Skip to content

Many have wondered, are the French just better at everything? Mais non. They are not even the best at cheese! (That would be the English, who invented Stilton.)

Word on the street is the French somehow got the Golden Key to life. There they are in the popular imagination, enjoying their kir royales and their two, perhaps three, almonds for  l’apéritif, posture perfect, while the rest of us are drinking Bud Light out of the bottle and wiping Cheeto dust on our acid-washed jeans.

Ridiculous, right?

Maybe not completely.

The French do have some stuff dialed in that seems harder for us anglophones, which is why there is a robust category of how-to literature devoted to translating all things feminine and French into English—no travel required.

I have a long, uncomplicated love for this genre, which my husband has dubbed the “Get French Quick” category. But is that so wrong? We like quick.

We also like easy, and here’s something I’ve gleaned from my study of Frenchwomen: they don’t go in for overwork. Theirs is not a Puritan culture. Their concerns are about enjoyment. Pleasure is their patrimony.

The “Get French Quick” genre is strangely silent on the topic of career, and all the advice is concerned with romance, style, food and home comforts. Right up our self-care alley.

What follows isn’t a comprehensive survey of French culture—just some self-care(ish) ideas you may find fresh and useful, or at least amusing. Everything here comes from women who live or have lived long-term in France, but beware: cultural stereotypes and overgeneralizations abound.

The myth may be no more than that, so take these trucs (tips or tricks) with a grain of salt. (And if you are French, and are already weeping with laughter, please do comment!)

Voilà! A few of my favorite Get French Quick authors:

What French Women Know, by Debra Ollivier

On cultural differences, Ollivier quotes Isabelle Huppert, who says it’s easy to see why Americans consider Frenchwomen icy: it’s because they’re private, and in America, much is exteriorized.

Frenchwomen don’t care to be popular, which to them equals a kind of blandness. They don’t care if not everyone likes them, and their culture doesn’t punish them for it.

On beauty: France doesn’t insist on a single beauty standard all women must meet—and if there were one, the Frenchwoman would resist it. They have the ability—taught by maman—to transform their features, as they are, into a compelling magnetic whole, and they learn to do this the same way American women learn to perform cheerfulness and project “can-do!”

On age: France is not a youth culture. It is a grownup culture. (Which surely helps with the beauty standards, n’est-ce pas?)

Entre Nous, by Debra Ollivier

On food: Ollivier writes that the Frenchwoman takes her time. She’ll have modest portions of excellent food, which she prepares and eats ritualistically. She’ll have zero portions of so-so food.

Her home cooking is simple and local. She’s got a small repertoire of signature dishes. “Haute cuisine” is what reservations are for.

An invitation to a Frenchwoman’s home is itself exceptional, and you may wait years for one. It will not include a house tour, which would be reserved for the most intimate friends. Certainly no dinner guest would expect to view the hostess’s bedroom.

All You Need to be Impossibly French, by Helena Frith-Powell

On cultural differences: what looks like arrogance to the British [a recurring theme] is actually confidence, in contrast to Anglo-Saxon humility—but also in contrast to Anglo-Saxon humor.

On lingerie: good lingerie brings confidence. In France, tops and bottoms must match, The End. In the Galeries Lafayette department store, there are dimming switches in the dressing rooms so you can preview how your lingerie will look at night. (What!)

On age: “Anyone between 18 and 80 can wear a well-cut pair of jeans, a T-shirt and jacket and look great.”

Ooh La La, by Jamie Cat Callan

On cosmetic surgery: the Frenchwoman will always choose pleasure over work. Thus, there is no “getting work done.” Instead, there are potions and creams, spa visits, and “taking the waters.” If there is surgery, the Frenchwoman doesn’t take it too far—she aims to look beautiful—not young.

On skin care: the French are loyal to their brands—they stick to the big ones—and they are devoted to products like cellulite creams. If you ask a Frenchwoman “but do they really work?” she will say “Of course they do!”

Frenchwomen Don’t Sleep Alone, by Jamie Cat Callan

Or do they? You aren’t going to find out, because they won’t reveal their status right away, unlike Americans.

On cultivating the self: every woman needs a “secret garden,” a place to dream, a place where the cellphone isn’t allowed, a place to nourish the soul. This might be a window seat, or a mere notion. Either way, the secret garden is where the psyche goes to be nourished.

