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House-Sitting in France: A Cross-Cultural Guide for Anglophones

Welcome to Nomador's Cultural Differences & Housesitting series, which explores cultural differences that impact the housesitting experience across countries and offers practical, handson tips to understand and effectively communicate as a homeowner or housesitter across cultures. If you missed the first article in the series, you can find it here. This is the second post in the series, and is about the specific cultural differences between French and Anglophone cultures, with a focus on providing tips for Anglophones interested in housesitting in France.

Put up your hand if this has happened to you: you spot a dream housesitting assignment looking after an adorable animal for a month in Paris (or Provence, or Burgandy, or Normandy...), and you jump on Nomador.com to apply. You fire off a casual but friendly note to the homeowner and settle into a routine of compulsively checking emails in anticipation of their response. In your mind, you're already planning your month soaking up the French language, wine, food and culture...and then?

Crickets. You never hear back from the homeowner.

If this has happened to you, you're not alone. In fact, it's happened to me...several times over.
My husband Geoff and I have taken care of homes, plants, cats and dogs all across Europe, but we've yet to crack the France nut, let alone receive a response from a French homeowner (despite multiple attempts).

With the exception of one housesit in Berlin, we've always housesat for Anglophone expatriates living around Europe. And rather embarrassingly, I never even considered it was because I've been doing something wrong.

Despite the considerable similarities between French and Anglophone countries, there are also significant differences that could have a direct impact on your ability to secure a housesitting assignment in France.

After watching these differences play out every single day in house-sitter-homeowner communications, the Nomador team realised a practical guide to French culture is just what this community needs.
This post is intended to help Nomador's Anglophone members who are interested in house-sitting in France. Think of it as a French Culture for housesitting, introducing you to the most significant differences between French and Anglophone culture as they apply. Beyond introducing key intercultural theories in practical terms, it will also outline the most common mistakes the Nomador team sees and hears about from French homeowners, and provide clear tips you can use when applying to a housesit in France.

An Evolution of House-Sitting in France

Although housesitting has been common in France since the 1990s, the form of house-sitting that Nomador espouses - a community-based approach centered around learning and sharing, rather than payment - is relatively new.

In fact, for most of its history, house-sitting in France has been a fee-based arrangement managed by agencies that primarily serve French retirees. These agencies thrived in part due to the specifics of France's society, culture and economy, including:

  • The French tend to dislike uncertainty and risk, and will actively work to minimise both. Just as many Americans pay for the peace of mind that comes with a home security system, French homeowners have been willing to pay housesitting agencies to guarantee quality and reliability. Hiring a French company to manage all of the details further reduces the uncertainty that comes when crossing cultures.
  • Many French homeowners have valuable heirlooms, antiques, and generations-old pieces of high-quality furniture in their homes, and are naturally concerned these pieces are properly cared for. When combined with sky-high real estate prices and a French tendency to move less frequently than people in many Anglophone countries, it's easy to see why French homeowners may be more hesitant to take  the leap into the unpaid house-sitting market.
  • Generally speaking, the French are less familiar with social media and online communities than Anglophones, and are less likely to adopt new and unconventional ways of doing things. In the past, this has put collaborative consumption websites like Nomador at a disadvantage to the fee-based model, which has been familiar and widely accepted for years.

While the fee-based agency has reigned supreme for decades, things are changing in France. Today, Nomador has practically equal numbers of Francophone and Anglophone members, and the sharing economy is becoming more common worldwide, including in France.

This change creates a wealth opportunities for housesitters dreaming of a French sojourn...as long as they're able to avoid the cultural pitfalls that get an application thrown out from the get-go.

Theories to Better Understand French Culture

To really understand why some French cultural norms, expectations and habits are different from those of the Anglophone countries, it's necessary to get slightly theoretical.

Beginning in the 1950s to 1970s, cross-cultural researchers and academics set about developing systems and measurements to compare national cultures from one another, uncovering findings that have largely held up and are still in use today.

When it comes to practical implications of these findings for housesitters, three cross-cultural communications theories, in particular, are helpful: Power Distance, Uncertainty Avoidance, and
High-Context vs. Low-Context.

