Last month in the French American Center blog the topic was the dearth of literature on the subject of differences between the Anglophone and French cultures. The cultural comparisons have probably inspired more English writing than any other single International subject. This month I will attempt a short list of the subjects on which we tend to differ most often with some entirely subjective, and not entirely serious, descriptions and commentary on the French approach. Feel free to write back with your own thoughts.
Romance: In France some attitudes which are celebrated as the yearning of a romantic spirit in French culture might be considered psychopathic, grounds for a restraining order, or at least loserish in Anglo culture. This applies to both sexes but at the initiation of courtship in France men are expected to be the pursuers. If you suggest to a French woman, no matter how educated, that she should approach a man that interests her she may shudder in horror that you consider her such a vulgar tramp (see gender roles). So her only hope is to wait in the shadows until the man decides to make a move on her, if she should be so lucky.
Laws and Civic Behaviour: Contrary to what some may think the French have no problem with making laws. On average they make far more than in Anglo countries. It is in the observance and enforcement of laws that the split emerges. Anglos view laws as being enforced to protect the good citizen from the tyranny and discomfort of criminal and uncivil behaviour. Many French view the enforcement of laws as the tyranny of the state which is oppressing their right to be selfish and disobedient. Think dog poo and parking in the middle of the street.
Religious Tolerance: In France the underlying sentiment seems to be that religions are inherently intolerant so why should the state tolerate religion. Religion is viewed as a challenge to the states authority but not a cool one like leaving poo on the side walk or parking in the middle of the road.
Gender Roles: French women are generally in agreement (with people all over the Western world at least) that wage gaps need to close, the numbers of women and men in official leadership roles needs to equalize. However, in what seems a stunning contradiction to most Anglos, many of the same French women are often openly critical of women that have any so called “masculine” characteristics or tastes. The message seems to be, you can be a feminist but you must do it while wearing a mini skirt and plenty of make up while maintaining your feminine silhouette. The terminology is a clue to this difference. In English a “tom-boy” conjures images of innocent and affable qualities. Whereas in French, “garcon-manqué” translates as “failed boy”… think about it.
Work: For many Anglos work is sacred. Work never sleeps and never goes away. It is omnipresent and gives structure to our existence. Most French would probably replace the word “work” with “life” and proceed to attribute to work all the opposite characteristics. Vacation, meals , weekends are sacred. In short it is the old cliché, the French work to live and we tend to live to work.
Eating: Traditional French life is structured around eating and preparing meals, yet, on average, they are slimmer than us. They also seem to derive more pleasure from food and lengthy mealtimes. Clearly we have something to learn. They can’t fathom why we would eat outside of structured meal times nor how we can mix sweet and savoury tastes. In the latter case it seems it is only they who understand the rules for what elements can and can’t be combined, personally I have never figured it out… Sauternes, foie gras and fig confit – good, peanut butter and chocolate – bad. Whatever their rules may be they must have something right if they are healthier and eating better with more enjoyment.