Intercultural differences (#5)
First : understand, then : criticize....   Try my Quiz ! How insular are you ?

I have seen many situations where Americans are upset, just because they dont KNOW why something happened. If you understand why people act a certain way, then you are of course free to disagree but if you don't understand, you may be very wrong when you express an opinion ! Here are a few examples :

Children - Many Americans say : "The French don't like children : we were in a restaurant and they kept glaring at our kids, etc...". You have to know that

    • American children generally make much more noise than French children
    • In France, you don't go to a restaurant because you're hungry, but because you want to enjoy a meal and talk with your friends
    • If they are noisy or agitated, your children are ruining the other diners' pleasure

    CONCLUSION : if you want to enjoy a real French meal, don't take your children with you and if you're just hungry, go to the next McDonalds, a children-friendly place

Rudeness - Many Americans have stories like "In a café, I ordered a Screwdriver and they refused to serve me and they looked at me with hate. Same thing with a wodka with cranberry juice" (this is a true story)

    • Screwdrivers and cranberry are almost totally unknown in France
    • The order was in English : in France people understand French better than English (yes!) and smile is less natural, especially when you're in trouble
    • If you want to see what it's like (seen by the French), go to a bar in Kansas City and order (in French) "Donnez moi un Perroquet ou sinon un Picon grenadine" and tell me what happened...

    CONCLUSION : why not try what people drink in this country? It could be a nice experience.

Renting an apartment - Many (young) Americans say : "it's impossible to rent an apartment : owners are ridiculously demanding". They want guarantees, proof of income, etc... Why are they such bureaucratic sharks ? To understand it, you have to know that :
    • in France, by law, the tenant has much more rights thant the owner and all provisions tend toward protecting the tenant
    • if you do not pay your rent, you can stay in the apartment for months and even years : if you are jobless or handicapped, you case is good and your owner's bad
    • by law, nobody can be expelled from an apartment, whatever the reason, between October and April

    CONCLUSION : for the French, if you own an apartment and don't need the money, your interest is to leave it empty... If you rent it, your favorite rentor is a middle-aged couple of civil servants (without children) . More about renting an apartment.

Religion : unlike the US where the forming of the nation is based on people fighting for religious freedom, the history of France is, largely, the history of a democratic regime built against a dominant religion and "laïcité" (secularism) is almost unanimously considered a factor of peace. Read more about religion and see my column "American expats : remember it's another country!".

Language : for many Americans (who generally do not speak any foreign language) the French law about using French instead of English is just ridiculous : "everyone does or should speak English, period". See what their language means to the French and what the law-maker J.Toubon wrote about it in New York Times.

  • To test how much you know on France and the French, try my French Quiz !

More anecdotes : see a few DOs and DONTs, see a few questions about the French, visit the page on French attitudes and read French Toast !

More to come...






DID YOU KNOW THAT....? From 2013 to 2016, 651 foreign language programs have been suppressed in US colleges (-9.2% students) and only 20% senior high-school students study a foreign language (vs. 92% in Europe).


Many foreigners think that Americans do not know enough about the rest of the world and that this insularity weakens their leadership. How insular are you ? For each of the following statements, please answer YES if you consider it "Absolutely True ", NO for "Absolutely False " or MB for " Maybe/ it depends ".

    1. " What's good for America is good for the world " : YES-MB -NO

    2. "Our country is so big and beautiful that I don't need a passport" : YES-MB-NO (this question counts double)

    3. " Our friends are those who agree with us " : YES-MB -NO

    4. " We have everything in America and we don't need anything from abroad except oil" : YES-MB -NO

    5. " Europe does not count as a power : their only choice is to be with us or against us " : YES-MB -NO

    6. " Everybody in the world envies us and wants to live in a society like ours " : YES-MB -NO

    7. " To understand a country, we don't need to speak its language : they speak ours" : YES-MB -NO

    8. " In an advanced society, the State should never interfere in people's life " : YES-MB-NO

    9. " I watch Fox News and I think it's a good TV channel" (this question counts double) : YES-MB-NO

    10. " The French hate us " : YES-MB-NO

    11. " It is absurd to call soccer : 'foot-ball'" : YES-MB-NO

    12. " I don't understand this fuss about the French language in Quebec : it would be much easier if everyone spoke English " : YES-MB-NO

    13. "In France, they have socialized medicine" : YES-MB-NO

    14. How many languages do you speak (other than English) : count 2 if "none", 1 if "one" and 0 if "more" (this question counts double)