Power Distance is a measure of how well a culture tolerates and expects the unequal distribution of power within their society, and accepts that those with power will enjoy special privileges that those without power will not. The French rank significantly higher in power distance (68/100) than the United States (40/100), the United Kingdom (35/100), Ireland (28/100) Canada (39/100), Australia (36/100), and New Zealand (22/100).

Tips for Managing Differences of Power Distance:

  • Use formal language when communicating with homeowners, using the polite and formal “vous” form of French.
  • Address the homeowner as Madame or Monsieur, unless you know their first name or until asked to do otherwise.
  • Include polite French phrases within your letter of introduction (see below for key
    phrases).

Uncertainty Avoidance is another useful cultural measure, and once again, French culture differs greatly from the Anglophone countries in this dimension. Uncertainty Avoidance is the degree to which members of a culture tolerate and attempt to minimise uncertainty in their lives, and the extent to which uncertainty causes anxiety.

France scores 86 out of 100 on the Uncertainty Avoidance scale, which is in stark contrast to the USA (46), Canada (48), the UK (35), Ireland (35), Australia (51), and New Zealand (49).
Indeed, the average French person doesn't like surprises, and may use control over details as a way to manage and reduce uncertainty and risk.

Tips for Managing Differences of Uncertainty Avoidance:

  • French homeowners may expect pre-scheduled discussions, with a precise time, date and method of communication.
  • Keeping your arrival or departure date open-ended is likely to cause problems for the French homeowner - a solid commitment with dates will be appreciated.
  • Providing details about your travel plans (flight/train numbers and times) will likely be appreciated.
  • Specifying how you'll communicate during the housesit, and how often, (and then keeping to that schedule) will help to build trust.

The third relevant concept is that of High-Context vs. Low-Context Cultures.
Again, there's a marked difference between France (high-context) and the Anglophone countries (low-context), which has the potential to create misunderstanding.

High-context cultures like France rely on implicit meaning generated through shared knowledge, views and understanding of protocol and norms, and are experts at using non-verbal and indirect communication to convey meaning. People from low-context cultures (many English-speaking countries) rely on meaning that is spelled out through verbal or written communication and are experts at direct communication.

Tips for People from Low-Context Cultures When Communicating with People from High-Context Cultures:

  • Relationships are built over time and go hand-in-hand with trust. Trust is earned by following the proper behaviours and protocols of French culture.
  • Jumping directly to the "point" is a lost opportunity for relationship-building. Take the time for pleasantries and chit-chat before communicating the "real reason" for your message.
  • Indirect and contextual communication carry as much (or more) meaning than the words themselves. By choosing to use very polite language and titles, and by using French at the beginning of your message, you will signal your genuine interest in a relationship and appropriately acknowledge status.

Common Mistakes Anglophones Make When Applying for House-Sits in France

As mentioned in the introduction, the idea to build this French culture guide arose out of practicality, including Nomador's conversations with French homeowners, and seeing common mistakes made over and over.

Now that you're familiar with some of the key differences between French and Anglophone culture, consider the 5 mistakes Anglophones make most frequently when applying to housesits in France:

  • Beginning a message with Salut, instead of Bonjour. This small mistake can put your application in the reject pile right off the bat. While in English, it's common to begin an email with Hi, French culture demands a more formal approach. Further, Salut is more colloquial than the English Hi (it's more like Hey), and is only used by very young people.
    Bonjour is the greeting that’s most commonly used in French, even between close friends.
  • Using overly familiar French. Using the familiar tu form of French is inappropriate with someone you haven't met. Even young people use the polite vous form of the language with peers until they are friends. Choosing to use the tu form of French with someone you don't know conveys meaning, and not in a positive way.
  • Assuming the homeowner speaks English. While Nomador is a bilingual platform, it doesn't follow that all members are bilingual themselves. Begin your message in French (See below for key phrases), and then ask if the homeowner can speak English. While it's tempting to rely on online translation, that approach won't be of much help when you have to receive pet care and home care instructions in person. If you’re truly unable to communicate, it might not be the right housesit for you!
  • Sending links to videos, blogs, and social media accounts that have nothing to do with house-sitting. This is a high-context culture mistake that bewilders French homeowners. To the Anglophone, directly showing who you are through your blog or YouTube channel should build trust, but the average French homeowner interprets these attachments as evidence of your marketing, video and writing skills not your trustworthiness or housesitting skills.
  • Using the wrong profile picture. Using an overly-casual profile picture is unlikely to inspire confidence in the average French homeowner. Remember that hierarchy and status are important to the French, and that non-verbal communication conveys as much meaning as words themselves. Select a picture in which you're well-groomed, smartly dressed and smiling, and avoid candid shots taken at the beach, the bar, or a wedding.

