The Suburbs Theory

Believe it or not, not all French people live in country chateaus or tiny (but charming!) garrets in Paris. Just like in the US, a large portion of the population lives in the suburbs.

During my stay, I’m living in a suburb of Toulouse called Tournefeuille. If you are like I was and are curious about what French suburbs look like, search no further.

My street looks like all the others in the area: most houses are one story with a large wall/fence in front. Cars usually park on the sidewalk as driveways are very small.

In my neighborhood in the US, Vlad always commented on the paradox of Americans having perfectly manicured lawns, and yet keeping their shutters and curtains closed. (“Why do you spend so much time on your yard if you can’t even see it?”) I had never noticed this before, but day after day in my neighborhood his observation proved to be true. Being the philosopher that he is, we expounded upon this observation and decided that this paradox belies an interesting American characteristic. On the surface, from the outside, Americans like to look as perfect and welcoming as possible. And yet, the windows to their house, and therefore to their lives, are closed. The more I thought about it, the more I realized there was some truth in our little musing.

At my university in the US, I live in the exchange student residence hall (how I met Vlad) and spend a lot of time with foreign students at the Language Institute. All my non-American friends say the same thing: Americans are very friendly, yet hard to befriend. A Malaysian friend put it this way: “A stranger in the US will ask you how you are doing, whereas in Malaysia they won’t, but they don’t actually want to know how you’re doing. That took me some time to get used to; in the beginning people would ask how I was, so I told them. Then I began to realize people don’t really care, they just expect me to say ‘Fine, and you?” An Italian student lamented “All my friends here are foreign. It’s hard to befriend the American students; they already have their own friends. When they learn I’m an exchange student they don’t want to make the effort since they know I’m leaving soon.”

So what could houses in the French suburbs say about France?

Where I live

That’s right: there’s a big wall up. Some people who come to France say that the French can be cold and unwelcoming. But in France it’s just not culturally expected to interact with strangers. My friends think Vlad is so shy and timid, but really he just doesn’t know how to make “small talk” – that’s not done in France. If you have a conversation with a French person, it will be meaningful, an exchange of ideas, a way to truly get to know the other person. Anything less is seen as unnecessary. “Chit-chat” is just a waste of words. But once the effort is made to form a true relationship, the metaphorical “opening the gate” if you will, you are welcomed into their life – open windows and all.

My name à la française on the mailbox

So that’s my suburbs theory: Americans seem very friendly and open, but there’s still a barrier to cross to form a friendship. That barrier can be surprising due to the initial appearance of welcome. The French aren’t open to the whole world, but once a relationship is formed, you are let into their lives.

Sunset in Tournefeuille

Do you think there could be a connection between houses and cultural characteristics? Do you have similar impressions of the Americans or the French?  Which way of life do you prefer? I personally like the American friendliness, but at the same time I’m not naturally inclined to small talk either; I prefer silence or a meaningful conversation. As with everything, I think the answer lies somewhere in between. What do you think?

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About emilytoulouse

In love with all things travel and culture.
This entry was posted in Around Toulouse, Living in France and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

74 Responses to The Suburbs Theory

  1. Maureen Krivo says:

    A very interesting connection, indeed! Of course, being one of your U.S. neighbors, I must say we open the blinds, but angle them so we can see out while making it a bit more difficult to see in. Why? So we can easily “play possum” when the sales people, Jehovah’s Witnesses, etc.ring the doorbell (talk about hating small talk! sheesh!). Besides, we have a much lovelier view from the back of the house…and those windows are usually wide open, at least until it gets dark. ;-)

  2. jeff webb says:

    interesting take on both cultures… now, in tejas we put up privacy fences between pastures to keep the cows from forming unions and going on strike.

