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.

18 comments on “Comparing U.S. and French Culture: Observations from the Ground
  • Ben, I’d be wary of throwing around words like “perilous” and begin rethinking your definition of “success” for a nation. I’m not necessarily questioning your observations on a matter-of-fact basis; for all I know, they could be spot-on. However, the values you hold as an American should be scrutinized in an of themselves.

    A quick example: you seem to hold capitalistic success and financial profit as inherently good. That is, a country’s overall quality is defined by the possibility of financial success. Other circumstances outside of or beyond these considerations are corolary, at best. The French, it seems, do not conform to these standards.

    For you personally, this places the US high above the French in terms of “cultural success” (or whatever you’d like to call it). But consider some other things: rates of depression in the US are some of the highest worldwide (which may, in fact, be a function of our obsession with work and money-making). Many US children graduating high school in the next several years will not be able to competently read or write in their native language. In addition, the average US citizen will leave an ecological footprint much larger than a citizen of any other nation in the world. Nevermind the staggering rate of gun and youth violence that plagues our country.

    In short, I’m questioning your criterion of success and well-being. Economics, relatively easy to measure compared to other standards of culture, is not always the best way to view a culture’s success and may, in fact, blind us to the real problems that we should be thinking about. I’d like to see your considerations of other circumstances and see how you address them when comparing two cultures.

  • What Jesse said. Though I would also stress that I really appreciate how you think and observe, Ben.

    Also, re:
    Implicit over explicit. Context is important. Part of the intellectual workout is figuring out hidden meanings. This may be โ€œfunโ€ but wreaks chaos in a business environment

    This would also be an excellent description of Japanese culture — in fact, specifically, of Japanese business culture. Yet they seem to have done pretty well in business.

  • Jesse, Ben:

    Can you make explicit the criteria you use to judge the success or failure of a culture? I’d be curious how your criteria differ or are similar.

    Also, any commentary on how France’s obsession with blogging will or will not help prompt change?

  • I have a viewpoint along the same lines. I have been to France twice, and while I didn’t get a chance to have in-depth conversations with the same kind of high-level businesspeople/intellectuals while there (you are really lucky btw) I formulated a similar viewpoint. It seemed to be that society as a whole sincerly valued innovation, but didn’t value the work/preperation needed to achieve innovation.

    The feeling I got was you would be celebrated for creating a successful new thing (product/company/idea/piece of art) but not until it was successful. This seemed to inspire a fear of failure, a “why risk failure if we probably won’t be successful” attitude.

    In the valley it seems that simply trying to innovate gets acknowledgement. You get much more celebration for being successful, but trying is seen as a worthwhile venture.

    I don’t think eithier you or I have a really “expert” view of the situation, but that’s the conclusion I drew in regards to economic success in the region. I loved the cultural highlights available (espicially in Paris).

    I don’t see a revolution occuring in the next 15 years. I don’t even really see a reform happening. I’m frightened that the people might fall into a pattern of apathy. I’d be curious to hear what gave you the impression of a coming revolution in a bit more detail, and I hope you’re right because it would be very nice to see France become an serious player in the world market.

  • Chiming in to joing Jesse. Work is not everything. I’d imagine they value quality of life more – why work so hard if you can’t experience life in the process?

    Is “constantly working” a marker for success? Should it? Should our lives revolve around how rich we are, how high up the scales we are?

    The feeling I got was you would be celebrated for creating a successful new thing (product/company/idea/piece of art) but not until it was successful. This seemed to inspire a fear of failure, a “why risk failure if we probably won’t be successful” attitude.

    I don’t really think so. For one thing, how do they define “successful”? Their standards might be different. Also, it enourages creation; people aren’t paralysed by the need to succeed, they’re motivated.

  • thanks for the comments guys. I’m at an airport so can’t type much. I reccomend to Jesse and Steve the book “The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth.” Just read an abstract, the whole book is thick and meaty. It’s been embraced by liberals and conservatives alike.

    The active French blogosphere is a very bright sign. It’s individuals finding their OWN voice.

  • Tiara, I’ve heard of Friedman’s book–thanks for the reminder. Most criticisms I’ve heard levelled against it are in relation to his seeming ignorance of the Great Depression. From the Amazon review, it appears as if China’s model doesn’t do much to help his theory, either.

    That said–and in response to Mr. Silberman–I’m not comfortable positing any criterion for positive cultural growth. I think a culture’s consciousness has a lot to do with the successes that will rocket it into a global position, if that makes sense. Regardless, I have a sense that America’s obsession with economics is not good for us. Backing that up, however, is nearly impossible.

  • I absolutely agree with Ben’s post. I am a French citizen and I have immigrated to … Canada for most of the reasons you can read in this post.

    To give more context to this comment, I am a CEO of a software company and the author of “Managing Collective Intelligence, Towards A New Corporate Governance”; free download of this book in English version:

    France is a good place for tourism, retirement or governement’s employees.

  • Ben,

    I think you’d find the book “Sixty Million Frenchmen Can’t Be Wrong: Why We Love France but Not the French” interesting. I suggest you read it.


  • Returning to Jesse’s comment, and others who agreed, I got the impression that Ben wasn’t necessarily saying that America’s “capitalistic” and “profit” driven system is inherently better or worse than France’s system (which appears to have a better balance between work and life).

    I think rather, the point is that if France wishes to provide the current level of social benefits to all its citizens, it will need to change its culture in a way that makes it more accomodative to economic growth so that they can support the financial burden of providing these social benefits.

    I think the values France supports are excellent, but it appears to be up to debate whether or not they can sustain their system going forward, no?

  • Hi there everyone! I got here by chance and then couldn’t stop reading until I found this post about US and French Cultures. Very interesting indeed! Thought of saying thanks Ben for creating this unusual blog which hopefully will lead me to more unusual blogs. I had almost given up my search for blogs other than personal ones so I am really pleased I found yours -I will definitely keep an eye on it from now on! Thanks also to the rest of bloggers: your comments are packed with information! How am I going to make my mind up?? I think I will start with “Sixty Million Frenchmen Can’t Be Wrong: Why We Love France but Not the French” recommended by Olivier Zara. I also feel sorely tempted to have a look at your blogs although just reading Ben’s will probably take me a month! You seem to be a very active blogger, Ben!

    Anyway, hope you’re all having a good summer. I am. Mediterranean weather and French cuisine, what else can I ask for? ๐Ÿ˜‰

    Take care!

  • Oops, I just realized “Sixty Million Frenchmen Can’t Be Wrong: Why We Love France but Not the French” was recommended by Scott Kidder rather than Olivier Zara. I will read it anyway ๐Ÿ˜‰

  • The word “challenge” has no true french equivalent. I found the comparison pretty much spot-on.

    As a French, I find it very surprising that someone would insist on focusing on our well-being as an argument in favor of France compared to pretty much any developped country. Our police and justice systems are in shambles and don’t even provide basic service anymore. Fiscal pressure has increased beyond sanity (in the recent years people hardly over poverty threshold have started being subjected to infamous “wealth tax”). People have the least confidence in things improving, of all Europe. There are almost a million homeless, 7.5 million people in immediate danger of social exclusion, even I have been homeless and jobless for 6 months right after getting my engineer degree. Cost of living is high, buying power is waning, the media are on government life-support and censors itself for fear of retaliation. People here hate working, I read that we have the most fear and hatred of jobplace of all european countries. Also, something you won’t find easily is the true unemployment rate: that’s 27%

    And they don’t make my breakfast cereals of choice anymore >:[

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