A 15th century English saying runs, "Odyous of olde been comparisonis, And of comparisonis engendyrd is haterede," or, as Shakespeare abbreviated it, "Comparisons are odious." Any attempt to compare two peoples and their cultures risks spit and spite. Hence Pascal Baudry begins his book by addressing challenges to the legitimacy and utility of comparing French and US Americans.
The author first looks at how the discovery of difference or the unknown causes surprise. French poet Wilhelm Albert Włodzimierz Apolinary de Wąż-Kostrowicki observed this when speaking about emerging styles in the world of art. The question then is, when we have been startled by difference or at least surmised its existence, what do we do with it? We may attempt to deny it, resist it, but honest recognition requires honest exploration and, ultimately it changes us. Baudry's exploration of French-American differences has implications for those on both shores. We have our work to do.
Startled by another culture, we first try to explain it from the perspective of our own. But, if we become truly immersed in a new environment, it seeps into our system, we start seeing it as it is, a byproduct of which is beginning to see one's own culture afresh as an outsider. We try communicating across cultures, but it is more like negotiating meanings and priorities. Repeated instances of such negotiation bring cultures willy-nilly to evolve in new ways, echoing the classic adage, "You can't step into the same river twice," for both you and the river have changed.
Particularly when two cultures are rich and diverse, when they possess their own regional dimensions and dialectics, as is the case with French and Americans, making generalized comparisons is likely to be odious, perhaps generating disagreement if not offense. We have been taught to think of the US as a "melting pot," but as the author observes, French culture is both regionally diverse and diverse in its roots. A French telephone directory is a crossroads of Europe and beyond. Sorry if I threw some readers off by citing Guillaume Apollinaire's natal Polish name above, when I could have used a simple word like "Sarkozy," but I thought a touch of surprise would help to make the point.
So, we read on, and explore, in search of scraps of insight into each other and ourselves that we can understand and use both at home and abroad. It is our foolish profession as interculturalists to rush in, shoving the timorous, trembling angels aside. Reading Baudry, you're likely to confirm some of your biases and suspicions, find some of them challenged, and occasionally stamp your foot and say, "No!" when your experience seems to contradict his. This is the normal and natural set of reactions that even open minds must deal with. We choose for or against, or at least decide to put contradictions in abeyance while looking for more evidence or admitting more complexity.
It is hard to write this review, without lapses into autobiography. Being a US American who has by and large made France his home for the past 15 years, I have a set of impressions about France that are filtered through my USness. Pascal Baudry has in fact written "From the Other Shore," that trodden by a French man who spent substantial time in the USA. This inevitably makes his perspective autobiographical as well, though he seeks to analyze and unravel observed behaviors and social tendencies. There are less first-hand accounts and stories than might be expected. He unapologetically boards some "French" theorizing for the trip.
When it comes to the evolution of individual perspectives that cumulatively lead to the evolution of culture, perhaps each of us tends to be more critical of our own native cultures, given the expatriate perspective of seeing some things work better in the new cultural context in which we have immersed ourselves. We search for reasons as to why this is so. Courting a new land, even temporarily is a fresh love affair, is tainted by both the passion and pain of our previous loves--both passion and pain are anchored in the same conceptual waters and our choice of them depends on the tides of the moment.
With preliminary cautions addressed, Baudry launches into a discussion of some of the more obvious differences between French and US American cultural constructions, the ones people tend to see and experience first and may even have been warned about. Chapter 2 addresses "Explicitness," the fact that in the USA "words equal things" and assertions are binary, whereas, among the French, context and nuance are everything. On one shore simplicity is truth, while on the other complexity describes reality. Along with this difference comes a propensity to label each other respectively as either naïve or dishonest.
The author suggests that lack of explicitness interiorizes dilemmas, resulting in a high level of consumption of psychotropic drugs in France. However, realizing that the USA leads the world in its consumption of both illegal drugs and prescription meds may cause one to wonder. Perhaps Baudry is right, and we should add that it is US American explicitness that finds a pill for every pain, despite the extremely high cost of prescription and over-the-counter medications in the US, when compared to France. One cannot watch evening television in the USA without exploring one's body for symptoms at each commercial break. When it comes to alcohol consumption, France is sandwiched between Ireland and the UK in terms of liters per person, though, in this writer's experience, blatant public intoxication seems extremely rare here in comparison with the other two countries. Of course drunken behavior also has its cultural norms of expression.
While the title of the book is French and Americans, this reader found it to be more about the French. They are observed through two lenses, one being the author's American experience mentioned above, the other being his psychoanalytic perspective employed to show how certain national characteristics of people on either shore are rooted in differing habits of weaning and toilet training. Yes, in Chapter 3 on "individuation," those key paradigms are introduced and will continue to be exploited in later pages. So, if you are little inclined toward psychological theory, remember that the author is searching his mental and professional armamentum for a diagnostic model that might contribute to shaping a number of the differences that some of us already observe in everyday individual, social, entrepreneurial and political behaviors and which have been studied in different ways.
