Corentin Derbré


Au Contraire! Figuring Out the French – Gilles Asselin and Ruth Mastron

ISBN: 1931930929
Date read: 2018-04-01
How strongly I recommend it: 8/10
(See my list of books, for more.)

Go to the Amazon page for details and reviews.

I couldn't stop reading this book. Introspection can overlook cultural influence, and reading this made me learn a lot about myself (I'm French), about differences in cultures and base views of the world.

my notes

In fact, the penchant for classification and the proper order is an aspect of the French mindset.

I think France is the only country in the world that thinks of itself as a geometric figure. And it is important to be a geometric figure.

Nike’s “in your face” promotion style, which enjoyed huge success in the United States, was not appreciated in France, where blatant self-interest and greed are seen as tactless, unsophisticated, and brash.

Style counts; the way the result is obtained may be more importantthan the result itself, particularly if an individual displays a great deal of cleverness and panache in the process.

Telling the French that something is not allowed is a direct challenge to their ability to do it gracefully, finding an elegant way of bypassing the rules and not getting caught.

This attitude can come across as cultural superiority due to its implicit assumption that members of other societies will be improved by their exposure to and adoption of French culture.

French people are experts at creating islands of psychological privacy in crowded public areas as well as in small apartments. This desire to keep one’s personal affairs private means that two people carrying on a conversation in the métro, for example, can barely be overheard by someone strap-hanging above them. Americans in the same situation see nothing unusual about carrying on a conversation at a greater volume or even from some distance apart.

What Americans consider normal, correct, proper, the right way to do things, the way things should be done—might appear forced, artificial, insincere, and even a little invasive to the average French person.

Stereotypes and Generalizations about Americans. Americans

More than one hundred words begin with the prefix self-.

The American expression of the self takes the form of action or “doing,” whereas a French person would rather express her or his “being” with insights, ideas, or creative observations.

French individualism is expressed toward others in the sense that it tends to negate other people’s contributions or even their presence.

The French have “a visceral urge to assert their individuality on the other”.

In the example above, the student felt he had to defend his honor by learning English, bringing reality into line with his oath. For the American teacher, he had already lost his honor by making an oath that was false.

Talking about one’s private life, or personal or family problems, to a person you do not know intimately would be considered inappropriate and weak, not to mention shallow.

This distinction between internal and external worlds is not as obvious in American culture, where children—and adults—tend to express more easily and more consistently what goes through their minds, what’s going on in their lives, and what they expect from others.

The French do not confer the status of ami quickly or easily, and rightly so.

Friends in France operate according to the unspoken rule, “Say what you mean and mean what you say.” They expect promises to be followed up and do not understand that “I’ll give you a call” or “We’ll get together sometime for lunch” in the United States can easily mean “We may never see each other again.”

The French find it tedious to always be in agreement.

Just being together is an important part of friendship.

“In order for intercultural couples to overcome their communication handicaps, they have to work harder at listening, using the heart and mind as well as the eye and ear to avoid misunderstandings”

One French-American couple jokingly provide each other with “scripts” of what they want to hear the other partner say.

Where the American partner may feel the relationship itself is at stake and try to defuse a tense situation by compromising or placating, the French partner may not feel that even a serious argument means major problems.

The French admiration for things intellectual corresponds to a devaluing of manual labor.

Arguments, even when quite heated, are enjoyed by participants and bystanders alike, particularly when laced with wit, irony, and a clever turn of phrase.

Quotas indeed violate the French universalist principle.

The French tendency to disagree, argue, and rebel appears in religious matters as much as anywhere else.

Public religious expression represents a social disturbance and a refusal to fit into the French public mold.

The inability of France to learn from other cultures is one of its most persistent ailments.

The magic word for success as an immigrant is assimilation.

The degree to which immigrants manage to become French—to look, speak, act, and react as the French do, at least in public—determines the degree to which the French will accept them.

Universalism in France is based on a refusal to define a citizen by his or her particularity.

Entrepreneurship is not encouraged or nurtured by the French bureaucratic system or by the upbringing of French children.

American thinking tends toward the dualistic and the absolutist—perfection itself is an absolute. Most Americans see things as either black or white, good or bad, right or wrong, a success or a failure.

