Escape the Expat Bubble and Use These Tested Tips to Make Friends in France
A reader writes:
Hi Rachael. When you moved abroad initially, or even when you moved around within France, how did you get to a new place and establish friendships? I’m sure it’s easier when you are in a relationship but how did you make new friends as a single woman in a new country or new cities within the country?
Your question made my mind travel back to the 90’s, when I used Netscape as my web browser and AOL for instant messaging.
When I first moved to Paris, in 1999, I was so wet behind [my] ears.
I can still remember my first fully furnished rented apartment, in the 11th arrondissement (Bastille), that came with a Minitel*.
I was so eager to jump into this foreign country and culture by developing professional relationships and making friends with French people. When I was unable to chat up strangers in the metro, in line at the bakery or bank or just to pass the time,
I soon realized I had a huge learning curve to overcome.
After stepping into this new world, I learned I had to adapt to this HUGE culture shock and this unfamiliar social norm.
And darn it, I’m so good at small talk.
People just don’t talk to random strangers on the street?
Nope, and the only exception is if you’re lost. You get the, “excusez-moi, ou se trouve le dah dah dah”.
I’m an extrovert with a degree in small talk.
And it was very difficult for me to figure out how to socially interact with French people.
Moving abroad? It’s been done before.
Just think about it?
Known English speaking people (like Josephine Baker) and less known (like me) have been moving to other countries for years. As a result, in any foreign non-English speaking country you can find different Anglophone Community Clubs and Associations to meet people who are kind of in the same situation as you. While I was re-learning the language (French) and trying to navigate through French culture, I was able to meet non-French people (Expats) the old fashioned way, via my school Institute de Catholique and different Expat Clubs and Associations in Paris.
Here are some of the clubs I frequented:
- The Women’s International Club of Paris (“Le WIC de Paris”) ,
- WICE (An Anglophone association providing cultural, educational and social activities to the international community in Paris) ,
- American Club of Paris
Even though I participated in several activities like hiking, discussions, French cinema, photography clubs to visit national monuments, in groups around Paris, I never really made any friends because of a huge generation gap. I was single and not married like the majority of people there, had no kids, and I just couldn’t relate to a lot of the people’s privileged background.
At one point, I found a French roommate through the American Church in Paris. I moved into a two bedroom apartment with a girl named Céline, in the 18th arrondissement near the métro Lamarck Caulaincourt.
You might say, “That should help you make friends and practice your French, right?”
Well, that’s what I thought.
Despite what many people assumed, that situation helped Céline improve her English, and me speaking French got the worst of it.
I didn’t make any new friends via my roommate. I was Céline’s pet project; therefore, she didn’t mingle her friends around me (nor did she have a lot of friends to hang out with). After six months, I then moved back to the 11th arrondissement (Bastille), ALONE.
Through all that, I learned the hard way. Do an activity that you want to learn, practice or master and not just to meet people and make friends; because if you don’t build the relationship that you are looking forward to, it can lead to disappointment. And disappointment is a major motivation killer (also for staying in Europe too).
In the end, I decided to JUST focus on me, DYB (DO YOU BOO).
I turned my focus inward.
I love to dance, so I took dance classes at Studio Harmonic and Le Centre des Arts Vivants in the Bastille area (near my old apartment) . I went once or twice a week,
During my dance class, I was able to observe my fellow classmates, and I learned that a majority of French people are shy.
For example, when class started, there was this massive gap between the middle of the room to the mirror, where the dance teacher stood. The Frenchies (French people) basically stuck to the back of the wall, like wallflowers. In the states, the middle of the room to the mirror, where the teacher stands, is the prime real estate. You have to arrive 15 mins early to pick your spot or try and fight your way closest to the teacher (up to the mirror).
But, not in France. In dance class, you have all the space you need because “the scaredy cats” French are stuck to the back of the wall.
So, I stood next to the teacher and ended up learning the routine quicker. Plus, I got to know the different teachers, (like Freddy Lawson, an American Musician, Julie Sicard, to name a few), a little better and it help me to speak French more often.
After consistently going every week for around 6 months slowly my classmates (the Frenchies) started to open up and talk to me after classes and even invited me to have a café with them.
This interaction taught me that French people as a whole, a good 80% of the population, are shy, introvert and don’t like to draw attention to themselves. They are too reserved in a particular situation (not everywhere in France) and avoid eye contact because they think it’s impolite.