  3. I loved reading your perspective of culture differences! My home is in an area that was once suburban but is now urban. I open my curtains and welcome the light. Though I do admit in the evening I close them all up.
    Once I hired a young student here on a visa from Bulgaria. He was a joy to be around and I loved talking to him and getting to know him not only as a person but also to learn about his homeland and culture. I think of him often and am sorry we lost touch.
    For me personally, I welcome meeting people from other countries and cultures. I find it a pleasure to learn about them, their ideas and feelings. It’s also interesting to get their true feelings about my country and when asked I will happily answer any questions or clarify concerns.
    Enjoy your time in France! It will be the experience that will stay with you forever.

    • Thank you for stopping by and sharing your experience. I also am open to and excited about befriending people from other cultures and talking to them about my own. Life, experiences, and observations have much deeper meaning that way :)

  4. elmer says:

    I like European friendliness. But of course Americans are more communicative. So how are you doing?

  5. What a fascinating idea, and I think I’ll have to agree with you! It’s funny, I’m from the South originally, and I always felt like Southerners were so charming and sweet on the outside, their faces and their homes welcoming and beautiful, but inside full of secrets. Like you said, friendly, but hard to befriend. Then we moved to the mid-Atlantic for a while, and Maine for a winter, and Minnesota for three years, and I realized – it’s not just the South. That friendly-but-hard-to-befriend is everywhere we went. We certainly are guarded, but we want everyone to like us. Hard to have it both ways. If you can’t be genuine, how can you be close? How can someone truly like you if they don’t even really know you?

    I love what you say about the French – “If you have a conversation with a French person, it will be meaningful, an exchange of ideas, a way to truly get to know the other person. Anything less is seen as unnecessary.” You make me want to come to France. At least they are honest with their walls!

    • Hi Andrea, I’m from the South too and I can really relate to your comment. I’m sure that’s what Vlad was noticing too (although certainly not from my family! lol). I loved your last line too! Although I don’t consider all small talk and overly friendliness as dishonest, it does hide the wall that is still there. Thanks for your comment :)

  6. I’ve done cross-cultural training between Americans and Canadians….the former (where I moved in 1989 from Canada) are “real friendly!!” but often spew a lot of intimate personal data at you, then disappear. Very confusing indeed to those of us who come from much more reserved/reticent cultures. Canadians are not nearly as immediately “friendly” but once we’ve decided to let you in, you are in for good.

    • Thank you so much for your thoughtful comment. Your sentiment is exactly what I was trying to convey in my post – Americans tendency to be very personal and very intimate with someone (in our mind simply good old fashioned friendliness) can be confusing to someone who would take that as a sign of friendship in their own culture.

  7. we keep the blinds closed cause cable watches better in the dark

  8. segmation says:

    Hi Emily, I think that I prefer silence sometimes and at other times prefer a meaningful conversation it just depends where I am at.

  9. susielindau says:

    I think the reason that Americans shut their drapes is so they can walk around naked! Hahaha!
    We only shut ours when it is freezing outside (we lose a tremendous amount of heat through the glass) or we are gone. It is recommended to do that since houses are “cased” before being broken into…I love my yard and spend a lot of time “manicuring” it so my curtains are usually wide open!

    • Hahaha Susie your comment made me laugh so much! I shut my blinds for exactly that reason – if I’m changing or dancing in front of my mirror or anything else embarrassing I don’t need all my neighbors to see!

  10. I live in Wales and my front door just goes straight out to the street. Friends who are not from Wales always comment on how friendly the Welsh are. We are great at chit-chat and asking how people are. I don’t know which I prefer as to French v Americans. I like to think that when I do talk to people it’s genuine.

    • I like your perspective – I don’t think chit-chat or small talk is necessarily “fake” either. It can simply be misleading to people who take it as an initiation of friendship. Thanks for your thoughts :)

  11. trishapike says:

    This is awesome! I am from the States and studying abroad in France right now and have noticed this. Americans tend to be conversational right off the bat but can be fake or meaningless to them. If a French person is talking to you, you’ve already made a friend. I’ve observed French students in my school-they met last week and already really great friends the next week. It seems like they’ve known each other for years. On the other hand, Americans might have a conversation with another and forget the person an hour later. As an American, I want to make sure when I speak to someone it means something to me and not afraid to befriend someone quickly.

