(asked by Anyuli from Puerto Rico)

I recently stumbled upon your blog, and I think it offers some funny and insightful commentary on French culture. I’m a recent graduate from Puerto Rico, who studied abroad in France for a year and is now moving there to pursue a Master’s degree. In your blog you briefly mention the distinction between the “public and the private spheres”. I glimpsed at this through interactions with my significant other and my French host family. In Latin America, there isn’t much of a fine demarcation between each person’s public and private worlds. Could you expand a little on this distinction of the private vs. the public in French culture?
Thanks so much,
Thanks for the kind word Anyuli, and thanks for the question as it’s a topic that I find most interesting. The problem is that it will be hard to answer thoroughly, from experience I feel that it’s a topic that one needs to experience (possibly on the long term) to really understand.
I think I understand what you mean about the absence of real demarcation between both worlds in your culture (Little know fact about “David the Frenchman”: I have dated a Puerto Rican in the past, and yes, I thought her dad was a little bit too nosy about our relationship as we were both adults, it almost felt like back in high school at times).
I think that there are a public and a private spheres in every culture but their definitions and limits will also be unique to every culture.
And in France, more than many other cultures the demarcation between both spheres will be very clear. But as usual, keep in mind that this limit will vary a little bit from individual to individual, as well as social classes, age, etc.
The way I would define public from private is that:
Is public about me any thing that I don’t care whether people know or not.
The rest is private.
But even for a unique individual, that line will vary according to circumstances.
For example, on this blog, I like to keep a certain degree of anonymity. When I first started it, the idea behind it was that I could be any Frenchman, just because of the blog’s concept. As time went on, the blog grew in audience, and I would answer in a more and more subjective and personal way to some questions. So as anybody can read this, there’s always a chance that a random reader would make the connection to me (as an offline individual) and there’s always a chance that it backfires.
But I’m almost digressing here as it has more to do with Internet behavior and the “healthy paranoia” one needs to have when using it.
But you see, while my identity is by no means secret here (all of my friends who care about it know that I write this blog) I don’t go spill personal information here either.
Because personal information is reserved to the people I know well and trust.
And basically, the general rule of what you keep for yourself or what you share with somebody in France is: the more you know and trust a person, the more you’re likely to share information about yourself with that person.
Here is an interesting example I stumbled upon recently that could help you understand. I’m currently working on the post-production of a documentary (that may be broadcast on PBS at some point, no idea when though, it shouldn’t be totally finished before a few more months), I’m doing translation and subtitling work, so I have nothing to do with the directing, editing, etc, no need to be congratulating me. ;)
So in this documentary, the director interviews an old French man about something important that he did back in the 70’s. But as an introduction, the director first asks him to tell the camera about his childhood. The reaction of the man is very interesting and telling.
He finds the idea totally ludicrous and he almost seems offended to be asked such a question, telling the director that he’s here to talk about that event in the 70’s and nothing else.
That scene is typical of a misunderstanding an American and a French could have about public and private boundaries.
For the American director, childhood data (place of birth, number of siblings, parents’ jobs, etc) is not a secret, not that important, just small talk, hence it belongs to the public sphere; one can tell those things to anybody, it’s more a conversation starter than anything else.
For the Frenchman, those pieces of information deal with family, are off-topic; so they have no reason to be part of the interview as they’re private (while the thing is being interviewed for is very public).
Do you start seeing what I mean?
(For those who care, the Frenchman soon understands the “introduction” value of the question and answers it in length, although I don’t know how much is going to make the final cut).
So, trying to summarize, a French will consider public anything that has to do with their job, their “social hobbies”, anything you don’t do at home and that is not a secret.
The “public sphere” while a somewhat metaphorical sphere is also a physical space that is made of… public spaces: the street, stores, restaurants, workplace, etc.
On the other hand, a French will consider private, things that are “none of your business.” What are those things exactly will depend on circumstances and people (who the person is and who they’re interacting with too).
And the “private sphere” will physically be people’s homes mostly, but also some “bubbles” that will show and disappear from time to time.
Let’s take the example of two people having dinner at a restaurant.
The restaurant is a public space, so their dining in the restaurant belongs to the public sphere, but their conversation and anything that happens at the table that is not obvious by just glancing at it (as opposed to watching or staring) will be private.
And a third person would need to act accordingly if they want to interact with them (waiter put aside).
If you don’t know them, you shouldn’t talk to them (unless you really need to) or pay attention to them (unless they’re making a show or becoming loud, in that case, their behavior becomes public).
If you know them just a little, whether you’re just passing by (if they’re at a terrace) or dining in the same restaurant, a nod of acknowledgement will be enough.
If they’re friends, you can stop and say hi. How long you’ll be “allowed” to stay will depend on how well you know both of them. You won’t be able to sit unless they invite you to though.
If you’re family, same thing more or less.
Also note that if it’s rude for the public to invade the private, it is also rude the other way around.
This is one of the reasons it’s considered rude by French people to talk loud the way most Americans and  Latins (whether from Latin America, Spain or Italy) do.
Remember, if I can hear what you say, that means what you say is encroaching the public sphere when it really shouldn’t.
For some reasons, more and more Parisian people don’t think that rule applies when they’re telling the most trite things on their cell phone while sitting right next to you on the bus or the metro.
OK, I’m not sure I answered to that question in a satisfying way, I feel that what I said applies more or less to most of the Western World. If anybody has follow-up questions, examples or anything else that can make the answer more satisfying, as usual, feel free to comment.
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  13 Responses to “Can you explain the difference between Private and Public Spheres in France?”

