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Cross the Cultural Divide, or Don’t Cross It at All

Gad Elmaleh, American Dream
Gad Elmaleh, American Dream

In Italy this past weekend, I had the opportunity to meet a group of American expatriates who had moved their lives, or at least a part of their lives, to Italy. The same conversations they had, we expatriates in France have, even if the way the Italians do things is different than the French. And they are! The Italians are no more similar to the French than are Americans to Mexicans, even if living on the same continent. One must be prepared to acclimate to the way things are done in your new home country.

Just about every client with whom I meet will hear the same mantra: “The hardest thing about making a move to France (or anywhere else in the world) is crossing the cultural divide.” The rest: getting a visa, finding housing, moving your belongings, etc., etc., are mostly mechanical things, but how all of that happens within the scope of a nation’s culture and language can be very challenging for someone coming from another country, language and culture…especially for Americans.

Poster: who is an expat?

Why especially for Americans? Because we are an insular people, who live in a large country where we only speak one language. We may be bordered by a country that speaks Spanish and where Spanish is spoken in some southwestern states, but on the whole, we don’t encounter much other than English. Our children don’t even have an opportunity to learn a foreign language until their teenage years. We are not exposed to other cultures, unless we make a point of traveling overseas. We also have to work hard to get international news from an international point of view. Those of us who live outside of the U.S. soon realize that we, as Americans, had been living with “blinders on,” never exposed to life outside of what’s in front of our noses.

When the war in Israel began, I encouraged my sister to NOT watch CNN, but instead to watch France 24 in English, the French national news channel, or some other outside news reporting media, because the point of view would be more fair and less sensationalized. Like most Americans, she hangs her hat on everything CNN says without questioning it, yet those of us living outside of the U.S. know how slanted it is, based on their own editorial bent and what will get them ratings and therefore bigger advertising revenues. France 24 on the other hand, is a French state-owned international news television network based in Paris that is broadcast in French, English, Arabic and Spanish, aimed at the overseas market. The stated mission of the channel is to “provide a global public service and a common editorial stance.” Ratings and revenues are not what it’s about, so you can trust the information to be unbiased, even if they don’t have the big bucks backing them up, like CNN and other major U.S. media have.

Photo depicting sensationalism in US tv news shows

Sound and Fury, resisting addiction to CNN

Over the weekend, I began to watch a few Network shows starring Gad Elmaleh. You likely don’t even know who he is, but every Frenchman does. He’s a Moroccan/French stand-up comedian and actor who has been touted as “The Seinfeld of France” and who has achieved intense fame in France. He has recently crossed the ocean with such specials as his 2019 Netflix series, “Huge in France.”

The story goes that he moved to Los Angeles in an effort to be closer to his estranged son, and when he arrives, discovers that in the U.S. he is NOBODY and his sense of humor bombs in America big time. He’s never NOT BEEN FUNNY and has a hard time grasping how hard it is to cross the cultural divide, not only in humor, but on many levels.

Gad Elmaleh Netflix, Huge in France

If you also watch Gad’s one-hour stand-up routine from New York titled “American Dream,” you’ll get a glimpse of what it’s like for a Frenchman to cross over to our side (France to the U.S.). This is also something that happens to us expatriates after living in France for a long time and then go back to the U.S. once we’ve acclimated to France. I’ve written about it many times—for me how the tables in U.S. restaurants are too big (why do we need so much space between us?), how Americans talk too loudly (why do we have to hear every word of their conversations?), how they view everything based on “the bottom line” (what about smelling the roses along the way?) and how money drives all of their decisions (what about life—isn’t that more important than money?).

A recent email from one of our readers complained that when they got caught and fined for not having validated their bus/tram tickets in Nice, they had been “scammed” by the French authorities because they were not told in advance that they must validate the tickets they had purchased.

“This experience left us feeling taken advantage of,” they complained.

In their email to us, they openly admitted that “[we] were told by the Nice Office of Tourism that we could purchase tickets on the bus and the driver would stamp the tickets” and also, “there were boxes on the bus that we were not aware of to validate our tickets.” Still, when the controllers came on and fined them 40€ each for not having validated their tickets, they were humiliated and now “[we] no longer feel welcomed in Nice.”

Inspectors checking for validated tickets in Nice

The reason they blame France for their own ignorance is simple. In our American culture, we give out information freely, without anyone asking for help or advice. In France, if you don’t ask the right question, you won’t get the right answer. This couple’s expectation was that they would be hand-held through every step, just like in America, without having to ask. The French on the other hand, believe that it’s insulting to someone to tell them something they should already know and would never offer up that information unless it was asked for specifically.

This couple got caught up in the cultural divide and, I would venture to say, that they may never feel welcome outside of the U.S. as long as they expect the rest of the world to behave like them. Their experience dealing with bus and tram ticketing is just one tiny aspect of crossing the cultural divide and learning how the other half live and think differently than we do. If they think the American way is the only way or the best way, then they should just stay put in America, where they will feel most comfortable.

A big mistake we see many newcomers make is crowd-sourcing on social media platforms. While often other expatriates can offer up tons of great advice and information free of charge, right there on the internet, there is no substitute for paying professionals to provide you with advice and information you know you can count on being correct. And even then, get good references because even some the professionals are not always the best of the lot.