    • Hi Trisha! It’s so interesting that you noticed this too. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve met someone for the 2nd or even 3rd time and they don’t remember me – even after we “chatted”! Being abroad has definitely made me want to be more open to befriending people, especially those who don’t know anyone else. I hope you stop by again!

  12. joeydelisi says:

    Interesting theory. In regards to general American sociability your absolutely right!–instead of just saying ‘Hi’, we feel socially obligated to say, ‘Hi, how are you?’, regardless if we really want a response. We are taught to be polite even if it is a mechanical greeting and not a genuine one. Like most things, this is not the case with everybody!

    However, you will see a difference between a big city (like my home Chicago) and the suburbs. In the city we simply are too overwhelmed by people to get into deep conversations with everyone, mostly strangers–the greeting ‘hello, how are you?’ is implied to mean, ‘Hello, carry on’. Everything moves at a faster pace in the city–as does the depth of the conversations.

    But I have seen a difference since moving back to the suburbs for a year. The pace is slower, more strangers say ‘Hello’ and the conversations generally last a little longer. Many of the houses in suburbs outside of Chicago are more likely to have their doors and windows open.

    • Hi Joey, thanks for your thoughts. It’s true what you say that we are trained to give the polite greeting without even realizing that some people might actually tell us how they’re doing. It’s like an unspoken cultural rule that you don’t honestly answer that question. I also agree that there is a difference between cities and suburbs; I think in any country people in the suburbs will be more open. Thanks for stopping by!

  13. Jessica says:

    I like your idea that the houses reflect something about the culture – it’s an interesting idea!

    I live in Barcelona, and I’ve been told that American small talk can come across as very fake. But it really depends where you are in Spain; in the south, they do more small talk. Neither one is better, but one might be a better fit for a certain personality than the other.

    Cool post!

  14. odamae says:

    Thanks for this post! I am back in the US now after nine years in a small village in Bavaria, Germany. I cannot get used to the billboards and nonuniformity of buildings. And the nasty strip malls are killing my soul. Enjoy your time!

    • I loved your comment so much! One thing I love about driving through the countryside here is the lack of billboards. And don’t even get me started on strip malls!!! I feel for your poor soul

  15. freedlife says:

    Small talk can be like talc in a loaf of bread. Just fill, and no value. Small talk among friends, however, is an intimate connection. I have more to say, but it may be considered ‘small talk’, or maybe, more accurately, drivel. Good post. Hits home for me.

  16. Hi, great and very interesting pics :) My boyfriend used to live in Toulouse as his dad was moved there with work. He was very lucky because they lived lived in massive houses (they moved 3 times) in the country surrounded by farms. One of the houses even had a lake in the garden!!!! I’ve only seen pictures of the houses and the town, but never the suburbs, they still look really sweet and romantic though.

  17. Wonderful! I want to live somewhere like that, it seems beautiful! Congrats on being Freshly Pressed!

  18. Jean says:

    As you may know in some big North American cities, the hot urban design topic is pedestrianizing neighbourhoods so that they encourage more walking, cycling and people interaction.Problem is that alot of this is for downtown core areas and harder challenge to sell in the suburbs.

    As long as suburb has sidewalks, some trees, boulevards with some plants, it’s ok if people choose to have a fence,….as long as one sees the door and a window. The romantic return to porches is a good one for newer homes in the suburbs.

  19. Thank you for clearing up how misunderstood some non-American cultures may be. Not everyone walks around wanting to talk about the weather or who beat the damn Lakers the day before. I live in SoCal…land of strip malls and professional time wasters where what JLO wore the night before to a premiere is front page news.
    I used to live across the street from a house who ALWAYS had their windows shades shut. Guess what? It was a meth lab. HA!. I love u my fellow Americans!