While French children are seen as overly protected and behaviorally inhibited by controlling mothers, US children are pictured as being thrown into the water as soon as possible to learn to swim for themselves--though one might add-that parents' concern for the safety of their children in the USA has reached all-time heights at a time when French children are being given more liberties. It may be that this is one of the areas where cultural crossover may be taking place.
At any rate this core model is used to give insights into the nature and expression of collectivity and individualism, being and doing, attitudes of scarcity vs. abundance, status vs. performance, etc., in each culture. It provides a way of looking at proximity and distance, at how decisions are made and accountability is determined for them and their execution. French children and consequently adults are discouraged from wandering too far afield from maternal protection, whether exercised by mother herself or institutions made to perpetuate security. US children, so quickly weaned into a very competitive world, bear enormous responsibility for "making themselves." Hence, the need to fend for themselves as they face ever-mounting responsibilities for their personal success--for becoming winners. As a result, they grow into adults imagining conflict situations as win-win, smiling, being positive and learning CYA behavior, the habit of "covering your ass" with evidence that you can defend yourself with, if mistakes or failure occur. The French tend to diminish risk by avoiding it; while in the US the perils of risk are managed by imaging positive outcomes and encouraging the belief that, should failure occur, there will be another chance. It is thus not surprising, if we accept a psychoanalytic model, that we discover indigenous forms of schizophrenia developing as the stresses of life and work play out on either shore.
Whether we are speaking about work processes or legal procedures we are up against French personalization vs. US thingification, so it is also not surprising that relationships are compartmentalized differently and played out with different rules. Baudry states that in the US law takes precedence over morality. One should add that there are relentless efforts in the USA to both legislate morality and class advantage. One only has to look at how debates over abortion and gay rights dominate what should be political issues in election campaigns, and how what would be deemed corruption elsewhere is absolved by being legislated as freedom, for example the obscene amounts of money used to promote candidates for public office and lobby legislators in office.
Baudry illustrates maternal dominance and paternal absence as visible features of French personality and behavior construction. While the real father is absent or a minor character in the child's formation, Father is a towering figure in the accepted mythology where the king has been executed but is powerfully though vestigially regenerated in the resistance and rebellion shown toward omnipresent hierarchy, legislation and bureaucratic structures. Le roi est mort, vive le roi !
The US father has long been an absent figure as well, though in a different way. The absence of father is frequently compensated for by US boy children developing a machismo that is drawn from Hollywood heroes and videogames, which would be less likely the case if they enjoyed more of a fallible but nurturing father in the home. US women may ape this machismo as a resource for succeeding in male-dominated work cultures. When discussing feminism and progress, US women frequently accuse French women of having caved in to the male system, while French women accuse their US counterparts as having bartered away their femininity to masquerade as men. Not surprisingly French chic is longingly, though often secretly coveted by US women, while many French women envy certain liberties enjoyed by their US friends.
"Healing the father wound" has been an important theme of the men's movement in the USA. When men are encouraged and enabled to reconnect with their fathers, to forgive their fathers for being absent, and apologize to them for having colluded as boys with their mothers against their fathers, men can be liberated from vicious competition with each other. The male primeval voice that asks, "Can I whip his ass?" when one man first meets another, no longer dominates the ensuing conversation. US men are returning slowly but increasingly to a warmer family role.
One could go on with the examination of many individual points of contrast as the author does, with a critique of the areas revealed by contrast of cultures, the advantages and disadvantages of each. However, the ultimate destination is arriving at a promontory where we can see what we have to learn from each other, what we can adapt and adopt, despite or because of certain stark contrasts of culture. There is a downward spiral of national systemic coherence acknowledged by both cultures. There is perhaps an incipient though unexpressed understanding, that cultures grow sterile and die unless inseminated diversity, not just by the penetration of newcomers, but also seeded by new ideas and by exploration of each other's strong points, gleaned from comparisons, odious as they may seem, and generously shared. The final chapter is in fact a collection of "What if's" that might bear fruit out of the richness of this sharing.
The book concludes with five "practical" appendices that reflect often-mulled questions. The first is about the sources of French anti-Americanism, but might as well be about French-bashing in the US, both rooted in unrealistic expectations about the other. Next we look at French and Japanese affinity, in fact a closer cultural match than that of French and US Americans. This was not surprising to me, as I have seen the relatively easier entry and success of French expats in collaborating with Japanese counterparts. The third appendix is about reality construction on each shore affirming with mathematical precision the duality that manifests itself in cultural and social friction.
A fourth appendix addresses management vs. emergence and the conditions that favor the latter. This is not just a question of the future stability and success of economies and environments, critical as these may be, but one of the further developments of human consciousness needed to address these and other human dilemmas creatively.
Lastly, Appendix 5 serves as a sort of practical summary of the possibilities of Franco-American collaboration. Having struggled through the comparisons of difference and seen how locked into our respective perspectives we can be, we look at what can we do together or do to do more together. It is a sermonette with tips about learning to use what we tend to dismiss or criticize in each other's ways of thinking and acting, and finding some salvation in being culturally conscious in going about what we can and want to do together. Amen! Ainsi soit-il !