There is a joke that describes the European versions of heaven and hell. In heaven, the cooks are French, the police are British, the lovers are Italian and everything is organized by the Germans. In hell, the cooks are British, the police are French, the lovers are German and everything is organized by the Italians.
Thus do pernicious national stereotypes persist. As someone who has made it something of a crusade to fight against prejudice and misconception, I should rile against this joke, and I would if it weren’t so true.
Yes, there are cultural differences… thankfully… and yes, they do have a broad tendency to make people behave in certain ways. I love working in Italy, because it’s so… fluid. Yes, “fluid” is a good word. You talk, you eat, you talk, you eat some more, you tell a few jokes, you say you’ll have another meeting and then you go off to talk and eat with friends. In Germany, you have a meeting with a whole bunch of people arranged in a pretty rigid hierarchy and you make decisions. It’s far more efficient… and nowhere near as pleasant. And it’s just true that British food is, on the whole, boring while British police officers are, on the whole, thoroughly charming. French food, on the other hand, is titillating and French cops have a distinct tendency to be pompous jerks.
There are a number of ways to typify cultural differences. I know that anthropologists have their lists, but here’s a brief, random, Dolginesque list:
• Different cultures have very different ways of dealing with elevators (they call them different things as well… non-American English-speakers call them “lifts”). In some cultures, you get in and stand at the back. In other cultures you get in and stand at the front, with your back to everyone else.
• There are distinct differences in how close you keep your face to someone else’s when you’re speaking. If you were to speak to a Finn at the same distance at which you speak to a Spaniard, he’d think you wanted to have sex with him, whereas if you spoke to a Spaniard like a Finn he’d think you take yourself for the King of Sweden.
• Touching is a big one. You kiss women on both cheeks in France if you know them even a little (whether you’re a man or a woman… men also kiss each other on both cheeks but only if they’re best of friends), whereas if you were to do this with a Japanese woman she would turn bright red. Likewise, Arab (and Turkish) men will often walk hand in hand in the street if they’re friends, and Arabs (and Africans) have a tendency to touch each other to emphasize points or show enthusiasm when they speak. Touch a Brit while you’re talking to him and he might hit you.
• People from different societies have dramatically different views of what is a socially acceptable level of volume when speaking. Few cultures are as loud as Americans… perhaps the Chinese… but even within Europe, the difference in volume between the Dutch and the Danes, for example, is considerable.
The list goes on, and I’m not even touching questions of fashion, bearing, sex, and food. If I did, this would be a long dispatch indeed. I wanted, though, to address a few popular and perplexing misconceptions help by many Americans about one particular nationality… the French. Maybe I’m more sensitive to these because I’m an American who has lived half his life in France, but I really do think that Americans have more misconceptions about the French than about anyone else. I think this may come from the fact that in the first part of the 20th century, many Americans went abroad for the first time by going to France… with guns in their hands. Stereotypes brought back by American soldiers, especially, and surprisingly, those from the first world war, have been very long to die.
Americans often think that the French don’t use soap, or not as much as they should. It should be said that no one in the world uses as much soap per capita as in the United States—after all, we actually disinfect our currency. However, the French use no less soap than other nations in Europe. Nor do they smell any worse. French women smell very nice, in fact. I think this may come from the wars, when the French had little soap (and little food, for that matter). Or it may come from the old and true stories about Louis XIV refusing to bathe (he believed that water was bad for the skin) and therefore dousing himself in perfume all the time.
That was three hundred years ago.
First of all, most Americans go to Paris. They should—Paris is a city that everyone should not only see, but lounge around in, explore, loiter in. However, in the rest of France, Paris has much the reputation that New York has among Midwesterners—a bustling place with rude, obnoxious people in it. There’s some truth to that.
What is deeper behind this impression, though, is a fundamental cultural difference regarding the limits of privacy. The French do not like going into a restaurant and having a waiter bounce over to announce that his name is Todd and that he’s going to be their waitperson for the evening and that he hopes they’re having a really super day. For the French, the quality of their day is none of his damn business, and his name isn’t really any of theirs. Ask a French waiter his name and he’ll wonder what the hell you’re up to. Nor do the French appreciate a salesperson pretending she’s deeply concerned about your choice of underwear and that the totality of her life has been leading up to this one opportunity of serving you.
