Comparing U.S. and French Culture: Observations from the Ground

I couldn’t wait to experience French culture myself: Is the food really that good? Are the government policies really that backwards? Is it really anti-business? Are the women really all skinny? Are they really not friendly to tourists? Are the cafes really as central to the Parisian street as they say? Are the people as intellectual and artistically gifted as some say? Are their French Fries as tasty as America’s Freedom Fries? The French like to think of themselves as exceptional. Because of the extraordinary people I was fortunate to meet and stay with, even for a short period of time, I believe I can paint some reasonably accurate observations and contrasts about the French mentality and culture.

In Loire Valley I stayed at the home of a businessperson, psychologist, author of a book on U.S./France differences, and owner of a successful consulting company which sends executives from large companies from all over the world to visit companies and cultures all over the world. His wife is an academic. They both have spent 20+ years living in America, despite both being born in France. So combined they posses tremendous insight on the differences. In Versailles I stayed with the former President of Vivendi International Games division and his family. He’s an executive who’s worked around the world. In Paris I stayed with an experienced management executive and his family, who’s worked with international colleagues inside his multinational corporation. Obviously there is selection bias in this sample so I am not saying it’s representative. But it’s what I heard.

Big Conclusion #1: France has a rich culture and history. It’s a physically and intellectually beautiful place: home to hills and castles, philosophers and art.

Big Conclusion #2: Absent a revolution or major reform, France will not have a relevant future. Thus, there will be a revolution in the next 15 years.

Characteristics of French culture that may hinder future growth:

  • Culture of “being” and not “doing.” Work is not seen as more admirable than not working.

  • Implicit over explicit. Context is important. Part of the intellectual workout is figuring out hidden meanings. This may be “fun” but wreaks chaos in a business environment. (Not only in French; Irish language built like this too)

  • Ideas can be more important than facts. The problem can be more interesting than finding a solution. (French business meetings 3/4 time on problem, US/UK business meetings 3/4 time on solution.)

  • “Win-win” doesn’t exist. If you win, it’s at somebody else’s expense.

  • Socialism: entitlement spending out of control, young people feel entitled to government services without giving back anything, centralized state-run universities are low quality, state-controlled labor system perverts incentives for employers, high wealth taxes drives out rich people and employers, and so forth.

  • Community and society – government tentacles are so ubiquitous that “society” never really starts. The idea of “community” doesn’t exist in French culture. The word “community” translated has a negative connotation.

  • The epistemology of the word “work” in French is “torture”

  • Young people don’t think about success as much. In a survey, 70% of French youth said they’d like to work for the government, ie a job for life with little risktaking.

  • The high bar to be considered a true French citizen and unemployment makes successful immigration integration a challenge.

  • Confrontation (frank feedback) and intellectual diversity discouraged. Most boardrooms and executive suites filled with people with similar degrees from same schools who think the same way.

  • Loss of faith in political system. Many told me, “We need a hero who can reform this. It will take a real hero. A Margret Thatcher.”

Elements of French culture that may help it survive:

  • Intellectual vigor and creativity – both held in high esteem

  • The world “entrepreneur” is French – so they have to understand the concept…somewhere

  • Lesson of humility: young people grow up surrounded by Renaissance art and see their challenger. American young people create cheap pop culture whereas French youth surrounded by higher aesthetic standard.

  • Immense history: can learn from its past

  • Design: a fine eye for aesthetic and culinary standard.

France is a great place to visit – indeed, a must visit – and would be a great place to retire. But right now I wouldn’t want to study or work in France. I hope the French people — who, contrary to what I was told, struck me as friendly and helpful even to an English speaking tourist — will debate the potentially perilous future of their country. And I hope during reform, they work to maintain the best of French culture while modernizing their economic and political instruments.

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