(asked by Leesa from Antony, France (and originally from San Diego, California))
Let’s start with the fact that France and the US belong to the same civilization -let’s call it the Western civilization- and for that reason the biggest mistake both French and American people do when dealing with the other culture is to assume that things are -or at least should be- the same.
And if it’s true that they roughly look the same, they’re definitely not. Remember what Vincent Vega, the famous philosopher once said about Europe: “It’s the little differences. I mean, they got the same shit over there that they got here, but it’s just, it’s just theirs a little different.” He couldn’t be more right.
And we can safely say that the biggest difference between the two countries is that people just don’t think the same way. This is true for most countries, but when you’re dealing with, let’s say, an Indian or a Chinese person, you expect them to not think the same way than you do (even though I’m not too sure about that when I see that Westerners are totally missing the point when they try to pressure China over Tibet the way they do it, but I’m getting sidetracked here)… Where was I? Oh yeah… So, when a Westerner deals with an Indian, there is some intuitive understanding that the two don’t think the same, don’t see things and the world the same way… Well, it’s exactly the same between a French person and an American one.
This is, to my eyes, the main reason why there are so many misunderstandings between the two countries, why when most Americans go to France, they just can’t go past the clichés, and same thing for most French people in America.
But I’m still not answering the question: What are these differences?
Let’s put it this way: America was founded (not as a country but as a culture) by a bunch of religious lunatics who fled England because they were too fundamentalist and fucked up to just convert to Anglicanism when asked to and keeping on having a quiet and simple life in England.
Modern France, on the other hand, was founded by some writers and philosophers that spent their days discussing everything they could think of discussing, writing an Encyclopedia and triggering a bunch of Revolutions (including the French and the American ones) in the process.
So, on the one hand, we have a country where the influence of Puritanism greatly influenced most major aspects of the society: importance of religion, sexual issues, unclear separation between the private and the public, little to no rationalism when dealing with personal things, guiltiness always looming around, etc.
On the other side we have a country that is the spawn of Enlightenment: clear cut between public and private, little to no importance of religion which anyways stays a private thing that should not spread to the public sphere, a certain hedonism integrated to everyday life, high rationalization of things, propensity to discussing and debating anything and everything, etc.
But these are just the skeletons of both countries, there are also differences in their flesh and major organs, but I’ll detail them with time when people ask me specific questions about certain things.
Other major differences I can think of (which may or may not be a byproduct of the Original Difference):
-History (or rather: Sense of History):
In the US, history doesn’t seem to matter. Some people will say it’s because the US don’t have one. Of course, it’s not the case, but I think the fact that it’s quite short (the world started in 1776 for most Americans (even for those that believe it was made in 7 days about 6,000 years ago)). In France, History is very important to understand the culture, life and the world from a French perspective.
Good sides of the way Americans relate to history: Americans seem less trapped under the weight of tradition; they look forward and not backwards; they think of what can be done first, and not of what has been done.
The Bad Sides: a certain cluelessness about a lot of things, about the rest of the world and how to interact with it (Isolationism is as much the cause as lack of historical sense here, but I suspect the former to also be a consequence of the latter); a propensity to never learn from their mistakes especially on the National level (but on the personal level too to a certain extent) which makes them repeat them; a certain gullibility of the people too (I’ve never seen people more easy to manipulate than the American (I mean as a population, not individuals), but this latter part is also a result of lack of education and general culture as well as chronic apathy.
Good sides of the way the French relate to history: they understand the world much better because they have millennia of interactions with the rest of it as background (note: I don’t mean that the French understand the rest of the world better than the rest of the world, I mean that they understand it as well as the rest of the world, and that is much more than America (and a few handful of other countries do).
They know that wars are bad and are not just like a sports game with to sides and a winner and a loser in the end. They learn from experience much more. They –as a country - try to not repeat mistakes of the past.
The bad sides: looking too much towards the past and not enough towards the future; thinking experience is everything, giving more importance to what has been done than what can be done.
People from both countries are obsessed with money; both are sometimes losing sight of the fact that money is a tool, a mean, not a goal in itself.
