Love the French, Hate the French. Why “Those People” Annoy Us
July 14 is Bastille Day in France, a day to celebrate the beginning of the French Revolution. The downfall of a whimsical, abusive monarchy. The rise of Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity—concepts we as Americans hold high.
Yet, beneath those shared values, there is chafing in Franco-American relations. Anti-French sentiments bubbled up again with the arrest of Dominique Strauss-Kahn in New York City amid allegations of sexual misconduct. When France refused to support the American invasion of Iraq, conservative politicians lambasted the French government, stirring up resentments that prompted boycotts of all things French, including the now-laughable renaming of French fries to Freedom fries.
So where does this American negativity come from? In a New York Times article, Pulitzer Prize winning author David McCullough discussed the love-hate relationship between the U.S. and France. He observed we have profound ties with the land of the tricolore. Specifically, France:
- provided irreplaceable support (both troops and money) in our War for Independence
- was the location of the treaty-signing that ended the War for Independence
- gave us the Statue of Liberty, our most cherished national symbol
- sold us the Louisiana Territory, doubling our nation’s land mass
- provided the architect who designed Washington, DC
- was the birthplace of Alexis de Tocqueville, author of the seminal Democracy in America
It will surprise most readers that French culture has more in common with the Chinese than with the U.S. When I’m talking “culture,” I don’t mean architecture, music, and the shared love of cheese. Those highly visible aspects I call Culture (with a capital-c). Instead, I’m talking about the judgments, values, beliefs, and behaviors that goad, rankle, and perturb outsiders. Those attitudes that get us into trouble are the small-c points of culture, the below-the-surface views and assumptions about how humans should behave—and frustratingly don’t.
Let’s get some numerical data here. According to Country Navigator, an intercultural comparison tool, there are major points of contention between French and American culture on all nine of their value comparison scales (with more than 4 points of difference earning a “red light” on the CN scales). The scales look at how people reason, relate to others, and make decisions. I’ve summarized them in the table below.
For example, in the second category, Explicit vs. Implicit, both the French and the Chinese believe that when we talk with one another, we should pay attention to the details of context (e.g., facial expressions, whether the person is running late, etc.). They look for cues that are available to someone paying attention to the broader array of details in a person’s life. Americans, high on the Explicit scale, don’t believe in wasting time with those minutia. “Say what you mean, mean what you say,” is the direct American’s response. “Don’t beat around the bush. Give it to me straight.” Can you imagine, then, how this would play out in business or diplomatic discussions? The French (or Chinese) are thinking the Americans lack nuance, are blustery, don’t understand subtlety. The frustrated Americans, on the other side, are wondering why their counterparts can’t get to the point.
Despite our fondness for their wines and cheeses, Americans simply think differently from the French. In spite of our shared proclamation of liberty, equality, and fraternity, we have different ways of understanding and implementing those values.
So, on this Bastille Day, as we raise glasses of champagne to toast our shared history, we recognize the need for better efforts toward understanding each other. For the sake of global trade, security, and diplomacy, we must all get along. If not for that, let’s do it for the cheese.