How to Write a Culturally-Appropriate House-Sitting Application

Courteous, polite, and formal communications are highly valued in French culture. By playing by these cultural “rules,” you will go a long way in earning the trust of the average French homeowner.

  • Begin your letter with Bonjour (plus the first name if indicated in the listing), or Bonjour Madame, or Bonjour Monsieur. Mademoiselle is best avoided.
  • If you do not know the homeowners' first name or gender (for example, the listing only has a username), it is appropriate to simply begin with Bonjour.
  • Use the polite vous form of French, rather than the more familiar tu form in your communications.
  • Do not be overly casual in explaining your personal life or situation. When in doubt, err towards a business tone of writing.

Don’t jump straight to the point. Instead, start with general pleasantries and introductions in French:

  • C’est avec grand plaisir que je me présente à vous / It is a pleasure to meet you
  • Je m'appelle Madame/Monsieur (your first name AND your last name), et je suis (your nationality)/ My name is Ms./Mr. [soandso], and I am [nationality].

Because Nomador is a bilingual platform, many French members expect to make arrangements with their house-sitters in French, not English. Therefore, it is wise to not assume that the homeowner speaks English. Start out with a few French phrases before apologising for not speaking French, and then ask if they speak English. Many French can speak (at least a little) English and will then make the effort to communicate.

  • Je vous écris en réponse à l'annonce parue sur Nomador. / I am writing in response to your advertisement posted on Nomador.
  • Je suis désolé, je ne parle pas francais. Peu-être parlez-vous Anglais ? / I am sorry I do not speak French. Do you speak English?

Now, introduce yourself in English, continuing to use polite language:

  • Explain your housesitting experience, and experience with pets.
  • Clarify your exact availability for the house-sit, and indicate whether you would be able to arrive early if necessary.
  • Answer any questions or requirements the homeowner listed in the original posting.
  • Explain why you are interested in this house-sit in particular. Expressing interest in and admiration for French culture will typically endear you to a French person (if the sentiment is genuine).

End your letter again in French, letting the homeowner know you would like to continue the conversation and using a formal version of Yours Sincerely:

  • Je reste bien sûr à votre disposition pour répondre à toutes questions complémentaires. Bien cordialement / Essentially: I am available to speak further about this, combined with yours sincerely.
  • Sign your first name or write your name as Madame or Monsieur / [Your Last Name].

 

 

If a homeowner responds positively to your application, congratulations! Be sure to continue using these concepts throughout the "interview" and pre-house-sit state.
Do your best to minimise uncertainty, and continue to use polite language throughout your interactions.

  • Prepare for calls in advance, and write down any questions you have.
  • Be ready to confirm all details related to the housesit, including dates of availability, when requested.
  • Expect pointed questions in your communications with French homeowners, especially when finalising the details of a house-sitting arrangement. Remember: French culture values details as a way to minimise uncertainty.

 

 

 

 

Final thoughts

When speaking about cultural differences, it is difficult to avoid generalising groups of people. Remember these concepts and guidelines refer to societally-accepted standards across France, and there is considerable difference between individuals and subcultures.

That said, if you follow the concepts in this guide, you are likely to be met with appreciation and rewarded with the homeowners' trust.

And if you try these techniques yourself, we would love to hear how it goes in the comments!


A Note About Sources

This guide was written with the input of the Nomador team, and drawing upon my education in
Intercultural Communications. However, I also consulted the following sources:

Commisceo France Guide
Business Culture in France
Geert Hofstede France
Paris Unraveled
Changing Minds
French Today


Katie Matthews 
Wandertooth.com

As full-time travellers, Katie Matthews and her husband Geoff frequently housesit as a way to gain a deeper interaction with different cultures, meet like-minded people, and spend some time with furry animals. They have been housesitting since 2013, and spend their days spoiling pets, creating travel-themed adult colouring books, and writing on their blog, wandertooth.com. Holding a Master's of Arts in International and Intercultural Communication, Katie has a keen interest in how culture shapes communications.

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