Special Edition: Crossing the Cultural Divide
During a consultation with a new client on Saturday, she asked me what was the biggest challenge a newcomer has moving to France? It’s actually a tough question to answer. I had to stop and think about it. I reflected for a few moments on the past, remembering when I was a newcomer, before replying.
Sure, there are the usual hurdles…such as getting a visa, securing a place to live, learning French, etc., etc., but those things are mostly mechanical, even if sometimes difficult or frustrating. Nope, those aren’t at the top of the list. What is, however, is crossing the vast cultural divide.
Imagine a big, broad, expansive playing field on which we on the American team don’t look all that different from the French, who are the opposing players. There are no uniforms to distinguish them from the us. But trust me, not only are we very different, we aren’t even playing the same game…or maybe we are, but we’re playing with different rules.
Having lived in France 38 percent of my life (the number surprises, me even now), the differences are less acute than when I first landed and everything was so new…everything. I had read all the books on the subject, absorbing every word and trying to apply the principles, but still, there was always that big gap between us—the way we think, the way we behave, the way we see life.
Not long after moving here, I had the pleasure of meeting a few of the people who were writing about the cultural crossings long before the Internet even existed. The most popular book at the time was French or Foe?: Getting the Most Out of Visiting, Living and Working in France by Philadelphian, Polly Platt. It became the bible for American’s moving to France and was on everyone’s bookshelf.
Polly nailed it. She taught me a lot about the French way of life, but the most memorable and important lesson was how to say, “Bonjour monsieur/madame. Excusez-moi de vous déranger, mais j’ai un problème. Pouvez-vous m’aider?”—what must be said every single time one approaches someone to ask a question, rather than just blurting it out. We don’t realize how direct we Americans are, in an effort to not waste time and get to the point, that we don’t bother with such formalities. In France, it’s a must. To this day, it’s still the main ice-breaker I use…like religion.
You learn the lesson well after the first time you fail to say it, and get back an ice-cold stare. Then, with an exasperated tone, the person responds with, “Bonjour Madame,” and nothing else, waiting for you to behave properly, meaning say the words, “Bonjour monsieur/madame. Excusez-moi de vous déranger, mais,…”
Polly Platt was a character. Everyone in Paris knew her. Even up till her death in 2008, after having written two more books on French culture (Savoir-Flair! 211 Tips for Enjoying France and the French and Love à la Française – What Happens When Hervé Meets Sally?) she was riding her bicycle all over town, wearing a tweed blazer over a skirt and sensible shoes. She gave seminars and lectures under the guise of her “Culture Crossings” for many years and remained the doyen of French culture until others came along to deepen the topic even further.
To learn more about Polly Platt, by another Polly, visit Polly Platt: in Memoriam by the Polly Vous Français? blog, posted on Wednesday, January 7, 2009.
One of the other cultural gurus in Paris in the late ’90s was Harriet Welty Rochefort, who wrote French Toast and later three other books, French Fried, Joie de Vivre and her newest novel, Final Transgression. We met about the same time as I met Polly Platt, when I was a volunteer for the organization, WICE. WICE had given me the job as Public Relations Director which offered an opportunity to meet authors and journalists. It was also at a time when I needed what they had to say the most as I was drowning in cultural mishaps.
French Toast was another eye-opener as was Harriet herself. An Iowan who married a Frenchman (Philippe Rochefort), Harriet went through what she calls “cultural bumps, bruises, and psychic adjustments”…maybe even more so than the rest of us because of her romantic life with a French husband and French family. You’re in luck, too, because Harriet is speaking for us tomorrow at our monthly coffee gathering, “Après-Midi,” this time on Zoom. She’ll be speaking more specifically about Final Transgression, so if you haven’t already registered, be sure to do that immediately by using this link.
There are dozens of books out there about crossing the cultural divide between the U.S. and France and I’ve read them all. It takes more than just living here to learn all the tricks of the trade since the culture clash can hit you smack in the face every time you turn around. The word of experts can be very valuable maneuvering the mine fields.
Another must-read is The Bonjour Effect by husband-and-wife-team Jean-Benoît Nadeau and Julie Barlow. I learned more in the first chapter than I had learned in more than 20 years of living in France and told them both so over lunch together at Café Charlot. Their vision of how the French language and French culture go so hand-in-hand made such an impact on me that I brought a copy of their book with me to a presentation I made at the Ministry of Foreign affairs in Paris. I told the committee—whose mission was to learn how to make Americans feel welcome during the 2024 Olympics—that they must read it, too! They might learn a thing or two about their own culture of which they aren’t necessarily aware.
The latest book on the shelf in the genre of cultural crossings is Janet Hultrand’s Demystifying the French: How to Love Them, And Make Them Love You. Expert Harriet Welty Rochefort has positive things to say about it: “…if you only have one primer on the French to read before your trip or bring along with you, this is the one.” I concur.
I met Janet when she and her husband sought to buy a house in Champagne, where they met picking grapes eons ago. They were living in Washington, DC at the time and with my assistance, they were able to get financing and purchase the house. Janet is happily ensconced now full-time in her chalet-style home in Essoyes, a town well-known as the home of the impressionist painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Her 40 years of time spent living, working, teaching, and traveling in France illustrates the principles in her book with touching and amusing, personal anecdotes. Clearly, she has a deep admiration and affection for the French, but don’t be fooled…as she admits, they “require special handling.” Harriet Welty Rochefort, author David Downie (another American/Parisian who has written about the cultural topic) and I are among those who provided reflections of our own for her to include in the book.
The reflection of mine that Janet included in Demystifying the French was the one thing I learned 20 years after living in France that was the most significant cultural awakening of all. It hadn’t been addressed in any of the books I had read, but I learned about it from a diplomat who explained it very succinctly. It was like a lightbulb suddenly burning brightly in my head—how had I missed it for so many years? And how powerfully it explained every single cultural clash I’d ever witnessed. It was so meaningful, that I shared it with the committee at the Ministry of Foreign affairs, and I will share it with you now. Take this to heart, as I believe every cultural shock you encounter in France has this concept as its foundation. It’s the difference between Napoleonic Code (law in France) and Englis law (law in the U.S.). Here are the definitions:
NAPOLEONIC CODE: “Everything which is not allowed is forbidden.”
ENGLISH LAW: “Everything which is not forbidden is allowed.”
The legal system in Anglo Saxon countries is based on what is forbidden while the legal system in France is based on what’s allowed. In America, you can’t do this, and you can’t do that, and everything else is allowed. In France, you are supposed to do this and you are supposed to do that and everything else is not allowed. This means that English law engenders open-minded, out-of-the-box thinking, while Napoleonic code is about following the rules and thinking within the box.
Spend some time thinking about this and how to relates to what you encounter in France from your American perspective and default mode and you will soon see how opposite we are in every which way and why we have the conflicts we have. It all boils down to this difference in how we view law and therefore life. If you can think the way the French think, you can avoid making some of the biggest mistakes…and it all starts with being open-minded, just like our legal system allows us to be.
Have fun reading and then practicing what you learn from all the experts on the U.S.-France cultural divide…as it will be an adventure you’ll never regret.
A la prochaine…
The Adrian Leeds Group®
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