  1. I think you did a great job on the response. Having lived in France, although now back in the U.S. and also being married to a Frenchman I encounter the fine lines between private and public nearly every day. And although I have a blog I am very careful to respect my husband's need for privacy. It is something that I have to constantly keep in mind. You did an excellent job of describing the various nuances.

  2. I'm glad you mentioned the cell phone issue, because that is one thing that has become a very annoying problem in the USA, despite our tendency to talk loudly and "publicly" in most situations anyway. Nobody wants to hear other peoples' phone conversations!

    I'm not sure if this is really a public/private issue, but there was one interesting thing I noticed when I lived in France, about how people interact socially. Specifically, when they don't like each other. In France, in public, people generally seemed to keep their dislike of a person private - that is, they would still behave politely (if not friendly) when in groups. I mean, you might KNOW they don't like you, and you may have had private interactions with them where you both made your dislike clear, but in public that is sort of set aside for the sake of social harmony. Which makes hosting parties much easier, because even if you invite people who dislike each other, you know they will behave politely and not start a screaming match or a fistfight and ruin your party.

    In the USA, this sort of public social politesse is seen as "hypocritical." It's viewed as being fake, pretending something you don't feel (that you like the person in question), not being "true" to oneself (whatever that means), etc. If you don't like somebody, that person and everyone else will know it. And your friends better not invite them to the same party as you! Which makes hosting a nightmare at times as you must navigate all those relationships when planning seating charts and ambulance availability.

    I understand both sides, I guess, having lived in both places. But I do find the French way makes public life easier (if a bit uncomfortable at times, since you may not always know how a person REALLY feels about you), while the American way seems a bit arrogant (to be dictating the social lives of other people according to your own whims.)

    I find differences like this between our cultures very interesting. It makes it clear that no one way is better or worse - they each have their pros and cons - they're just different. The real problem is when the two come together without understanding the other. Then you have Americans who see the French as cold and hypocritical (while the French person sees themself as polite and private), and French people who see Americans as rude and having no sense of boundaries (while the American thinks they are honest and forthright.) Interesting!

    - Grace

  3. Agreeing with all of that. I was initially baffled when living in the US at the kinds of questions total strangers would ask, and the kinds of personal information they would volunteer unasked. Conversely, I probably came across as cold and reserved to some Americans I met.

    I live in the Middle East at the moment, where the public/private divide is a bit different again - whereas two western businessmen who know each other slightly from previous work encounters will either never enquire about one another's families, or, if they know each other slightly better, will ask how their wives/children are, you would always begin business with a local by making polite general enquiries about his family, but never specifically about female family members, as that counts as 'private sphere' here.

  4. Good analysis of the French need for privacy. I'm aghast to hear that Parisians are becoming so flippant. My French husband has always warned me about talking about myself too much to casual acquaintances.

  5. Distinction between terms private and public for French still remains mysterious to me )).
    I really cant get it how Parisian real estate agent can demand a full financial bank + taxes info (considered everywhere else strictly confidential) from any potential tenant (as well as his parents, for example) and never even give own business card in return…not to mention call to offer to return the documents in case of negative decision…..