  20. amelie88 says:

    As a daughter of a French father and American mother, these are definitely things that I have noticed my whole life and this post resonated with me. It is something that has often come up in conversation in my family. I have always noticed how Americans are friendly and it is easy to make “friends.” However, Americans also easily lose friends and replace them with new ones. Friends seem to be a disposable commodity–I don’t think Americans intentionally do this either, it’s just one of those cultural differences.

    Now this obviously isn’t true for everyone. I know many people who have stayed friends with the same people since they were in elementary school. I am not one of them however. I only keep in touch with one friend from elementary school these days (and she no longer lives in the US). My French father is still friends with his childhood friends despite having lived in the US for 30 years. When he goes back, it’s like no time has passed. It is true that once you make friends with a French person, you are friends for life.

    And I really liked the house analogy, never thought about it that way before.

    Also enjoy Toulouse! I studied abroad there for a semester in undergrad, it’s a beautiful city.

    • Hi Amelie, I was interested to see that from your inter-cultural perspective you have found this to be true also. You’re so right that none of this is intentional on anyone’s part – it’s just cultural. I would be curious to know where your dad is from in France. My dad is also still very close with his friends from his hometown; that could be more of a characteristic of being from a small town than from a particular country; It would be interesting to study!

      • amelie88 says:

        My dad is from Normandy. He grew in and around Rouen. Rouen isn’t a huge city, it’s probably considered to be medium sized (for France!). I definitely think the South is more friendly than the North in France–like it seems to be in most countries.

  21. debdundas says:

    I found the same kind of thing when I lived in Ireland – not so much in the suburbs, but in the people: People in the south seem much more open, friendly and welcoming but I found them much more difficult to befriend in a meaningful way; while in the north people at first blush were more private and reticent to let in strangers, but once you became a friend, you became a friend for life – in the end very welcoming.

  22. Hi, how are you? Just kidding, I don’t at all care. I’m glad that your post was FP. Small talk sometimes, if not often gets in the way of sincere and frank and meaningful communication. Also, I’m a little jealous; I’ve planned on moving to France for a little while now. I shall peruse your past posts to see if you’ve any general tips. Thanks, either way.

  23. I lived in Hungary a few months and one of the things I miss the most is that if I asked someone how they were, I would get a straight answer. I love Southern Hospitality, but it is hard to find a meaningful conversation sometimes!

  24. bellequint44 says:

    Really, I’ve been wondering why American houses keep their doors and windows shut every time I watch American movies. I live in a suburban area here in the Philippines where lots of neighbor and lots of sun the whole year round. Maybe that is why our doors and windows are always open unless there’s nobody at home or it is an air conditioned house. Our homes are always open to people and strangers as Filipinos are known hospitable people. Every place or country has different habits.and manners.You are lucky you have the chance to explore and know people from all walks of life… So informative is your post, Emily. Good luck to you and God bless you.

  25. Karen says:

    Speaking as a Londoner who has never visited Paris or Toulouse, I have to say you’re right. When I think of French houses, I think of either tiny apartments in the centre of Paris, or old country mansions. It sounds so ridiculous, but I don’t think I’ve ever stopped to think about what the surburbs look like there. Thanks for posting the photos!

    • Hi Karen, thanks for stopping by! I was the same way before coming, I never thought about what French suburbs would look like until I learned I would be living there. Then I became curious but couldn’t find anything on the internet. Btw you MUST visit Paris!! You are so close!

  26. #CoolBlogPost @DrAnthony

  27. I always find something good to read from the Freshly Pressed group and your post was my good read of the day. There is a fair bit of truth in this idea of our houses saying something about us as a culture and, on an a more intimiate level, who we are as a family…you know, the perfectly coiffed, but unwelcoming home or the slightly disheveled, but warm home and so forth. Your post has prompted some thoughts for my weekly post. Thanks so much. Enjoy your stay near Toulouse!