French couples and families also bicker endlessly and energetically about wedding details. But there is no expectation that everything will be or must be perfect. The idea of having a rehearsal is seen as absurd. Who would want to have a mechanical Barbie doll wedding? Most important is a feeling of authenticity, of spontaneity.

American puritanism and prudery. This is, in fact, how many French understand it, and they find American attitudes childish and utterly hilarious.

Money in France is surrounded by almost the same secrecy and vague sense of guilt as sex is in the U.S.

We need to develop “double vision” or the ability to see more than one side of an idea.

Intellectual mastery of an issue is very important in France; results are what matter in the United States.

Descartes affirms the rational character of natural law. Everything in nature can be explained in terms of cause and effect, and if certain mysteries remain, it is only because of our ignorance.

Three profoundly French characteristics: “the inability to learn from experience, the inability to tolerate contradiction, and the refusal to change one’s opinion in the face of a valid objection”

In the United States people prefer to take action as quickly as possible and make adjustments as needed.

The French normally see things in shades of grey. Pointing out a hitherto unremarked aspect of the situation or presenting an original line of reasoning also gives the French a chance to shine intellectually—something they always appreciate.

Remember that the French defy classification, even their own.

The French national “analysis paralysis” syndrome.

French students appreciate computers when it comes to schoolwork such as term papers, but even the younger generation finds the idea of sending an e-mail love note simply laughable.

Many French people maintain that without France, the world (read “the entire world,” including the United States) wouldn’t be what it is today.

Whatever the circumstances, the French absolutely must throw in their two centimes worth.

Americans like to think they stand for elevating humankind by advancing freedom and prosperity. The French feel culturally superior and destined to enlighten the globe.

The extremely informal politeness of Americans.

Compared with Americans, the French tend to display their emotions more openly in the workplace, particularly if these emotions are negative.

Confrontation can be a positive way to bridge differences between people and does not necessarily alter their relationship. Sometimes, it is even clarifying and may foster a renewed peace of mind. Confrontation is inherent in the “hot-blooded” French character.

When French people are on the receiving end of such uncomplicated communication, they tend to assume there is something more there than meets the eye or ear—and are likely to overanalyze, trying to read between the lines and figure out the “hidden message.”

The French tend to scan each situation intensely, looking for any clue that might help them to understand everything that is going on.

A French-American couple was invited to a business dinnerin France that eventually became tedious. The French husbandmade a discreet gesture under the table to indicate to his Ameri-can wife beside him that he wanted to leave, and fast. Notunderstanding, she repeated the gesture above the table and asked him, “What the hell is this? What do you want?”

French culture tends to be highcontext: much of the communication is implicit, so peopleneed to have certain shared knowledge and assumptions tounderstand what is not specified—which explains the importance of strong, time-tested relationships.

One Frenchman who adores trying out traditional American recipes quickly lost patience with American low-context cookbooks: “It said, ‘Cover dough with clean cloth to rise.’ Do they think I just crawled out of a cave? Do they think I am stupid? Do they think I might decide to use a greasy rag from my garage if they don’t tell me the cloth should be clean?”

In France, information is used as a source of power and control much more than in the United States.

The French are traditionally considered too undisciplined and egotistical to be good team players and provide a united effort.

And expecting us to design a team logo coffee mug…what a joke!

When unconscious assumptions are imposed on a multicultural team by default, someone is bound to feel that things just aren’t right.

“Good enough” is not a French concept.

“France has the social arrangement of the cercle, in which you are responsible only to the people in your own cercle and are indifferent to people outside the cercle”

The “pay for performance” justification is not acceptable in the European view, because the concept of performance is not the same. American executives are judged on shareholder return, so a CEO who improves an already healthy bottom line by laying off employees is rewarded. Such a thing is unconscionable in France, where la performance is more broadly defined and includes elements of social responsibility as well as financial well-being.

Create a paper trail.

A French meal is very structured and sequentially organized.

The French do not sugarcoat or mince words.

Homesickness is…absolutely nothing. Fifty percent of the people in the world are homesick all the time…. You don’t really long for another country. You long for something in yourself that you don’t have, or haven’t been able to find. —John Cheever

© 2018 Corentin Derbré.