Introduction: description of differences
In theory, the subject of time is defined in the same manner in France as in the United States. Larousse defines time as “Notion fondamentale conçue comme un milieu infini dans lequel se succèdent les événements.” Oxford defines time as “the indefinite continued progress of existence and events in the past, present, and future regarded as a whole.” However, during our stay in France, we have noticed some differences between France and the United States concerning time. The first difference concerns the relation with time in the professional domain; this is to say schools or workplaces. Time as it concerns meals – waiting time, the hour one eats, the duration of the meal – constitutes the second difference. For the final difference we will discuss the management of free time such as pastimes, the structure of weekends, or the structure of weeks. In this article we will describe in detail these differences and will analyze the cultural reasons for these differences.
Part 1: Time in the professional domain
I am taking four courses at Sciences Po University this semester. I was very surprised to see that my courses don’t start exactly at the scheduled time and they don’t finish at the scheduled time. For example, one of my courses generally finishes between 20 and 30 minutes before the end of the course because the professor has to catch a train. Another of my courses often finishes 25 minutes after the scheduled time. What is more, most of the time my professors arrive 5 minutes after the start of the course. Sometimes, the professors change the hours of the course without warning the students; I find this bizarre. For one class we only had 3 meetings in person. I don’t know if I can confidently say that I learned much for a class that finished 20-30 minutes before the scheduled hour and which only met 3 times.
When I discuss the subject of the relation to time with other international students, they also find that the relation with time is strange and sometimes frustrating because it seems to us that the professors don’t completely respect our time. Yet, when I initiate the same conversation with the French students they don’t find the situation bizarre. On the contrary, it is very common that the French students arrive to class 5 minutes (and one time an hour) late. Or, at Jean-Jaures, the students leave before the end of the class and generally, the professors don’t say anything about it. At Dickinson, almost all of the students and professors arrive on time and often arrive early. I find this an indicator of the respect that exists between students and professors, we use the scheduled time and we give our attention to each person who speaks during class, student or professor.
I think a question arises of how can we learn in an environment where we don’t respect each other? In general, the relationship between students and professors is very different in France. The courses, their hours, their information, and their organization are controlled almost completely by the professor. It seems to me that regulations concerning the necessary hours in person, the distribution of grades, the schedule, etc. do not exist. Essentially, the professor decides what they want and the students follow. I don’t feel that there exists the same understanding of how the act of following the scheduled hours shows respect, engagement, enthusiasm, and a desire to be there.
Before arriving in France, I learned in my French classes that the French are not preoccupied by punctuality. I find this stereotype too general (as is the case for many stereotypes) because among the examples of people who arrive late, who leave early, and professors who don’t warn students of schedule changes, there exist counter-stereotypical people who arrive and leave at the scheduled hour and who keep students in the loop about schedule changes. I can understand the French sentiment that at the end of the day, 5 minutes doesn’t ruin one’s life. However, the fact is that many international students and us Americans have noticed the strangeness of time management in France. Thus, this cultural difference as it concerns time remains very real and very jarring and can sometimes make university life in France disagreeable.
Part 2: Time in Regards to Meals
There is another difference concerning the conception of time in France and in the United States, which is related to meals. There are a number of little differences between the two cultures. The first example is the hour of the day when people typically eat. In the United States, many people eat earlier in the evening, usually between 6 and 7 PM. In fact, the average American dinner time is 6:30 PM. In France, the average dinner time is different as most French families eat dinner around 8 PM.
Another example of different conceptions of time is the length of meals. The French have a tendency to savor their meals for a long period of time. It is not uncommon to spend an hour and a half to two hours at the table for lunch or dinner. In the United States, meals are rarely that long. American dinners typically last close to 30 minutes.
There is another example regarding meals that constitutes the last example. In many cases, waiting time for food in restaurants in France and in the United States is the same, usually around 15 minutes. However, the reactions between the two countries are very different. In France, a waiting time of 15 minutes is considered very long. For example, I was once at a restaurant for lunch with my hosts. After 15 minutes of waiting for our food, my hosts said that the food was taking too long. On the other hand, many Americans would think that waiting time was short.
There are many explanations for these cultural differences detailed above. In regards to the hour of meals, the hours of daily life are different between American and French cultures. The French usually work later in the day and also arrive home later. This is why they tend to eat later on in the evening. An important part of French culture is food and meals. This notion explains why meals are much longer in France. For the French, meals are a moment to connect with others. It is very common to see people stay at the table long after the meal is over. It is also fairly normal for American families to not always eat dinner together. This may be because children have many activities to do after school, like sports, dance, or theater.
Part 3: Free Time
Also, how people manage their free time differs between France and the USA, and these differences depend on numerous factors. Based on our experiences here, it seems to us that French people our age have much more free time in France than we have in the United States. There’s a big cultural difference regarding students, in particular, but this changes between high school and college. In terms of university, American students have class multiple times per week, and they have lots of homework with a rigid structure. On the other hand, each French course meets only once or twice per week, and each class period lasts several hours. Plus, each class is longer (two or even three hours) but happens regularly in France.
Furthermore, homework is rare, practically replaced by bibliographies of recommended reading. Thus, French students can choose to commit more or less to a course based on how much the course material interests them. With this in mind, as well as what we have heard from our French friends, students have more free time during the week to go out with their friends because being a good student simply requires them to study regularly. However, in the USA, high schoolers have class for six to seven hours a day, from 7:20 AM to 2:20 PM for instance, then they participate in after-school activities, and they have many options at their disposal. For example, I did theatre, band, volunteering, and even French club at my high school with other students my age. Conversely, having spoken to French high schoolers, we learned that they hardly have any clubs to participate in at their high school. Also, according to them, their school days last longer: about eight hours, from 8:30 AM to 4:30 PM.
Thus, French high schoolers have less free time outside of school than American high schoolers, and when they do have it, they have less structure that could teach them how to spend it. Thanks to clubs in American high schools, students can discover which activities interest them while in France, high schoolers must explore their interests independently. By lacking clubs, French high schools do not develop extracurricular interests in their students, reinforcing the notion that being a good student is merely a matter of studying. All in all, although university students have more free time in France than in the USA, that is not the case for all French people; what’s clear is that free time in France is less structured—in a way, “freer”—than free time in the US, with fewer activities and less specific homework to do.
Conclusion: the French perspective
In conclusion, even if there exist examples that show the disagreement between our American ideas concerning time and the French reality, one cannot stereotype all French people simply because we found a few differences. What is more, temporal differences have roots based in culture thus we have to adapt ourselves to these differences to respect French culture. Adaptation can be difficult, particularly when that to which we adapt ourselves is a subject as vast, abstract, and vague as time. Our experiences regarding school, meals, and the management of free time show and describe cultural differences and we recognize that it is necessary to respect these differences, however we do not have the guidebook on navigating these differences. Each day becomes a work of learning, an opportunity to enlarge our worldviews, and among the confusion and the difference we find moments of connection which link our American customs with French heritage.