  28. When I lived in France for awhile I noted these same type of walls in the suburbs of Paris. One thing on top of the walls, maybe not here, was broken glass bottle stuck in dried cement. That made an indelible impression on me.

  29. 4pam says:

    Emily, I was so delighted to stumble across this on FP, as I am an expat in Tournefeuille, too! What a small world! I arrived here in July with my husband and youngest son, and just love the people of this city. They have been so kind and patient with this non-French-speaking American. It sounds like you are making the most of a short stay! Enjoy!

    • What a crazy coincidence! I have found that people here are also very patient with me, as I am still in the painful process of learning French. Perhaps we have run across each other, it’s funny to think that. I hope you continue to read :)

  30. Being an American, I don’t notice the difficulty of forging relationships here in the States. I am quite partial to public cordiality, though I too am not inclined to small talk. I lived in Ireland for a year, however, and while there I had a similar experience to that of your foreign student friends in America. Although the Irish were (mostly) friendly to me, I failed to make any real friends while living there. As a result, I came back to the States. I was lonely. I wonder if it was so much a reflection of their culture internally, or instead a reflection of how they/we treat outsiders? Anyway, thoughtful post and best of luck to you in France!

    • Thank you for your comment! I also like public cordiality, but both of us being American we wouldn’t mistake someone being nice to us as an open invitation to friendship, which is what is confusing for people from less “friendly” cultures. Interesting note about Ireland.

  31. Piggletino says:

    I’ve never thought about houses in relation to people’s behaviour, but it’s always nice to start now! I’ll be more observant on my travels hereon!

  32. Pingback: A Moment of Gratitude | Life in La Ville Rose

  33. magzmama says:

    For some bizarro reason, kids in my neighborhood like to congregate here, at my little tiny house. I grew up in a house that NEVER had it’s curtains open or blinds open for fear of losing precious air conditioning and/or the sun would bleach the furniture. I thought, I’ll never do that! Voila! I’m doing it. The kids that come over here say “why do you always have your windows covered up? We can’t tell if you’re home or not!” And I say, that’s the point, but you still pound on my door and come in here! So as of today, the blinds will be up and the curtains open. It is a huge difference between here and Europe, and it’s one of the things I genuinely love about being there! And the kids are pretty awesome, so they can come on in too. Merci!

    • What a cute comment! I’m glad that the closed curtains on your house hasn’t stopped the kids from breaking through your “barrier” haha. I’m sure once you start leaving the blinds open you’ll be overwhelmed!

  34. This is pretty interesting, and kind of related to some things I’ve been thinking about lately. I’m an America living in Germany, and I find that here, like in France, the people don’t go through the social motions the way Americans do. Everyone’s perfectly polite, but it’s true that there isn’t the friendly greeting of strangers that we come to expect in the U.S. But with regards to the French and conversations being an exchange of ideas, I will say that I’ve never had better dinner conversations with strangers than in France.

  35. Working in real estate, I am always interested in what people choose to call their home. But this is an interesting evaluation that I have never contemplated! When I think about it, I can see a reflection of people’s personalities in the homes they choose to occupy. But my analysis does not really extend further than the domestic sphere. In Southern California, most people are friendly and open, but quite involved in their own lives. The homes here usually have very inviting front yards, patios in the front of the house, and big windows. But few people spend their time utilizing those areas. Great article, very interesting to think about in my work!

    • Thanks you for sharing your perspective from the real estate world! I’m sure you can really see how homes are a reflection of personality, and therefore in most cases culture as well. Thanks for stopping by!

  36. chunter says:

    Reblogged this on chunter's factor analysis and commented:
    My own house is guilty of this, and some of you already know the reason why.

    What really reached me is, if the stereotyped American is friendly on the outside but introverted or hiding something on the inside, it disobeys Dale Carnegie’s principle to “be genuinely interested in people,” as if you don’t want to actually hear the answer to the question, “How are you doing?” It is also slightly vindicating to a cynical introvert who easily sees through that outer veneer.

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