Weird and awkward for me, I feed off of social interaction with humans and animals too (oh wait humans are animals duh).
Also, not to mention a lot of other weird and random things I encountered in Paris.
I’ll never forget one time when I took the metro, and I noticed a girl staring at me.
So, I turned and smiled at her, and she mumbled something in French. When I replied to her with my thick accent , pronouncing every word (a dead give away) like this: “Désolé, Je ne comprend pas.” She said to me (in broken English), “In the metro, you don’t talk to people, you stare at your shoes” and proceeded to walk away.
Rude and weird, don’t cha think?
That was when I realized I wasn’t in Kansas anymore and that’s the real Paris.
So, you think it’s easier when you are in a relationship to make friends?
I have to say (for me) it’s easy to get a French man (or woman). Trust me, there’s always some French person wanting to improve their English. What better way is there to get an English speaking girlfriend or boyfriend.? Ya know, I’m keeping it REAL here.
During my time in Paris, I had different boyfriends. And yes, we hung out with their friends.
Ya get it?
It was their friends, so when the relationship was over, that friendship contract didn’t transfer over to me. However, one thing I thought was weird was my ex-French boyfriends wanting to stay friends and making an effort to keep in touch with me.
That’s just me, but I don’t make it a habit to keep in touch with ex’s.
Have Faith! Or I’ll say find one.
Having faith is like any other activity.
I’m Buddhist, so I sought out the nearest SGI (Soka Gakkai International) center in Paris. I went to the monthly ZAD meetings and Gonyo (chanting meditation practice) practices with other fellow Buddhists. I was able to join a community who had a common faith and practice.
So if you’re Christian, find a church you like and go every Sunday.
If you’re an Atheist, go to church or some other spiritual center, guru thang.
Who cares, really!
It gets you out of your house and interacting with humans.
I go to church every now and then, and every time I met someone I had some really cool conversations.
Even though I don’t believe in God (but I do believe in some things, and me), I made friends through my faith and my practice.
Remember, I found my French roommate through a Church, and I’m Buddhist.
How about that!
I can say after three years in Paris, I eventually established friendships with French people at the dance center, through my Buddhist practice, in my different jobs, and in other activities.
My move to Nantes in 2008.
Kind of like when I moved to Paris, I didn’t know anyone. I was starting all over again.
In Nantes, French people are even MORE reserved, no eye contact nor smiling at each other in the streets.
However, this time was a bit different. I had the internet, social networks and I was fluent in French.
After learning the ropes of the friendship game in Paris, I decided to do the same thing that I had done before with one modification.
I looked for community clubs and associations that only French people went to and No-Expat clubs.
Here are some of the clubs and social networks I used and frequented:
- OVS (On Va Sortir), it’s a social network, kind of like meetUP
- AVF (Accueil des ville Français) Nouveaux Arrivants dans la ville, (This is an association for French people who have moved to a new city to meet other people in the same situation as them)
- The association les Jeunes Randonneurs Nantais (a hiking club in Nantes)
- Dance classes
- And singing and guitar lessons
I picked activities that I wanted to learn, practice, master and joined the nearest Buddhist center.
Every time, I made sure my focus was on ME (DYB) and not just to meet people and make friends.
Like hiking, cooking classes, cinema clubs, etc..
I was consistent with my activities, and that IS the key with French people.
You have to keep showing up in the same places and focus on learning, practicing or creating something in order to make friends with French people.
Les Français like for you to show up consistently (kind of like life) in certain ways, or you have to have something so different, beautiful and unique about you before they break out of their comfort zones to talk to you.
Get a beautiful dog, like my pharaoh Hound.
In 2012, when I got my dog (Luna), French people started to approach me in the streets.
“Wow, elle est trop belle or c’est quoi comme race, je n’est jamais vue un chien comme ça etc… “
And the conversation started.
I even had people approach me saying, “I’ve seen you before with your dog ya da ya da ya.”
I was able to meet other dog owners, and thanks to Luna I had two friendships blossom from people I continually ran into on the streets.
After 8 years in Nantes, I was able to establish some great friendships through my activities and with Luna dog.
Expats are no different from the French.
It’s hard for French people too!
I’ve been married to a French man since 2017. He moved from Nantes to Toulouse and left all his friends and family behind.
