French and American Cultural Differences: It’s the Little Things!



One of my favorite scenes in Quentin Tarantino's movie Inglourious Basterds is when the English spy counts to three while in a bar in Germany. He holds up his index finger, middle and then ring finger, because that's how the Americans and English count on their fingers. However, that's not how the French or German learned to count! They start numbering with their thumbs, not their index finger.


The moment the English spy makes this simple yet terrible mistake, his cover is completely blown, all because of one little finger.

French and American Cultural Differences

That scene got me thinking about all the cultural differences I'm still surprised by after decades of marriage with Philippe. The funniest cultural surprise recently happened while staying with our son in New York. Philippe was struggling to open a cardboard milk carton – he couldn't figure out how to open it without using a knife to cut both sides open, so I showed him the same technique all Americans learned when growing up: tear the sides apart, pull them all the way back, then squeeze them as you push forward so that the space in between the flaps opens up! It took him a few tries, but now he's a pro.


The reason why Philippe didn't know how to open an American carton of milk was because he grew up in Normandy where milk was delivered daily in glass bottles. Then in the '70s, the famous tetra pak was introduced, which generates healthy profits for the inventor’s family to this day.  No tricks here, you actually need scissors or super-human strength fingers to tear off the corner.

Just like the movie, I’ve decided that opening a carton of milk could be a “spy test” for many Europeans.  After doing some research, here are some more tells of whether someone is a French or American spy!

  1. Counting (do you start with your thumb or index finger?)
  2. How you open a carton of milk
  3. Wear nice dress shoes with jeans: French!
  4. Shake someone’s hand when you say hello: American!
  5. Two kisses, one on each check, when saying hello or goodbye:  French!
  6. Three kisses on alternating cheeks:  Swiss!
  7. Order a café crème in the afternoon: American!
  8. Do you smile when you walk down a street?  Europeans say you’re an American for sure!
  9. When working together, is your attitude ‘can do’ and optimistic?  Many Europeans say it’s a sure sign of an American.
  10. Using someone’s first name after you've just met them?  American alert!

Do you have any cultural “spy tests” that aren't on this list?

(Image Credits: Hand Counting, Milk Carton, Milk Bottle, Milk Tetra Pak)

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