But there’s one major difference: Americans are more open about it than the French are. In France there’s some sort of taboo about money. Talking about it is somewhat vulgar. There’s an emotional stigma associated to it: money is “bad”. Still, almost everybody wants to have more like anywhere else.
After talking about money, of course I had to talk about sex.
Here we’re going back to point number one and the fact that Puritanism totally screwed America up when dealing with sex. In France too, Christianity has left its imprint on the population, but to a much lesser extent (remember the Revolution was not only about getting rid of kings, but also of the Church).
People from both countries are obsessed with sex even more than with money. But this time it’s the French that have a much healthier relationship to sex.
Let’s put it this way: in France, sex is not bad, it’s good. And if you’re ever had sex, you know which population is right on this topic.
Yeah, I separate nudity from sex, and that’s the point.
In France, nudity and sex are not completely linked. Nudity can be non-sexual in France! Sometimes Americans are surprised/shocked to see how much nudity there’s in France (not people in the street, I’m talking about the media, etc) and they think the French are perverts or something. They’re getting it all wrong. It’s just that nudity is not always about sex.
Example: it’s not uncommon to see a naked or half naked woman in a commercial for fat free yogurt, and I know from experience that it puzzles Americans a lot, because they wonder what the link between sex and yogurt. Well, if you really want to know, I can tell you how to link both, but this is not what the commercial does. There nudity represents health: see how slim and healthy the woman is, this is because she’s eating the yogurt.
Which brings us to:
Let’s put it this way: in France food is the most important thing. Period. More important than money, more important than sex. Eating is an experience in itself, just like any other activity. Eating is not about feeding yourself so that you don’t die. Eating is a sensual (meaning involving the senses), social, cultural activity.
Flavor is the most important thing in food, not what’s in it, not what it’s made of, etc. But experience has told the French that the more natural the food is the better and the more elaborate the taste is.
One thing that makes me sad in the US, is how taste-challenged most Americans are. The expression that says it all to me is “it tastes like chicken.” How can something that is not chicken taste like chicken? And what is “chicken flavor”? I know a good dozen of different “chicken flavors” depending what part of the chicken, how it’s cooked, whether the chicken is free-range or not, etc.
Also, one word about organic food.
In the US, if I understand right, organic food is food that is not full of preservatives, GMOs, hormones and such.
Well, under that definition, almost all of French food is organic.
OK, that’s it for this entry.
I barely scratched the surface and I could have gone longer, but I need to finish it as some point as the topic is pretty much endless….
Of course, I’ll answer any follow-up question if necessary.
I’ve been trying to explain the American/Puritanical relationship with sex to my French boyfriend…well, depuis longtemps. He just thinks that we are obsessed, and I have always argued that any time you forbid something, it becomes an obsession for the prohibited person. This is always true of forbidden pleasurable things, I think. Thanks for giving me another angle for my debate!
This is a few days late, but still I think there are a few issues that could be seen a little differently.
The French have it right about food and about sex, no question.
But, I think it is a little bit of French male chauvenism to think that French women agree with the treatment of women as sexual objects in French advertising. I am sure you remember the graffiti that was common on these ads just a few years ago, indicating that many people found them offensive.
As for the Frenchman's sophisticated view of history and international culture, I found as many uninformed individuals in rural France (provincials as the more sophisticated call them) as in the rural US. But, I agree, the sterotypical American is much less sophisticated than the sterotypical Frenchman. (And then we have the camera toting Japanese, the cheap Scotsman, the obnoxious Russian, efficient but fascist German, etc.)
Ron, just one thing.
"Provincial" is not a word used by "sophisticated" people, it's a word used by Parisian jerks who think they're the center of the world and that the rest of France doesn't really exist nor count.
Also, how much time have you spent in rural France exactly?
See, France - as opposed to the US - is a very "nationalized" country. It has many disadvantages, but a major upside to it is that it doesn't matter where you live in the country, you'll get the same education, you also get the same information, despite what some clueless Parisians that have never been on the other side of the periphérique may think.