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I am in my 1st year of a PhD in France. I can barely communicate in French. I had to visit the administrative office where 1 out of 3 knows English (call her E) and the other two speaks only French (call them F1 and F2). I asked F1 how do I get the train and bus travel card, using by which students can travel in subsidized rates. F1 gave me a form to fill up, I asked her if it is enough for the card (I had to use google translate to make her understand what I was asking for) and she said yes. Then E came and said me this is enough and asked me if I had a travel card. I said no, in fact I doubted the relevance of her question since I came for the exact thing she is asking. Then the following happens.

She said an immediate big NO. It is clear from her body language that she is not in a good mood. I was stunned and said I don't understand. Again a NO with a tone change and a big shake of head, went to her chair, put on her coat, said something in French with an angry NO again. Two of her colleagues came to the room (it was almost lunch time) and said something her in French looking at me. E was clearly angry and I felt like crying. She stormed out with F2. F1 was there, she took out an application by another student showing the copy of the card, she said me I had to apply the card from the railway station and then the university will make authorisation (google translate again). I thanked her and went out deeply shaken. In fact, one other student told me some days back that I had to go to the station for the application but I completely forgot that information at that moment. My adviser told me they were not the right people for my purpose (I didn't told her the whole tense scenario).

I couldn't stop thinking about it. I kept thinking that it may be because I annoyed them with my ignorance in their language and with my lack of time sense (it was almost lunch time). I tried to mentally justify E's actions. I put me in her place and I cannot justify her. I thought of writing her a letter how I felt. I understand that part of it is my mistake, I should have remembered an acquaintance telling me I had to take the form, I completely missed that.

What should have I done? Should I write her a letter saying how I felt and this is not the right way to react? Should I tell my adviser how I felt? May be its just me or my personality thereby making the scenario highly subjective, I feel myself a sensitive person, but I can't get over it. I wish to know if anyone had similar instances and how to deal with it.

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    If you want to survive in France, you really need to learn French! Also, don't try to do admin things just before lunch or just before people go home – Gagravarr Dec 23 '15 at 11:05
  • @Gagravarr the OP is a first year student, so I can understand that s/he has just arrived in the country and is still learning the language. I do agree with you, however, that E might be annoyed because of the OP's lack of command in French and because it was almost lunch time. French people seem to pay more importance to lunch than the British, according to one French friend of mine. – adipro Dec 24 '15 at 13:45
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    @adipro Lunch in France generally does seem to be orders of magnitude more important than in the UK – Gagravarr Dec 24 '15 at 15:33
  • By the way @Sathyam , I'm a PhD 1st year from [not france] who can't speak French much like you, and based on your other comments, we're in the same area. Feel free to drop me a line if you need somebody to talk to. – la femme cosmique Jan 17 '16 at 17:05
  • Too many rude people in administrative offices in France. If this can make you feel better, they tend to be rude to French as well. It took me 2 days just to register in the last university I attended in France. I stopped counting administrative battles. It's probably much more frustrating with a language barrier… good luck! – Franck Dernoncourt Jan 29 '17 at 22:33
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It's difficult to know exactly what happened. It's entirely possible that you met some rude people and that miscommunication made things worse or that your interlocutors felt bad about the situation for some reason and reacted aggressively as a result. You already received some good advice on how to approach similar situations and avoid unpleasant confrontations in the future but even if you made some mistakes, that's not a reason to be treated badly and you should certainly not feel responsible for all this.

Beyond that, feeling overwhelmed or depressed is pretty common for both students and expats, doubly so if you just moved from abroad to start a PhD in a foreign country without speaking the language. I personally think it's totally worth it but the truth is that it can be tough. Trying to get some support is the right thing to do when you feel bad!

In Paris, the Cité internationale universitaire de Paris has staff to assist foreign students and research staff at French universities (including with administrative formalities). In particular, the International social center (RSI in French) is here to provide support if you need urgent help (e.g. serious financial, psychological or family issues). The website mentions “multilingual staff” so I suppose you should at least find someone speaking English there.

