What is culture? What is truth?

I hear it all too often, more than I can count actually: “What are the major differences between the United States and France?” To be quite honest, I get sick of hearing this question, feeling like a broken record, constantly on repeat. My first response to this question is always “In what aspects? What would you like to know about?” Of course, this tends to be met with an even more frustrating, “you know, like, the big differences.” What? haha.

It must be stated that any given culture (or two cultures) cannot necessarily be broken down in simply comparing the two in terms of two to four different aspects. As I was talking to my student about this earlier this evening, culture is a very complex thing, and talking about culture is even more complex because generalizing about culture can be a very dangerous thing that can lead to stereotypes, misunderstandings, and fragmented perceptions. However, on the other hand of that (and something that I have to keep in mind when I teach about culture in the conversation classes that I teach) is the fact that generalizing is almost a necessity when you begin any conversation about culture. You have to start somewhere, right? The complexities of studying and teaching culture. It’s a love/hate relationship.

This question is becoming increasingly annoying for me but also increasingly necessary. You can’t exactly say to someone who doesn’t study language and culture intensively or who doesn’t have it operate as the center of their career “you know, language and culture can’t and really won’t ever be able to be broken down so easily as such.” When people hear about your travel or expat experiences, they want tangible and easily accessible responses and stories. *sigh* If only it were that easy….then again I don’t think I’d love it as much if it were.

My time living in France has led me more to understand my own culture than it has led me to understand the French culture in some ways, but it’s also led me to become more confused about my own culture in other ways, not to mention that each time that I’ve lived in France I’ve had different experiences. The France I experienced while I was living in a city of about 35,000 people while only working about 12 hours a week and spending most of my free time with friends (most of whom were also expats) is quite different from the France I’m experiencing here in Paris, a city of over 2 million people that’s highly international, where I not only work with students from all over (about a quarter to half of my students aren’t even French) but also take classes at a university that welcomes a myriad of international professors and students. Both of these experiences have shown me major (and minor) cultural differences that have changed my perspectives (and they continue to change), which is another reason why I hate this question. The differences will vary according to the environment and the experience and how you define “culture” and “differences.”

Now, I’m not trying to lose you here by delving into this long-drawn out philosophy of “what is culture?” much like if I were to ask you “what is truth?”. Though I’d be happy to lose my mind with you tackling such questions, I think I’ll save that for another day.

However, all that to say, I think that it is important to at least start the cultural conversation. However, like I said to my student, my opinion is only that, my opinion, that I’ve formulated from my experiences, my perceptions, and my studies. Even how I perceive my own culture is skewed by the fact that I grew up in a conservative, country town in the Midwest as opposed to a bustling, liberal city in the West and have also lived abroad and traveled to a few different places coming into contact with a variety of peoples. I’m not French, and I’m not an expert. I am American, but I’m also not an expert on a country that has 50 states, spans an entire continent, and has over 300 million people.

So, really what are the differences between the French and Americans? *She asks herself as she rolls her eyes and takes a deep sigh answering with a* “Well, if I had to break down two cultures to such simple terms, I suppose I would say the following: the two major differences I’ve noticed between these two cultures (mostly because they’ve either negatively or positively impacted my life in major ways) are the differences in the implicit/explicit nature of communication and personal responsibility and the differences between the failure/winner (what I also like to call the blunt/sugarcoated) mentality.”

In France, I found that information is usually relayed implicitly. That means that a lot of things are never said out loud (explicitly). They are kind of just understood. Coming from an Anglophone culture, this was very hard for me to adjust to. Actually, if I’m being honest, I’m still adjusting to it. I really do still struggle with it. In the States, it is assumed that information cannot possibly be known unless you explicitly relay it to someone. For example, when you start a new job or at a new school, you are given every tiny detail of information that you could possibly need. This mentality infiltrates every aspect of our society, much like the inverse does the same for France. So, if I would need any information here in France, I would have to directly ask for it myself (and usually multiple people). It is assumed you know or understand something unless you specifically state that you don’t know and end up asking for it. This sort of implicit mentality doesn’t just apply to information, it also applies to a sense of responsibility. Information isn’t only implicit, thus assumed/just known, it’s also in a sense of responsibility that things are assumed/known as well. What I mean by this is that people here (and of course, I’m generalizing, which I hate doing, but again, we have to start somewhere) assume that they don’t need to know or to do anything about something unless someone makes an explicit fuss about it. This ties into personal responsibility in the sense that people just assume that things just aren’t their problem or their responsibility unless someone goes to great lengths to point out that it is.

This sort of implicit nature means that people generally are more self-sufficient and independent, however, the very downside and extremely frustrating side to that is that when you are looking for information, you might have to go on a hunt and might end up talking to three to five different people to finally get the answers you need. Often times, people assume things aren’t their responsibility, and this mentality bleeds into every aspect of their culture. So, things tend to be (from my perspective as an American) quite disorganized, illogical, confusing, and much more complicated than they need to be. However, things somehow still manage to get done/taken care of (whether or not they get done when they say they will be done is a whole other story). So, obviously, something is working for them. I ask myself how almost every day, especially when I’ve even had French people admit to me that they experience frustrations because of this. Yet, they don’t do anything about it. I suppose it’s just so much in their culture that changing it would be much more difficult and too foreign to even try. But what is a culture without some flaws? Especially because if we look at our incessant need to have all the information all the time in the United States and how neurotic and stressed out that can make us, I think we could use a bit of this illogical and disorganized culture to help us chill out a little bit. It definitely has helped me in doing so. It’s also made me much more self-sufficient and independent.