Here’s an idea from Jamie for your secret garden: begin a new hobby. Tell no one.

Changer les idées” is French for not letting things get stale. If you’ve got a friend in the country, go visit, and return with a fresh outlook.

And this: allow yourself to change your mind.

At the same time, a Frenchwoman would rather hold her ground and be herself than give in to keep the peace. Callan writes about her French grandmother, who would fight with her husband and then “ragefully” make pastry to sort herself out. (And be ready to make up before bedtime.)

French Women Don’t Get Face Lifts, by Mireille Guiliano

Well, they might. But not so’s you’d notice. They certainly don’t go in for anything as comprehensive as a “facelift.” (Sounds so old fashioned, suddenly.)

Like a number of the writers here, Mme. Guiliano points out that a French femme d’un certain âge is not out of the game. She does not experience invisibility.

Mme. Guiliano says that Frenchwomen prefer non-invasive solutions, like sleep. After work, Parisians come home, make dinner, eat, clean up and go to bed, perhaps to read for half an hour. “The city is dark at 11.” Dinner is the entertainment.

Home Sweet Maison, by Danielle Postel-Vinay

On the secret garden: The boudoir is an inviolate space, a room for a woman to retreat to when the world is too harsh and she’s in need of a good cry—or a good pout. The very word boudoir comes from the verb “bouder,” to sulk. You might like to create one yourself, if you’ve got a spare room or corner.

On home layouts: the modern passion for open-plan living means imprecise use of space, and that in turn erodes a sense of ritual. For example, the dining room is used only for the communal meal, and the communal meal takes place only in the dining room. Which is deliberately very distinct from the kitchen.

(This arrangement erodes a sense of snacking, we can guess.)

On kitchens: you will not find a comfy chair here, as the kitchen is not a hangout. It’s a technical workspace, a highly organized environment for a zero-waste culture. Shopping is done for a day or two at a time; the French “don’t act like they live on the prairie.”

To the French, minimalism is a “heartless discarding of the past.” You won’t get a house tour, but you will get some family history, as artifacts and memorabilia are displayed in the entrée.

On reading: you will be sized up based on your personal library. Your bibliothèque sings your praises so that you can be silent. The French care about money of course, but it doesn’t confer power or status the way it does in America. One’s taste—le bon goût—is more important than wealth or profession.

On the bedroom: There’s no TV in there.

And there you have a small sampling from my bibliothèque, and I’m dying to know what books you recommend.

If you got any good takeaways, I’d also love to read those in the comments. Below are mine.

Get French Quick To-Do List

  1. Make plan to “take the waters.”
  2. Announce plan so as to use phrase “take the waters” in conversation.
  3. Feel justified when dinner is “the entertainment.”
  4. Salt bibliothèque with a few books that sing my praises a little louder.
  5. Embark on secret hobby.

A Few More “French” Faves

Lessons from Madame Chic and At Home with Madame Chic, Jennifer L. Scott

Paris Street Style, Isabelle Thomas and Frédérique Veysset

Dress Like a Parisian, Aloïs Guinut

Bonjour Happiness and Parisian Charm School, Jamie Cat Callan

French Women Don’t Get Fat, Mireille Guiliano. (Killer croissant recipe in this one.)

Parisian Chic City Guide, Inès de la Fressange and Sophie Gachet

Image:  The Love Letter, Jean Honoré Fragonard, early 1770s, The Jules Bache Collection,1949, Metropolitan Museum of Art. Used with permission.

About The Author

Max Daniels is a research-based life coach whose weekly emails make us laugh with recognition and rethink everything we thought we knew. Her new book is Meals at Mealtimes. What a concept!


  • Merci beaucoup, Max!

  • I just had a lovely 5 days in Paris and while I have no idea how accurate the books are I can attest that in Paris, women are allowed to get old and not fade away. Vive la difference!

  • My go-to happy place is snuggled up with a Peter Mayle book. Such delight in the commonplace. Food, drink, the people in your own neighborhood. They uncomplicate me when I need a reboot.

    • Love the Peter Mayle books!

  • Je l’aime!

  • I didn’t notice that this was written by you but when I got to the part about lingerie top and bottom matching I said this sounds a lot like Max! And it was.

  • I need some matching lingerie. I’m more west-coast-hippie than anything-chic, but I can see the value, provided they are comfortable.