    …And on the other hand, it is rather common to hear how unknown people reveal to complete strangers at the party their sexual preferences))))

  6. Andi and Dedene, if you understand what I said as "French people have a need for privacy" I'm afraid I didn't explain well at all.
    The whole point of this post (and of this blog?) is cultural relativism.
    The French don't have "a need for privacy" any more or less than other cultures, they just have their own, just like any other culture. The trick being that need and those limits are different from culture to culture.

    -Treefeathers, about the behavior of people who don't like each other, I'm really not sure you can generalize anything from what you observed, those things will vary greatly. While I can be very cordial to people I don't like under certain circumstances (and let's admit it, most of the time I'll do it with the purpose of destabilizing them), most French people are actual quite upfront and open about this, and won't interact with people they don't like. Sometimes, they even make a point in making sure that they're doing it.
    Especially, because as you mention, behaving nicely with somebody you don't like is the epitome of hypocrisy and that's why most French people won't do it. That's also why most French people think Americans are hypocrite, because they'll be nice and smiley to whoever: strangers, friends and enemies alike.
    And you say that in France you may not know how a person really feels about you… I really wonder in what circles you navigated, because if you switch the words "French" and "American" in your comment, that would almost seem familiar.

    Are you sure you didn't misinterpret some behaviors (so many Anglos think French people fight when they just debate, but that's just because you guys can't debate)?

    -Ask a Russian: A real estate agent will need to know those information because they'll need to know whether you'll be able to pay the rent or your monthly payment or whatever. By strictly confidential, they mean, that your bank can't give out the information to anybody, but that's pretty much it, it's not really a private/public issue here.
    As far as the telling one's sexual preferences to strangers thing, I'm starting to wonder with what kind of French people most of my commentators hang out.

    -Nathalie: very interesting, feel free to develop more. :)

  7. David, it's funny that we seem to have opposite views of the matter. It did seem to me that the French were more civil to people they didn't like than Americans tend to be (not friendly - just civil.) But my experience was mostly limited to Bretagne where I lived, so of course I can't generalize to all French people.

    I definitely became familiar with the French love of debate, it's one of the things I came to love about France! Real, interesting conversation! But I know what you mean, Americans are often put off by that, or feel that they are being attacked or something when French people want to debate about things.

    - Grace

  8. I dont actually question the necessity of showing confidential bank papers but the fact that tenant never knows what is going to be done with this info is the "dossier" is refused. I feel kind of uncomfortable knowing that the copy of my income statement/work contract or even guarantee check will end up in God-knows-whose-hands.)))

  9. First: Great blog!

    Ok, so that leaves me with a question. A frenchman friend of mine lost his father just before Christmas. My attempts to contact him to see how he and his family are doing have been unsuccessful and gone unaswered. Is this because of the privacy issue?

  10. No idea. No, you're not invading his privacy by attempting to contact him, but I guess it's normal that he hasn't responded yet. Well, it depends on how close you two are, how affected he is by his father's loss and things like that.

  11. As a Russian: Yeah, I understand, but I guess that the most likely answer is that it goes to the trash.

  12. Thank you for your response.

    We are friends, we have shared on personal issues, although we are not "buddies", but perhaps we could be if it wasn't because we life in different countries…

    In the past he blamed himself for not being there more for his parents in their illnesses, so I suppose he is deeply affected.

    But, if I'm not doing anything about their privacy for asking, then I will keep doing so, if only for support.

  13. Interesting question introducing to relativity of collective minds . i agree with most of the assertions above and I'll add mine .
    Home : when you visit an American home, you get access to every room more or less. If you're invited for a diner in France, you only see the dining room, the toilets, maybe the kitchen, but some rooms are closed and it would be considered as very rude if you opened any of these closed doors . That's another anecdotic difference .
    But there are more important ones . In France we don't care about the private life of our politicians ( except since Giscard when they are trying to imitate America ) . The Clinton-Lewinsky affair would have made a flop here . And also the invasion of private business by public moral leagues is unknown in France . I had a friend who spent a year in a "dry" county of Louisiana. The neighbors used to search her dustbin looking for empty bottles ! There are states where sodomy is illegal ! And what about those suburban estates where the neighborhood's pressure forces people to cut their lawn or paint their house with a deep sense of a full right to do so ? Not to mention the invading and loud presence of every group of any religious sect in public space .
    There's a great difference between both countries . I'm used to say in America there are nearly no regulations about business, money, work, healthcare and so on, but a lot about what I consider as private . In France it's exactly the opposite . It's not a little opposition .

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