haha, this post is hilarious! I was in Montreal with a friend last week and we were playing spot the ‘real’ Frenchman from the crowd. We actually met a few Parisian living in the city!

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