    15. "There is no more French literature because there are no more French writers (count 2)" or "because US publisher publish less translations (count 0)"

    16. "Why would an American live abroad : we've got everything in our country ?" YES-MB-NO

    17. "Donald Trump is a great president" : YES-MB-NO

Count your score with YES=2, MB=1 and NO=0. If your score is :

Above 22 : you could have a career in Donald Trump's team

Between 12 and 22 : spend one hour a day visiting this site for a whole week

Less than 12 : talk more to your neighbors : they have a lot to learn from you

About American insularity as seen by the French :

  • On NBC (Oct.6,2008) : a journalist reports on the huge losses of European stock markets : anchorman Chris Mathews cuts him with : " I don't care : let's go back to Wall Street "
  • The number of US flags everywhere is astonishing for any foreign visitor : it looks more chauvinist than patriotic
  • Why call foot-ball a purely American game and soccer a game that is called worldwide "football", futbol, fussbal, etc...
  • Read why it is impossible to criticize America and Americans !
  • Remember that US importers and distributors give a very biased image of foreign cultures : a French novel must be self-centered and superficial, a Swedish movie must be black and boring, etc... See an example about French movies. See another example about literature.
  • Abroad : which US state ? Very often, people and organizations in the US give the feeling that they do not know that the rest of the world exist. Try to buy something in a small town and ask the shopkeeper to send it abroad (abroad beginning in Canada...) : he/she will look horrified and suggest YOU go to the post office. In the post office, it is likely that the employee will tell you to discuss this ambitious project with the manager who will give you the impression that this is the first transaction of this kind for him/her (and the cost will be incredibly high...). Order forms on Internet often contain a box "State" and if you do not fill it, your order is not valid (it happened to me more than once...).
  • %ore to come ...

Some Franco-American differences (major or not)

  USA France
State the Constitution protects the society against the State the State ensures equality, the society being the field of domination and inequality
Guns free possession means liberty free possession means violence
Frozen food cheap food for the lazy can be a rather sophisticated dish (ex Picard Surgelés)
something old something that needs to be changed something that has lasted
sweet white wine cheap and bad among the best French wines
Religion liberty and religion are associated religion is the enemy of liberty

Want to see if you could be French ? Participate in a French meeting !

Whatever meeting it is : a business meeting, the annual assembly of a sports association, a PTA meeting, a co-owner's meeting, you name it…. It will summarize the specificities of the French and the differences with Americans. A few illustrations :

  • it is a mess : if the meeting starts precisely at the time it was scheduled, people will complain : it is not nice for those who are late (about 80% of the attendees). You are lucky if there is an agenda and an assigned goal to the meeting and if the objective is to reach a decision : it is considered detrimental to imagination and creativity. A meeting is to "meet" and not to work.
  • it is negative : do not be surprised if most of the time is devoted to identifying risks, weaknesses, errors, etc… The French educational system is based on criticism : if you are too enthusiastic, you may be considered naive, if you criticize, you look smart.
  • it is not decision-oriented : generally, who will chair the meeting and who will take notes for the minutes (if there is to be a written record…) is not clear ; do not expect anybody to sum up the work done or the decisions reached (if any). Count the number of people who read the documents (if any) before the meeting and conclude that you are not in Germany or in Japan. If a decision must result from the meeting, the conclusion can be very vague during the meeting and the decision will be taken AFTER the meeting by the person in charge.
  • it is a zoo : do not be surprised if several people talk at the same time and if nobody can understand what they say : watch talk shows on TV and see that it is normal. Do not panic if people raise their voices (or even scream) : it only means they are interested. Americans are generally traumatized when people shout at them : the French are not.
  • (some good sides, at least) : in business life, French participants in meetings may bring creativity and imagination, in local life, associations and political groups are very active and lively ....
  • More to come ......
To related pages : more intercultural (#1), anti-americanism (#2), intercultural management (#3) and the image of the USA (#4), more intercultural (#6), French values (#7) and favorite US artists (#8), America and the world (#10), etc...

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For more on intercultural differences, order Harriet Welty Rochefort's books :

  • "Joie de Vivre", Secrets of Wining, Dining and Romancing like the French, St.Martin's Press, New York, 2012
  • "French Toast, An American in Paris Celebrates The Maddening Mysteries of the French", St.Martin's Press, New York, 1999, 2010
  • "French Fried, The Culinary Capers of An American in Paris", St.Martin's Press, New York, 2001

More on Harriet's books (excerpts, upcoming events, testimonials, etc..)

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