He’s a typical French introvert; as a result, he does not like to draw attention to himself. Kind of like being one of those wallflowers in my dance classes.
At times, I have to push him just to ask a stranger in the street for directions.
So, French people who move around in France have the same problem as expats do.
Learn the different kinds of friendships with the French.
It very hard and long to establish friendships with French people. Speaking French will obviously help you fit in locally,
But first you need to know that there are different kinds of French friendship vocabulary that let you know what kind of relationship you have.
So, let’s take a look at that:
- une connaissance (means an acquaintance)
- Un or une ami(e) d’ami(e) (means a friend of a friend)
- Un camarade (someone in the same school or class as you, but not a friend. Kind of like an acquaintance.)
- Un copain or une copine (light meaning not as strong as the word ami, it’s like girlsfriends) ça peut être sérieux ou plus léger.
- Un or une pote (buddies, like copain, but more familiar)
- Ami (a very close friend, strong and forever meaning. You don’t become an ami in two weeks. This takes the best friend meaning in English)
- Un or une meilleur(e) ami(e) (best friend)
- Un or une ami(e) d’enfance (a friend from childhood)
- Un or une cher(e) ami(e) (a dear friend; more distant than a simple friend)
Be careful of these “in a relationship with” meanings:
- un(e) petit(e) ami(e): boyfriend or girlfriend
- Mon ami(e): normally means my lover, depends on context
In some cities like Paris, Toulouse, Strasbourg, Lyon and Rennes (for example) first contacts can be super-easy, on the other hand the relationship may stay superficial. If it’s superficial, a French person will never call you un(e) ami(e), they are more likely to call you a un(e) copain(e) or pote.
In others cities like Nantes, Metz, it is very hard to get “accepted”, but once somebody knows he/she can trust you, they will treat you like family and it’s a friendship for life! That is when they will call you un(e) ami(e).
In all, French people have two types of friends, “Les Copains” and “Les Amis.” “Les Copains” are the people you see once in a while to have coffee, go to a movie or to do activities with, but the relationship tends to be more superficial and more for the companionship.
“Les Amis” are the people with whom you have a deeper relationship. In France, to become someone’s “ami,” typically takes a longer period of time and the person is “tested” in different ways to determine if they are trustworthy, reliable, supportive, etc.
Although beware not all are, there are exceptions.
French people as a whole are secretive and restricted to the friends they already have. I learned what the true meaning of the word “friend” is, thanks to the French. A French friend is sincere, close, truthful, loyal and hard to get. That is why it’s difficult for Expats and French people alike to make friends with each other.
Last, no matter where you are it’s hard to make new friends as an adult.
It’s the same repeating pattern you can use in any country or city. Don’t get comfortable, you have to love change and be consistent with the activities you choose. Recurring clubs (churches etc..) help you to join a community and makes it easier to get to know others with something in common.
You have to be your own best friend. This way you will always have someone there with you.
So, take my advice and don’t focus hard on creating friendship, it will happen organically if it’s to be.
So, when I moved to Toulouse and Metz, my friendships happened organically via my activities and I didn’t have to give too much thought about it.
My special ingredient for meeting and creating relationships with people anywhere in the world.
And so, I’ll leave you with a fun French cultural pun that kind of explains the French:
Pourquoi les chats n’aiment pas l’eau? (Why do cats hate water?)
Parce que dans l’eau minérale. (Dans l’eau minet râle. )
« Minet” is the cat and râle (complain) is what it does if if ends up in water.
I envy you. You are SO SO Lucky!
Creating new friendships in France is really different from the time I arrived up to now (20 years later).
We are more in-the-know about the living abroad experiences, thanks to blogs and social media.
There are more and more expats on YouTube, blogs and websites like MeetUP.
Through these mediums you can meet a lot of people, as for making friends through social media that’s another topic for a later date.
I hope I have answered your questions. And now I have some questions for you!
Are you an expat?
What is your secret sauce for making new friends in a foreign country?
What was your experience with making friends with the French?
Share your experience (in French if you can) in the comments below.
#JustASK advice column, launched in 2002 on my YouTube channel, is written from an honest, direct and down-to-earth point of view. From navigating between different cultures, traveling, learning languages, getting your ducks in a row, to growing personally and professionally abroad.
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I look forward to reading about your friendship stories, in the comments down below.
Remember to LIVE, LOVE & design your life the way you want it to be.
Talk to you soon,