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What’s Below the Water Line

French or Foe - By Polly Platt

French Toast - Harriet Welty Rochefort

Au Contraire!: Figuring Out the French - by Gilles Asselin and Ruth Mastron

Ruth Mastron at one of our conferencesRuth Mastron at one of our conferences

The Cultural Iceberg

When I first moved to France, I ate up every book on the shelf about the cultural differences between us, such as “French or Foe” by Polly Platt, “French Toast” by Harriet Welty Rochefort and “Au Contraire!: Figuring Out the French” by Gilles Asselin and Ruth Mastron. The subject was so fascinating that as an “aficionado” I made a point to know the authors of these books, some of whom became quite good friends and still are. Polly (may she rest in peace), Harriet and Ruth have all spoken at one time or another at our conferences or coffee gatherings on the subject which obviously fascinates more than just me. That’s because we are simply so different that it takes expert after expert, author after author to enlighten us so that we can somehow maneuver the cultural divide that stands before us at every turn.

Ruth Mastron often spoke about the Cultural Iceberg — a metaphor that explains how 10% of the iceberg is visible above the waterline, while 90% remains hidden. “The visible part of culture (also called ‘big C culture’) includes obvious elements such as art, literature, music, dance, traditional dress, and cuisine — all the things that make a visit to a foreign culture different and interesting. The invisible part of the iceberg (‘small c culture’) becomes apparent only after an extended period of living or working in another culture.”

A new graphic on the subject was posted on this week — the author/artist of which is unknown (to whom I’d be delighted to give credit if I can find him/her!) illustrating the cultural iceberg of Living in Paris: What People See and What It Takes. The 10% big C culture above the line is: Great Food, Fashion, Cheese, Baguettes, Romance, the Eiffel Tower…although that’s a pretty limited view of what is seen above the water line as we all know there is so much more to Paris than cheese and baguettes!

The 90% below the line in the graphic notes a whole host of small c culture including such things as: Adopting a new definition of customer service, Living on the top floor and having an elevator, Remembering to say “Bonjour” when entering a shop, etc., etc. Clearly, the graphic is one person’s idea of what’s above and below the water line, but we all have our own lists.

Take the test. Make your own list. What are the top ten items above the water line for you? And what are the top ten items below the line now that you know Paris a bit. I know what mine are.

See if you agree or disagree:

Living in Paris What I See 10% Above the Water Line (alpha order)

1.    Architecture
2.    Art
3.    Bureaucracy
4.    Cuisine
5.    History
6.    Infrastructure
7.    Leisure/Pleasure
8.    French Language and Literature
9.    “Politesse”
10.    Socialist Democracy/Anti-Capitalism

Living in Paris What I See 90% Below the Water Line

1.    Living in older buildings that don’t have the modern conveniences of elevators or air-conditioning and where toilets may be separate from bathrooms. But why? The answer to this is what’s below the water line that makes acceptance of these differences so fascinating. Learn how and why they built the homes and buildings they built in the way they built them.

2.    Art and artists are taught to be appreciated, but creativity in the schools is not encouraged. It is a complete enigma that their art museums are considered some of the finest in the world while art is not used as a tool in instruction nor taught in the classroom. This could be the reason the artists are so appreciated – as they have had to overcome an enormous lack of encouragement to become great!

3.     “A bureaucracy is “a body of non-elective government officials” and/or “an administrative policy-making group.”  ( The term is French in origin and was coined by the French economist Jacques Claude Marie Vincent de Gournay. What exists below the water line goes deeper than the earth is wide. Every single thing one does or experiences has bureaucratic implications. Do not underestimate its power.

4.    French cuisine is more than baguettes, cheese, wine and Julia Child’s rendition of its recipes. What makes French cuisine so interesting, if not delicious, is its complexity. Simplicity, the kind found in Italian cuisine for example, is not respected in this intellectual French world of ours.

5.    Without knowing French history, one cannot understand France or the French. Start with the Gauls, end with François Hollande as president and if you can figure out what they have in common, you will be light years ahead.

6.    The infrastructure in France is tough to beat, including the Châtelet-les-Halles Métro and RER station, which welcomes 750,000 travelers every day. Getting to know the transportation system is one of the easiest things to learn and even easier to maneuver. Kudos to France for un-complicating something that they could have seriously tangled up with their complex thinking.

7.    While the French are working to live, we’re living to work and make more money. No one enjoys more vacation time and holiday time to be with family and friends, all while their economy is suffering. It can be baffling to the capitalistic mind that has never had the same ‘safety net’ as their socialistic compatriots how they can close their businesses and take off a full month in the summer or live their entire lives with little savings or investments.

8.    French and its literature is the soul of France. More French have been awarded Nobel Prizes in literature than from any other country. There is so much to discover that universities all over the world teach course after course of just French literature and none other. What you see above the water line is a mere fraction of what’s below the surface, because it has influenced intellectuals and authors all over the world. Can you name just 10? Bet you can name 100!

9.    Sure, one learns to say “bonjour” when entering an establishment and “merci, au revoir” when leaving, but that’s just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. French “politesse” goes deep, taught from birth. Notice how French children behave when among adults compared to our American ‘hooligans!’ We can definitely take a lesson or two and transport their good manners back to the States…such as speaking softly in public and always saying please and thank you.

10.    The socialist/anti-capitalistic ideas are the hardest for an American to understand. Our capitalistic ideas are as ingrained in our thinking and way of life as socialism is to the French. Their Right is our Left. Those of us in the middle see the assets and liabilities of both and wish we could find a balance, but while France is becoming even more left, the U.S. is becoming more right. There is no making sense of it, as neither one is going to work — mark my words.


Regardless of what’s above or below the water line, there is one fundamental difference that answers all the cultural questions: the difference in our legal systems. In Napoleonic Code, “Everything which is not allowed is forbidden.” In 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.

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. If you can think the way the French think, or understand how differently you think than they do, you can understand everything that’s well below the water line and effectively cross the proverbial cultural divide.

A la prochaine…

Adrian Leeds - Paris, France

Adrian Leeds
The Adrian Leeds Group

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P.S. In addition to managing vacation rental apartments, the Adrian Leeds Group also offers French properties for sale. If you’re looking to buy an apartment in Paris or a property in France, or you are looking to sell your French property, we can help! Please visit our Properties for Sale page for more information.


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