Cultural Differences in Photos: USA and France

French Culture

In my English classes I taught at the university, we used flashcards with a photo of an object and the English word written out to teach and/or reinforce vocabulary. For most objects, there were no problems with the images provided but every once in a while, my students didn’t quite understand the connection between the image and the word because of cultural differences between the US and France.

For example, what word comes to mind when you look at this image?

If you are American, you would most likely identify it as a loaf of bread. All of my French students, however, thought it was a cake. Why? Because un cake in French is this:

Most Americans would probably call this a sort of quick bread, such as banana bread or zucchini bread, because the shape is similar to a loaf of bread. Loaves of bread are not all that common in France because pain has many shapes, whether a baguette, or pain de campagne, or petits pains. Sliced bread sold in loaves is just called pain de mie, or “American Sandwich” as it’s written on the bag, and it is not really eaten with meals but used almost exclusively for making sandwiches or croque monsieurs.

Another image that my students found strange was this:

Orange prescription bottles that are the norm in the US don’t exist in France. When you go to the pharmacy, you receive a box of medication but there is no printed label with the directions on it, or even your name or doctor’s name. All of that information stays on the prescription paper itself, which you must keep.

Students who watch a lot of American TV or films recognized the bottle, but it was still a foreign concept to them – just as not receiving an orange bottle is still a bit odd to me whenever I fill a prescription in France.

Now what image pops into your head when you hear the words crutches or vacuum?

If you’re American, I bet you think of these:

If you’re French, I imagine it’s more like these:

The forearm crutches and cylinder vacuum are also used in the US, but the underarm crutches and upright vacuum are relatively rare in France. I always thought it was strange when my students came to class with the forearm crutches after a car or skiing accident, because I only ever saw those used by elderly patients with lifelong disabilities or Kerry Weaver on ER. I don’t know which set of crutches is considered better for healing, but at least with the vacuums it makes more sense that the upright version is more common in North America – because we have a lot more carpet in our homes and businesses. I have yet to set foot in a home in France where there is wall-to-wall carpet instead of a few small rugs here and there. Since Europe prefers hardwood and tile floors, the cylinder vacuum is more convenient here.

Another difference that I had never thought of came to me when I was flipping through Oops magazine this past weekend. Oops is one of those trashy celebrity magazines that I only look at to learn more slang or see what atrocities French has done to English words lately (relooké always kills me). There was a picture of Zac Efron next to a car holding a few things in his hands, one of which was a tube of Burt’s beeswax lip balm, which is very recognizable to Americans – as are most tubes of chapstick. [I believe this was the paparazzi photo if you want to see for yourself.]

However, the caption in French said that he was holding a tube of homeopathic pills. I don’t think that Burt’s Bees products are as popular in France as in the US, and homeopathic pills found in little tubes are very common, so it’s easy to see why the author was mistaken:

There are many other subtle differences that don’t lead to confusion (houses with siding vs. stone houses, cars with trunks vs. hatchbacks, top-loading washers vs. front-loading) that help to identify something as American or French/European. Searching for the English word on and the French word on will provide many examples. Can you think of any other items that could be mistaken for something else like the cake and tubes above?

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  • abuscher

    Thanks! I’m using this as inspiration for activities for my students next week!

    • Jennie Wagner

      Great! Glad to help out! :)

  • L.

    Before coming to France I’d never seen those sponge holders you’ll find in many French kitchens (called a ‘porte éponge’). A lot of them are decorated and/or match the kitchen decor. If you ask an American, they’ll probably say it’s a napkin holder since it looks a lot like the holders that prop up paper napkins vertically.
    Drying racks for clothes are pretty different too. In the States I only knew wooden ones with an accordion structure that collapsed to be stored. In France they’re more intricate affairs with multiple parts unfolding to provide a maximum of drying space.
    And lastly, mops seem to pretty different. I’ve never been in a home in France with a string mop, always some combination of a cloth and a special broom to rub it across the floor.

    • Jennie Wagner

      Ooh good ones! I have a “regular” mop like the ones in the US, mostly because that is what I was specifically looking for when I bought it. I didn’t even know about the cloth ones. I guess they’re more like those Swiffer things?

      • Gwan

        Oh, totally with L on the mop – when I moved into my current flat I remembered my flatmate had mentioned a mop, but I looked everywhere and couldn’t find it. Turns out you wrap a rag around a hard-bristled broom! How is that a good idea?
        Doesn’t quite beat the broom I had in Russia which was one of those that looks like a bundle of sticks tied together though.

    • acadie

      Such a timely discussion — I just had an exchange with a Frenchie about this. I was cleaning our kitchenette and asked if he had a “mop.” He said he did and brought back a rag. I looked at him confused and said I thought he would bring a mop! He insisted that the thing he brought me *was* a mop. We both looked at each other like we were crazy.

