Cross the Cultural Divide, or Don’t Cross It at All
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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!
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.
A la prochaine…
The Adrian Leeds Group®
P.S. Have you registered for our Expats in France Quarterly Financial Forum yet? It’s coming up November 15th! Details and registration are on our website. Sign up today!