Hints for Newcomers – Hindsights for Old-Timers
French Anglo cultural differences
Us vs Them
by Shari Leslie Segall
You’ve heard of speed-dating. You’ve heard of speed-networking. Welcome to speed-cultural differences! Although many of these differences are being obliterated at breakneck speed by globalization (see our earlier post of Hints-Hindsights), and many didn’t exist in the first place (yes, the French really are friendly at heart), below is an extremely incomplete quick-and-dirty list of the at times inaccurate, at times truer-than-true judgments that are at times fiercely hurled, at times gently tossed at each other by Anglos and Francos.
- EMOTIONS/ATTITUDE – the negative
Them: Anglos–especially Americans–are big babies. Even grown women jump up and down and screech and hug when they run into each other on the street. Anglos thank you a million times for the slightest thing. How can everything always be “AWESOME!” or “BRILLIANT!”? How can any one human being emit so much enthusiasm? How can you smile that much?
Us: The French are the most negative people in the world. Their “temporary bout of moroseness” has lasted for the past forty years. They say yes only after they’ve said no. The métro looks like a cemetery on wheels!
- EMOTIONS/ATTITUDE – the positive
Them: That can-do spirit is formidable. There doesn’t seem to be anything Anglos won’t try–and believe they’ll succeed at!
Us: The French aren’t afraid to flirt. They aren’t afraid to define and present themselves as feminine women and masculine men. Political correctness may be creeping into this country, but it hasn’t reached the sidewalk-café table yet. Tant mieux!
- FOOD – the negative
Them: No wonder they’re so big. There’s always some kind of food or drink in their hands. Or cars. Or office drawers. Not even good food. Just food!
Us: A gastronomic dictatorship. You have to eat at only certain times. You can’t drink coffee with your meal. Forget about ever ordering milk. Or asking for ice in your Coke. You have to have your salad only after the main course and only before the cheese. You can’t sit next to your spouse at a dinner party. You can’t. Can’t can’t can’t!
- FOOD – the positive
Them: [this page left intentionally blank]
Us: Perfect. Everything is perfect. The food is perfect. The display windows presenting the food are perfect. The little package that the bakery-lady ties your gift-pastry up in is perfect. The smallest bistro in the farthest corner of the most remote village serves meals that are perfect.
- TIME – the negative
Them: They’re so hyper about being on time, and things’ starting on time, and expecting things to start on time, and getting all perturbed when things don’t start on time and making sure they show up at your door at the exact time the party was called for. There’s more to life than that!
Us: Ten o’clock? The meeting, you say, starts at ten o’clock? Would that be ten o’clock regular time or ten o’clock French-meeting time?
- TIME – the positive
Them: Anglo efficiency. Getting it done. Meeting the deadline. The gold standard. Will our Latin souls ever allow us to attain it?
Us: How blessed one is to be able to spend an entire afternoon sipping coffee in a café…staring out ahead …thinking. Just thinking. Sitting. Thinking. Smiling. Guiltlessly. That’s what you did this afternoon. That’s what you accomplished.
- POLITENESS – the negative
Them: Brutes. They are brutes. They point their fingers at you when they talk. They don’t say Bonjour, Monsieur to the bus driver. They just walk right past him. They don’t say Bonjour to the taxi driver. They just bark out their destination. They don’t say Bonjour, Madame to the bakery clerk. They just say un croissant. Not even s’il vous plaît. Just un croissant.”
Us: That taxi driver wouldn’t even start his ignition until I said Bonjour. He’s not my pal. He’s my employee!
- POLITENESS – the positive
Them: They start their letters and emails with a little sentence about you. “Hope you are well.” “Hope you’re having a good week.” “Hope the weather is better where you are than it is here right now.” “Hope your vacation was excellent.” How pleasant! And they end their letters with just a word or two. “Best regards” feels like a warm handshake. Veuillez agréer, Monsieur, l’expression de ma considération distinguée feels like someone’s addressing you from far, far away in time and space.
Us: I guess all this formality-politeness stuff was passed down from Versailles. From the Sun King. Louis XIV. The court and nobility and ladies-in-waiting and all that. In a way, that’s kind of nice. I’m not sure we should be bellyaching about it.
- PUNCTUATION – the negative
Them: What kind of people don’t leave a space between the word and the punctuation mark?!*
Us: What kind of people leave a space between the word and the punctuation mark?!
- LANGUAGE – the positive
Them: I love how English can verbify anything: “He Dirty Harryed it all the way to the top.” – “I don’t have a CV. Google me!” – “We’re Grand Canyoning right now. We Las Vegased yesterday.” That makes the language feel alive.
Us: The two most perfectly accurate similes in all of language anywhere ever come from French: nu comme un ver (naked as a worm) and plein comme un oeuf (full as an egg). It doesn’t get more naked or fuller than that!
* Punctuation made up of two parts: ! … ? … : … ; … “ ”
Shari Leslie Segall is a writer who lives in Paris.
French Anglo cultural differences