My advice to anyone considering moving to France (or elsewhere in the world), DO YOUR HOMEWORK:

• Learn as much as you can about the culture of the place to which you are moving from other expatriates and the natives. There are a zillion ways to do this in advance of your arrival including Social Media, printed books and publications, webinars and conferences, etc., etc., etc.
• Be open-minded in accepting that the way the others live and think can be different than yours, but that doesn’t make it WRONG, just DIFFERENT. We have such a strong sense of nationality in the U.S. that we grow up believing that our way is the right way. Guess what? You were sold a bill of goods. There is no such thing as right or wrong. Just different.
• Take responsibility for your own ignorance, without blaming your new compatriots for your own shortcomings. It’s ludicrous (to me) that the couple who didn’t validate their tickets is now blaming the authorities for their own ignorance. Even in the U.S., not knowing the law is no excuse for breaking it!
• Learn how to live without expectations, so that you will never be disappointed. This is advice you’ll thank me for time and time again. Trust me, if you stop placing expectations on everything you encounter, you will be a much happier and more satisfied person.
• Take professional advice. This is the most important thing you can do. And get good references for the professionals you employ before you fork over your hard-earned cash.

Meanwhile, make your list of questions and ASSUME nothing. You know what they say? To ASSUME, makes an ASS out of U and ME!

Comical photo of donkeys depicting Ass U ME

We discuss all of these things in the two-hour consultations I do with potential expatriates. My staff are all Americans who have lived in France many years. You can ask any of us and count on getting good solid advice. If you want to schedule your time with us, contact us to tell us more about yourself and what your goals are so that we can help you.

Contact us meme for the Adrian Leeds Group

A la prochaine…

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9 Comments

  1. Christine Reip on October 18, 2023 at 9:03 am

    Adrian, You are 100 percent right on. I had the privilege of living in France for a few months a year for about 10 years. I had an apartment and traveled between the USA and France. Americans so often feel entitled. I found dealing with French bureaucracy very difficult but between my language barrier and my lack of speaking very good French I always just thought it was just what it was. It’s often not much different in the USA, we just speak the same language. I got “caught ” going to Versailles on the train and it did not happen again..Just thought it was my fault for not knowing the rules.
    I am always trying to explain to my friends not to watch CNN or FOX and that most of what we get in the US is spin. It is so much better watching France 24. I used to come back to the US and the difference between what the news was in France and in the US was astounding.

  2. Patricia Vanderhoof on October 18, 2023 at 9:47 am

    Bravo Adrian. I took my best friend, of 40 years, to Europe and Paris last year. She had never travelled outside of the U.S. except for some Carnival Caribbean cruises with her ex-husband. To my dismay she acted like an Ugly American. I was amazed (guess I shouldnt have been) and disappointed. We ended up having our first real falling out for the first time in 40 years. Now she wants to travel again but I’m afraid to take her anywhere.

  3. Tucsonbabe on October 18, 2023 at 10:04 am

    Au contraire.

    It has been many years since people in the US have relied on CNN for their news. There are many other news outlets, both conservative and progressive, that cover the news better than CNN.
    The newspapers available on the internet ,ie.the NYTimes and the WSJ ,also are good source of current news. Please don’t put us all in the same basket.
    Merci

  4. Judith L on October 18, 2023 at 10:18 am

    My daughter and I had a similar experience yesterday! I had a bus/tram ticket for ten rides left from last year, with only four rides punched. We got on the bus and I explained that tickets must be validated and showed her the yellow machine. put the ticket in, it jumped back out as it is is supposed to. Put it in again to validate the second rider, and the machine kept it!
    I was not sure what to do at that point since I did not have another ticket. I told her that we do often see the inspectors and did not know what the fine was, but we were only going two stops and by that time we were past the first. I am glad to know the fine is only 40 euros! Perhaps I could have tried to demand they open the machine so they could see the ticket there, with five rides available, but I am not certain they would have been willing or able to do that.
    Quite soon after we left the tram, we saw a bus loading, with several inspectors also boarding! So we were lucky in one way, although we lost the cost of four rides. And now I see that the cost has increased drastically since last September when I bought the ten ride ticket.

  5. Annita Menogan on October 18, 2023 at 11:27 am

    Hi Adrian.
    I hope you are hanging in there. We have been watching France 24 as part of our news.
    To this column, I adore you but it is a little harsh imo to expect people to ask about something they don’t even know exists. This couple had an overly dramatic response obviously but how on earth is someone supposed to know everything (“do your research”) before they encounter it? And for Pete’s sake, the French often get quite annoyed if you do ask!!! Our French relatives, as much as they were more knowledgeable about the US as you have pointed out, made many faux pas on their first few visits here (e.g. tipping! We still leave the tip when they pay because they refuse!). Willingness to bridge the cultural divide, yes. But being expected to know all the nuances as a newbie is another. As many times as I have been to France, it was eye opening when I read your statement explaining the difference between the American legal system and the Napoleonic French code: in the US anything is legal unless specifically prohibited. In France, the opposite. That is probably an exaggeration but how would one know to even ask the philosophy behind it and hence understand the enormous mounds of bureaucracy? There is a lot that I would not know if not for being married to a Frenchman. Like I mentioned, the couple’s reaction was overblown but I don’t think their expectation was. There is a reason for the saying “You don’t know what you don’t know”.
    Kisses always.

  6. Trish Young on October 18, 2023 at 6:10 pm

    I’m surprised the couple who were fined for not validating their bus bus ricket, are allowed out on their own, let alone permitted to travel overseas.
    Surely it is obvious, when you see others validating their tickets, you must do likewise.
    Look, listen and learn

    • Adrian Leeds Group on October 19, 2023 at 3:54 am

      Exactly!

  7. Mary Dineen on October 19, 2023 at 2:10 am

    A great article!
    I would use your services in a heartbeat.
    I have been wanting to move to France since 2016, but could never get my husband to agree. He was only willing to consider being there for 3 months at the most. Now at 71, and Dan at almost 74, I think the dream is now out of reach.
    So I really enjoy reading your newsletters and scanning your properties.
    Keep up the good work!
    Mary D.

    • Adrian Leeds Group on October 19, 2023 at 3:52 am

      Thank you Mary! We work with many clients in your age-range. France is great place to retire.

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