      It turns out that the French word “serpillère” translates to BOTH “mop” and “rag” in English… (either a broomstick attached to a rag, or a rag just by itself). *Sigh*

  • Cynthia

    Nice post! What always get me is the different phone tonalities. The first time I called a French number, the tone was so strange, I hung up thinking it was not working!

    • Jennie Wagner

      Oh yeah! The non-ringing and non-dial tone was strange to me too!

  • Diane

    this kind of relates and makes me laugh now thinking back on it. anyway, when i was staying with a friend’s family in bretagne over the summer, i had a little issue w/the trash can. one morning after using the bathroom, i had to throw away a few tissues and a q-tip and couldn’t find the trash can in the bathroom so i went to the kitchen. in the corner, i saw a thing that resembled a garbage can–it was about waist high, had a bag in it and even seemed to have some trash in the bottom (a few small bread crusts). so i threw my trash in there and thought nothing of it–until dinner, that is! my friend’s dad pulled a few pieces of bread out of my “trash can” and out came my q-tip and tissues along w/the fresh baguette!

    ahh i was mortified. that trash can thing was NOT a trash can but actually a giant bread holder. whoops!! i later found out the trash was in the closet. who in their right minds would store bread in a thing that looks like a giant garbage can? lol

    • Jennie Wagner

      This is so funny and I can totally see how you would think the bread holder was a trash can! Thanks for sharing. :)

  • Brandi Cantarel

    The homeopathic example is too funny;)

    • Jennie Wagner

      Isn’t it hilarious? I thought they might be joking when I first read the caption but then I thought no, they really do think it’s homeopathic pills because French chapstick doesn’t look like that.

  • Info

    This reminded me of arrows on signs, like the ones in airports or other public places.

    If you’re walking down a long corridor in an airport and the arrow on a sign overhead signals that you should keep walking straight ahead to get to your destination, would you expect the arrow to point up or down?

    • Felix

      Sorry. My name is Félix, not Info. :-)

      • Félix

        I’ve created a Disqus profile so that I don’t goof in your comments section again.

        Here in Québec, I think the arrows usually point UP. But without intentionally paying more attention to it, I can’t say for sure.

        It was somewhere in Paris that the arrow pointed DOWN, and I understood it to mean “go down those steps over there.” What it really meant was “go straight ahead.” I went around in circles for a bit until I caught on.

        I don’t know if arrows point up or down based on cultural differences.

        • acadie

          Interesting observation! I’ve definitely been a victim of signs in the Paris metro stations. I need to pay more attention to *how* exactly those buggers are leading me astray!

    • Jennie Wagner

      My first instinct would be up, but I can’t picture those signs anymore – in neither N. American nor European airports. Hmm…

  • Stephanie

    Great comparisons! The French iron is another appliance that makes an odd comparison to American irons. Why so enormous?

    • Jennie Wagner

      Heh, I wouldn’t know – I think I’ve only used an iron about a dozen times in my entire life. :)

  • Paul O’Brien

    This is as brilliant as the significance of company names we learn about in college. The old Nova cars and the implication in Spanish! Means one thing here but possibly something very different elsewhere. You’ve got me wondering if there was sponsorship behind Zak and Burt’s… Great post and a lot of fun to read!

    • Jennie Wagner

      Company names and how they translate literally and culturally is another huge topic. I always laugh about Kiri cheese being sold in Iran (kiri means penis in Farsi) though they did eventually change the name to Kibi.

  • Cdelmar1

    I’m bi-cultural and bi-lingual French/American and these are well articulated examples, truths I rarely think and there are more.  But think about it:  France and the US are western countries, much of US culture has French roots.  The differences between Western and Asian/African cultures is even more vaste.

  • scooters mobility

    Nice trivia I gain additional knowledge about the two places.Hope in future I can visit this wonderful place and know more about their culture and living.

  • acadie

    Excellent post! This reminds me of a class I had one time when a professor asked us to mentally picture objects she would name, for example: “tree,” “cookie,” etc. Afterwards, she would poll the class to ask how many of us thought of a deciduous tree vs. an evergreen tree, for example. I had been picturing a deciduous tree, and I was very surprised to learn that for some other people, their default idea of a “tree” was an evergreen! Also, chocolate chip cookies vs. sugar cookies, etc. Thanks for sharing!

  • Daniel Wall

    On a related note, I once had a primary school teacher from Tuba City complain to me about an item on a standardized test. Her students had been asked to explain what an umbrella is for, and the anticipated answer had clearly been rain. But her Navajo and Hopi students had just spent much of the last month at ceremonial dances wherein the primary purpose of an umbrella had been to shield them from the sun,