Elsewhere in France, there might be some local initiatives but I am not aware of any nationwide organisation offering similar support to foreign students. All students in France can however talk to a psychologist free of charge by going through one of the “Bureau d'aide psychologique universitaire”). You can use google to find the contact/address of the nearest one but I doubt you will always find someone speaking English there.

  • Cité internationale de Paris along with the other information is right on spot. My university is in * Île-de-France* and this is very helpful. Marking this as the answer. – Sathyam Dec 23 '15 at 15:17
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I do not find this weird. I am not arguing on the rudeness, I tend to think French people may be rude for no reason.

But you should understand that in France, administration and responsibilities are really divided into roles. And one role is fulfilled by one person. Asking a school administration for train discount cards is not expected, I would even describe the feeling as a lack of respect to the school administration. You should not react too abruptly to such behaviour or you will very soon feel so homesick you cannot stand France.

Your best solution is to find someone nice and helpful that can help you with all your questions. There are a lot, they can be friends, sometimes even school administration personnel. But don't be too intrusive with an administration, their job is not to be your personal assistant but to help with school stuff.

Also, as @Gagravarr suggested, there are times you should avoid (unless it is urgent or you're only free during these times) certain times to talk to small administrations. The first half hour of the day, after 11.30 in the morning, the first 15 minutes in the afternoon and after 4.30pm, people may want to check their emails, take a coffee in the morning or leave office early in the afternoon. That's part of the culture, people may be moody at these times.

In your specific case, I would recommend you to also ask your questions on travel.SE, there are many people pretty familiar with French trains and their tricks. Don't hesitate to ask.

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Also a 1st year PhD student in France, also can't speak French. Also had very similar experiences.

You really need to abuse google and university resources and find out precisely what you need in order to get things done. There's a very strict 'way' of doing things in France, and typically people will be happy to do their part of these things for you, but they aren't going to like it if you expect them to hold your hand. Especially before lunch when they're trying to leave. Especially if you're not speaking their language, and especially if they can't speak yours.

Also, and I hate to say it, but a certain degree of rudeness is expected here. It's hard, especially if you have social anxieties. But you really need to get used to it.

I also advise writing people questions in the form of emails in French, so it looks like you're trying even if you're just using Google Translate until you learn properly. But you really need to learn properly, and this goes for both of us.

It sounds like you were trying to get the student Navigo card?

Finally, my final secret involves being VERY nice to the admin people. I bring them baked goods. This is a good tip for ANY PhD student anywhere, but especially a foreign one who needs a lot of help and can't speak the language.

  • Yes the Navicard. Baked goods is worth a try :). – Sathyam Jan 12 '16 at 12:08
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In France, you must accept that it is somewhat common to treat others rudely. And it is typical to get incomplete or inaccurate information from office people. Ask your adviser to help you through the entire process. There is no way for us to know what E was upset about.

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    How is getting incomplete or inaccurate information from office people typical in France? – JoErNanO Dec 23 '15 at 14:22
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    People will treat you rudely on occasion in any country. – phoog Dec 23 '15 at 18:52
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    phoog and JoErNanO you guys have provided crappy feedback. Your opinions differing from mine don't change the value of my opinion-based answer. The answer is bad strictly because it is opinion-based (yet the question basically asked for opinions or guesses anyway). Vince has stated the exact same two points, although in a much more helpful and concrete way. I am happy to take a low score for my patently bad answer, but not simply by reason of you two disagreeing with me. Lastly, Gala's answer is much better than mine or Vince's, and I have voted it up! – Douglas Held Dec 25 '15 at 21:52
  • I didn't vote against your answer. I just wanted to point out that it would be more broadly applicable and therefore more accurate if you remove the first two words. – phoog Dec 28 '15 at 3:19
  • Ah, thank you for the feedback. I understand you but I disagree. I would never caution a visitor that they should prepare to be treated rudely if they are going to visit Japan, or India, or Canada, or Thailand. Of course "rude" and "polite" are completely subject to one's own culture, but based on the wording of the question I figured the warning was appropriate for Sathyam. – Douglas Held Dec 28 '15 at 10:34

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