    • I started wearing matching lingerie several years ago, and it does seem to weirdly make me feel more self-confident! (My favorite brand is Wacoal, so not cheap, but not the most expensive, either. And most importantly, it fits me well!)

    • This old hippie actually PURCHASED matching undies and I can’t wear them. I simply can’t bring myself to! But I do admire them in the drawer daily. They look so pretty in there! 😉

    • I too am a west coast hippie in search of beautiful but comfortable lingerie… is there such a thing? anyone??

      • Cheryl, there IS such a thing, when you find the brand that works for you. But it is *work* to find it. As certain Frenchwomen would say, shopping is not a lark. It is grueling. Different values 😉

  • I wonder if you know about Tonya Leigh and the French Kissed Life and her podcast. Her site just got rebranded. I love to knit and listen to her podcast .
    Many good words of wisdom for women

    • Oooh, thank you! Love her update.

  • I can’t resist telling this story, which has both knitting and French-womanhood content. Many years ago I was in Bordeaux covering the trial of an aging Nazi collaborator for an American newspaper, and I had to go to a magistrate on an upper floor to get my ID. The magistrate turned out to be an elegant woman of a certain age, sitting behind a fearsome desk. I was 35 at the time, somewhat rumpled from travel–and carrying my knitting, which was poking out of my tote bag. When I entered the magistrate’s office, she fixed me with a glance and said, “I see you’ve brought your knitting.” Flustered, I muttered something like “Sorry, not very professional, I guess.” She laughed and declared, “Au contraire! Here in France, we professional women can succeed without sacrificing our femininity!”
    (My memory of the actual French words we exchanged is fuzzy, but I’m pretty sure she actually said “Au contraire.”)

  • The woman in the painting looks just slightly as if she has been caught farting! “ oh no, c”est le petite chien, madame”

    • PS I loved the whole article! I wonder if I still have my copy of French women Don’t Get Fat. Knowing me; I probably ate it!

  • Great as always Max—— I read this over my first cuppa and went off to yoga thinking about it, returned still thinking about it. Will likely knit for an hour still mulling. The moral of the story is that it is a (strangely) compelling piece and I must just be forever without said je ne sais quoi.

  • Wonderful, merci.

  • My parents were French and I grew up in the US and France. And you might say I have a love/hate relationship with all things French.
    Beauty – As a culture French are obsessed with thinness even more so than Americans and will tell you that you have gained weight. Thanks for that. I hadn’t noticed. They may not care what you think of them but they want you to know what they think of you.
    French society is still extremely patriarchal and many women still see themselves as secondary to men. Know you place ladies. Being “feminine” and desirable to men is more important than expressing who you are and just feeling great for yourself. They need a quiet space for themselves because they are expected to act a certain way, comme il faut, when they aren’t alone.
    I love going back for a limited time. I love the food and the cafe culture and the beauty of the cities and the countryside but I’m always happy to come home where it’s ok to be me.

    • Thank you for sharing, Maryse. I do think we get so caught up in adoring the French and cherry-picking only the good parts that we don’t realize there is more to the culture and society and it’s not all perfect.

    • Hmm, sounds like the opposite of self-care, actually.

    • Good to know! Possibly we can get caught up in an idea of French without truly knowing all things French.
      I read your post after I left a comment!

    • Maryse, this is making me LOL so hard: “They may not care what you think of them but they want you to know what they think of you.” You certainly have the gift of le bon mot 🙂

  • Loved every bit of your article. Since moving to France is NOT an option, possibly adopting some of the “french ways” might be nice. I already love matching pajamas although I do not always match. Several things to ponder….

  • Like Maryse I am French and American and agree with every word she says, emphatically! I adore my family in France and enjoy visiting them, but have very conflicting feelings and prefer to reserve France for vacation rather than living and working there. There is subtle, crushing sexism: we are served food at home meals (rather than passing around the bowl to serve yourself) and I often leave meals hungry because women are served smaller portions while sitting there watching the males get much more… I worked as a builder in a workshop and sometimes co-workers would outright refuse to carry something with me, because it’s unwomanly to lift a box?? I was paid less than male co-workers and while that exists here, there it was literally announced that I made less because, well obviously, je suis une femme. It is frustrating to live in a place that does not value hard work, not because work is the be-all-end-all but because it is too extreme there, the disdain for work materializes in oppressive mediocrity, pigeon-holing people into a state of rarely striving for better/more/excellence.. But to avoid being too negative about France, I did learn to work with my hands exquisitely well in these workshops (precisely because there was no pressure to finish on time!) and I took up knitting while living there!! There must be some happy medium between the French joie de vivre and the American work ethic….perhaps Quebec? 🙂 Another gem of a book is “French or Foe?” a guide to specific cultural misunderstandings between Americans and French people.