In a nutshell, the French are far more private than Americans. They don’t smile if they’re not genuinely happy to see you, and if they don’t know you then they don’t quite understand why they should be happy to see you, since you might turn out to be a jerk, after all.
This strikes Americans as rude. I’d point out that the French feel the same way about Russians (most Slavs, in fact), who tend to be even more reserved and private. I’m not saying I prefer the French approach, but it quickly grows on you. Particularly since when you do share a joke with a waiter, or a bit of banter with someone in a store, then you know their smile is sincere. In the town where I live, when I go into the cheese shop and the pleasant older couple that owns it smiles and asks me how the family is, it’s because they really want to know. In other words, you have to earn a relationship in France. If that’s rude, so be it.
No idea how that one came about. The only, rare women I’ve ever known who didn’t shave their legs were British, and believe me, I look at women’s legs.
A total mystery. Almost every American with whom I’ve discussed this topic is absolutely certain that the French all love Jerry Lewis. I’ve lived in France for over twenty years; I’ve never known the television to air a single Jerry Lewis movie. When I tell the French that Americans believe they all love Jerry Lewis there are inevitably only two responses: either who? Or why? I have to shrug.
Some French do know who he is, but some French know who Burgess Meredith is as well. I have a theory—Jerry Lewis received the Legion d’Honneur, which is an award the French give to just about anyone vaguely successful who asks. I believe he received it for his work with muscular dystrophy, and there is a major telethon in France every year that I think has something to do with his. I also seem to remember that Lewis himself is a Francophile and has undoubtedly has talked proudly of his Legion d’Honneur (the man has reason to be proud, he’s done wonderful things for charity). I can only assume that this somehow got all mixed up in the rumor mill at some unspecified time in the past to mean that the French loved his movies.
On the other hand, it’s absolutely true that the French love Woody Allen. Or, at least, that his movies tend to do better in France, all proportions preserved, than in the United States. I kind of like that, but then I’m from New York.
This one’s true. The French do eat snails. They’re very good. Italians eat them as well, for that matter. You may find this disgusting, but let’s remember that insects are eaten in a number of places (I’ve eaten a few) and the Chinese eat sea slugs. They call them “sea cucumbers”, but the cucumbers in my fridge don’t slither around. Nor do they have wobbly, protruding warts.
Cheese-eating surrender monkeys
The first part is certainly true, the French eat a lot of cheese. Traditionally, cheese is served at the end of every meal (just before desert). De Gaulle once famously said: “How can you govern a country with 246 varieties of cheese?” He should know, he tried to govern it. Churchill, however, once said, “A country producing almost 360 different types of cheese cannot die.” He should know: he tried to govern De Gaulle. In reality, there are now over a thousand varieties of French cheese, because they keep on making up new ones.
The surrender thing is trickier (and I won’t talk about calling people monkeys). Yes, the French surrendered in 1940, once their country was overrun. No, they didn’t last long against the Nazis. I’d point out that they still lost more people in that war than did either the UK or the United States, but that’s not the point. The French still are grateful to the Americans for coming to liberate their country, but let’s get over it, shall we? Americans have certainly gotten over their gratitude to the French for having assured the success of the American revolution. Both were some time ago. In the meantime, most people outside of the States no longer measure their pride in tanks and in the number of third-world nations defeated from the air. Remember as well that France lost one in six of its male population in the first world war, a war that was fought on its soil, and that devastated its cities. This is a level of suffering that, thankfully, the United States has never had to endure, and they, as well as many other continental nations, have become largely immune to the clarion call. Such sentiments have led to too much bloodshed in the past.
They don’t wave flags, believing, as the late, regretted George Carlin said: “Flags are symbols, and should be left to the symbol-minded.” When all is said and done, they’d rather watch a Jerry Lewis movie.