Today we present two views – different perspective on cultural differences from the American and French points of view. Both authors are long-time residents of Paris, one American and one French and have spouses from the “other side”.

Perspective I

The Art of the Enigmatic

excerpt from the chapter  Savoir-Vivre :  Life as an Art Form in Joie de Vivre : Secrets of Wining, Dining, and Romancing Like the French by Harriet Welty Rochefort  (St. Martin’s Press)

If there’s one thing that can drive an American, a German, or a Swede straight up the wall, it’s lack of clarity. Where are we going? What are we doing? Has the game plan been spelled out? We of the northern cultures love the clear-cut, the unam- biguous, the definitive, and the specific.

Not the French. The French may be world experts on form, but conversely they are comfortable in situations that are vague, and ill at ease in situations where all is spelled out to the letter. They love the unclear, the implied, the inferred, and the enigmatic. Part of this is because for the French, explaining things point by point is an insult to intelligence: it means, quite simply, that the person you are talking to is unable to figure things out. I can’t tell you how many parties, social occasions, school affairs I’ve been to in France where no one knows what’s going on and that’s just fine. Either everyone knows because of customs or codes or, well, they’ll figure things out. For example, dinnertime. What time shall we come for dinner? I once asked my sister-in-law in my first days in France. Oh, anytime, she replied airily. I pressed her: Anytime? You mean six? She was secretly horrified but equably suggested that anytime from eight on would be great. Why didn’t she say that in the first place? Because for her no civilized person in his right mind would eat before eight. And note the “anytimefrom” in her phrase. Translation: don’t you dare show up right at eight, and certainly not before! Recently we were invited to a birthday party, except we didn’t know it was a birthday party. By some miracle we found out in extremis and showed up with a hastily chosen present. Other guests obviously knew more than we did and had gone in together on a group gift, a golf club. No problem, we figured. Forewarned is forearmed and we hadn’t been forewarned. The people giving the golf club knew the fellow well; we didn’t. Everyone was free to do his or her own thing (if, that is, they had ferreted out the initial information, which was that it was a birthday!).

PerspectiveAnother example: signs. When I had an operation in a French clinic, I was pleased by the cleanliness and hygiene, the courtesy and efficiency of the personnel, the professionalism of the medical team, the work of the ophthalmologist, who’s been our family doctor for almost forty years, and his anesthetist, who in addition to being serious and competent is a nice person to look at as you gently phase out (sexist remark? I can say that: this is France). Filling out the satisfaction form, I criticized only one thing: the “welcome.” When you arrive at the clinic, you see a sign saying accueil (reception) and a waiting room. But you don’t know whether you’re to sit in the room waiting to be called or to first go to the not-so-welcoming accueil, where a rather forbidding lady is sitting. So you ask, and depending on who answers, you may get lucky and get the right information. In that particular case it turned out that you first went to the accueil, signed in, and then waited in the waiting room. Guess what: a simple sign would end confusion and solve the problem.

But that would be taking people for fools.


Perspective II

Cultural differences : vive la différence !

by Roland Keniger, Manager, Hotel Marignan (Paris V)

As the French manager of a hotel in Paris and married to an American, I have a front row seat on cultural differences, especially those between the French and the Americans. Many cultural misunderstandings can be explained by a basic difference in communication styles : Americans prefer « explicit » communication (as in the expression « say what you mean and mean what you say »), while the French communicate in a more « implicit » manner. In « implicit » communication, the context (situation, status of those involved…) can be more important than the words themselves. For example, a French friend invited me and an American friend to a New Year’s Eve party held at her parents’ home in a fancy suburb. Not wanting to commit a « faux pas », I asked my French friend how I should dress for the event. The response : « normal ». I erred on the side of caution and wore a suit. When I arrived, all the guests were wearing suits or cocktail dresses, while my American friend wore jeans…he felt a bit out of place. My French friend did not mean to make him uncomfortable ; to her, the context of the invitation made the dress code clear. An American would have probably said « wear a suit »… How many times have American clients or friends lamented that they totally misread a situation ?

Some other cultural differences I have observed :
Ways of discussing : the French are much more at ease with expressing disagreement. Discussions among friends can get very animated and people can speak loudly. This is considered part of the fun. Americans are less comfortable about expressing disagreement with their friends and will bend over backwards to avoid offense. From the French point of view, this can lead to tepid exchanges…
Priorities for spending money : many American tourists are fine with spending 100€ for a show or to take their family to a theme park, but find that 30€ is really a lot for a meal.

Humor : this is very difficult to translate across cultures ! The French appreciate irony, while most Americans do not.
While everyone spends hours looking at their smart phones, Americans are more addicted to technology than the French. Looking at a map and discovering a new area do not interest them; they are « results oriented » and want to get from point A to point B using their smart phones. This is a pity, since one of the pleasures of being a tourist in Paris is getting lost and finding something new ! One might say the same about cultural differences : they are unexpected discoveries to be appreciated…