  • I’m a bulky Midwesterner, can’t look French if I tried, and believe me, I have. I loved living in Paris, though, and worked coaching intercultural relations. What I appreciate most about the French is that they value intelligence, wit, experience, and the arts.

    I enjoy the “ Get French Quick” lit, too! For your reading pleasure, consider French or Foe? and Savoir Flair!, both by Polly Platt; A Year in the Merde, Stephen Clarke, and Almost French, by Sarah Turnbull. There so many, but those are on a shelf in front of me. There is a blog/website, Chocolate & Zucchini, by an American expat in France; it’s mostly about food, but the photography is wonderful and it’s full of glimpses of French life.

    • Miracle: My library has them all! Thank you 🙂

  • – a review of Pamela Druckerman’s French Children Don’t Throw Food.

    • Oooh, fun – thank you!

  • I very much enjoyed my time in France too; however, the culture can also tend towards macho and image-obsessed (yes the images are usually also fabulous but but but…) cellulite creams and the image of the ‘pitoune’ and a critical streak that is hard to understand, when you come from North America where everything is freer, more possible. I wish that I had met knitters/crafters in France. I certainly didn’t meet anybody curious about the knitting I was doing… (Not meant to be critical on my part, and of course this was eons ago…)

  • Comme c’est drôle ! Je n’aime pas les clichés et les généralités mais je reconnais un bon nombre de choses que je fais et qui m’ont été transmises. Je ne me doutais pas qu’elles pouvaient être spécialement French :=)
    ëtre vues de l’extérieur c’est comme prendre du recul, Merci.

    • Merci madame! Vous m’avez appris un peu de français, ainsi que quelques faits français 🙂

  • Getting to this late, but I love your columns as always.

    My bit of French is Marie Claire Idées, which is sort of a French Martha Stewart Living, blending fashion, home and cooking. I limp through it OK with my high school French. I have pulled out Google translate a few times, but mostly it is the pictures which interest. The difference in French vs. US esthetics and style becomes apparent when looking at magazines focused on upper-middle class women who are interested in home-keeping. One big difference is the instructions. The US versions tend to give very simple instructions which hand wave away any difficulty and skill, saying telling you how to cast on very explicitly, but not how to wrap and turn. Or they will give simplified instructions which will not make what is pictured in the magazine. Idées? “If you are going to make this, we assume you know how to do so. Here are highly abbreviated directions, noting how this differs from the expected.” Larger Barnes & Nobles carry it in their International Decor section.

    My other is not explicitly French, but should count. It is Judith Jones’s “The Pleasures of Cooking for One.” She was Julia Child’s editor. This cookbook came about after she was widowed and realized she did not want to give up cooking with the same high standards and expectations just because she was cooking “only” for herself. Now she is not foolish, so she talks about finding efficiencies, what equipment is best suited for solo chefs, and how to cook meat with the expectations that you will get three meals out of it. She turned me on to eating the leg and thigh of roast chicken on the evening it is cooked and then using the breast meat for other dishes, as it is better suited for salads and casseroles.

    PS, do take Max’s online workshops, they are great.

  • A little late to the game but here are my two “centimes” (from a 30-something French woman, educated in the US, currently living in Paris):

    Honestly ladies, I can’t think of a French equivalent to MDK, which says a lot about French women, knitting, and life in France in general. The sense of humor, the creativity, the ability to question one’s privileges and educate oneself (with regard to Black Lives Matter, and MDK’s recent change of name)(bravo les filles!), as well as the warm fuzzy feeling of community and solidarity that I get when I visit this website, well, I think that most French women might be a little too self-centered to appreciate or create that. So, thank you, Non-French Ladies, for showing us how to live 🙂

    And I totally second everything that Maryse and Sarah said above. I had to travel to the US to get a PhD in Women’s Studies because it simply did not exist in France.

My Cart0
There are no products in the cart!
Continue shopping