The other major cultural difference that I would note is this sort of failure/winner (sugarcoated/blunt) mentality. Like with the previous difference noted, this mentality is spread throughout all aspects of French society. However, it is most apparent in education. In the United States, our education system (as well as anything tied to it) is set up in a way that we can seemingly achieve perfection/praise at all times. I like to call this the “participation ribbon” mentality. One example, where I get my personal name for it from, is in sports, where we see that even when a team loses a game, they are congratulated on playing well and/or get a participation ribbon. This is also especially noticeable in a our school’s grading systems. It is not only possible to achieve 100% in any given class, but you can also get a grade above that if you receive extra credit. This would never happen in France. “What even is extra credit?” is more likely to happen.

In France, they have a grading system out of 20 points. However, it is virtually impossible to get anything higher than 17 or 18 points (and that’s only if you did phenomenally well). In fact, as I’ve explained on this blog before, in my classes, which I grade out of 10 points, even if a student has done extremely well and done everything I’ve asked of them, I would give them an 8 and only rarely a 9 (if they’ve blown my mind), never, ever a 10. In fact, in our training, we were basically told to never give out ten and to be very critical of even giving 9s and 8s. This is because in France, there’s no such thing as perfection. It’s impossible to achieve perfection. So, it will never happen. You can always improve.

This first time I ever came to France, my first grade ever received was an 11 out of 20. I felt like a complete failure, because what I had known from my own culture, it would have been a failing grade. However, I’ve come to find out that 11/12 out of 20 is not only the norm but also expected and generally considered as doing decently well. It would be like if I were achieving a B in my own American classes.

Though this mentality shows up mainly in education, like everything, it’s a part of the entire culture, especially when it comes to bluntness. The French thick so critically and believe so strongly that you can’t be perfect and that you can always improve that they are not afraid to tell you how they really feel or what they really think. They will be blunt with you. They will tell you when you are wrong and not be afraid to do so, and as opposed to American culture, this is not considered rude. In fact, it’s considered completely normal, and it’s welcomed, most of the time, as opposed to the States where being blunt is seen as being rude and overly critical.

For me, this mentality has only helped me, because even though it can be overwhelming at first, it has taught me that I’m not any less valuable or smart or capable just because I’m wrong and I’m not perfect. In fact, it’s the opposite, I feel even more capable because being wrong means I can only get better. I haven’t plateaued in my abilities, if you will.

Whereas, I strongly feel that Americans could really do with a heavy dose of such a mentality. Being here for this long has shown me that because of this “participation ribbon” mindset, Americans have no idea how to be wrong, and even worse, struggle immensely with critical thinking and speaking. This can be shown in all sorts of aspects of our societies, especially very serious aspects, such as in politics. In the realm of politics, disagreements of ideas and beliefs turns out more to be a game of who can win over whom rather than a fruitful exchange of ideas that can lead to understanding, and eventually and hopefully, improvement of a given situation. No, Americans can’t handle being wrong and dealing with failure so much that we cause divisions between ourselves and would rather remain ignorant and retain our pride and apparent “perfection and sense of success” rather than actually learning and growing as individuals and as a society.

Because we also don’t like being told we are wrong, we don’t like to tell people they are wrong, because we don’t want to hurt their feelings and cause tensions in relationships. It makes me question how many actual genuine and real relationships Americans have. This is why I call it the sugarcoated mentality, because we sugarcoat everything. We try to maintain friendliness and politeness at all times, so we avoid being blunt and being 100% honest. This mentally alway kind of irked me even before I moved to France (because it just doesn’t feel right to me), but being here for this long makes me feel like I can’t sugarcoat things anymore. I just find it to be a barrier between people and learning and growing than serving any real purpose. I find that it only takes away from relationships rather than adding to them.

However, the good thing about this mentality is that Americans have this incredible belief that they can do and achieve anything if they work hard enough for it. It’s the working hard enough for it part, though, where I feel that most Americans fail. Despite that though, personally, I can recognize that it is because of this sense of ability to achieve anything and everything and that perfection is attainable that I have come to be such a go-getter in some ways. I suppose I must recognize that it is from this mentality that I can thank for me being here, writing these words, from one of the most vibrant cities in the world.

Additionally, the French mentality can also be bad. Since perfection is not possible, many times students will go through their whole school careers constantly being told they are wrong and that they will never be 100% right. Unfortunately, this may make some people feel like they are never good enough and that they will never be good enough. So, they give up. I see this in a handful of my students who just don’t try in my class because they don’t see the point, despite the fact that not trying is only perpetuating the cycle.

 

So there you have it. If I had to choose the major differences, it would be these two. But something that is important to keep in mind is that the more I learn about culture, the more I realize how much more there is to learn and how wrong I can absolutely be. As much as we can try our best to divide cultures into categories and labels and try to make sense of it all, the complexities of culture will always be influenced by the nature of humanity itself: complex, difficult to define, and varying depending on the perception, the circumstances, the group, the individual, the beliefs, the list goes on…

So, culture is then much like truth. My sense of culture is like my sense of truth. It’s not going to be that of everyone, and it’s very dependent on my experiences.

 

 

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