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February 4, 2010

Being Fierce About What You Believe In: France and the US in Contrast
FILED UNDER: "Academialand"
TAGS: AmericansFrancegraduate schoolindividualismUniversity of Michigan
By Max

Oh, Trevi! Your post on how annoying it is to have to decipher the sense of the word "problematic" when it is actually used as one of these hypocritical detours to express a disagreement in a gentle, almost clandestine way, reminded me of a cultural gap between French and American people in terms of holding a conversation and expressing oneself publicly.

Of course these are only my subjective thoughts, based on just four years spent in the golden cage of Ann Arbor, Michigan, so who I am to speak in the name of French people and to make some highly disputable generalizations about American folks? Well, this previous statement is actually symptomatic of what I want to share with you: the need to put some rhetorical lube before expressing a personal opinion so that, in case of a debate, or a disagreement, I already anticipate a space for modifying my opinion and reaching an agreement - and saving my ass.

I noticed this tendency, in America, to be careful when you are about to speak up your mind. You are encouraged to be sincere, of course, but people tend to formulate their opinions with a rhetoric that reflects flexibility and humble skepticism. In my experience, the American conversation relies on the use of conditional -- like "I would say" or "I would think" -- or the seemingly ever-recurring "maybes" and euphemistic expressions (the word "problematic" is one of these euphemisms). That's what I call "rhetorical lube." You don't want to hurt anyone's feelings by expressing yourself. Rather, you want to make sure you're still being seen as a sociable, smiling, constructive person. A "team player."

Thinking about this rhetoric, and contrasting it with the way French people tend to express themselves, I was struck by a cultural gap. In France, we tend to be much more explicit than American people, straight to the point, without fear of inciting an intense conversation or an argument. When you look for a job in France, you do not have to prove how sociable and friendly you can be, how compatible you are with many different kinds of people, and how careful you are to respect everyone's sensibility. In other words, you are expected to be polite, but you are also expected to have a personality and not to fear conflict when defending your beliefs. In America, people tend to be careful to avoid personal conflicts. They do their best to avoid being labeled "defensive" because others might perceive them as deviating from the politically correct, mainstream, and utterly safe opinions that circulate in everyday life.

That's when it becomes more than just an issue of rhetoric. Let me articulate here a political interpretation on why would French people be less concerned about conflicts, about being loud on their beliefs, whereas Americans would tend to value courteous dialogue and constructive behavior. I propose that, more than just a matter of different rhetorical styles, these differences have political roots. In France, even if you're a poor worker, you can still rely on the nanny state in terms of having access to a free, high quality health system. And if you think you were fired for unfair reasons, you can rely on the free Prud'hommes system in order to sue your boss and reclaim a compensation for any abuse of power. The same for education: you don't have to plan a huge budget for your kids because in France most of the schools, including the most prestigious and elitist ones, are not expensive and do not select their students by the financial profile of their parents.

Of course I am not convinced myself by what I wrote (Bourdieu would spit on my face), France is far from being a paradise, deficits are huge and nobody seems to be willing to quote us as a model. On top of that I came to the University of Michigan to start a PhD precisely because the conditions for studying and the resources here are just outstanding, so let me rephrase my opinion in a less stereotypical way: in spite of all the drawbacks of the French nanny state, of all the big lies on the French egalitarian system in terms of education and public health insurance, it still remains obvious than French people, in comparison to American people, are not afraid of being often on strike, of suing their bosses, and of having a big argument in public when they feel they are right!

I want to interpret this as the political consequence of knowing that, in case of cancer, or of unemployment, you know you can rely on the nanny state for support. On the contrary, I think that if Americans are so concerned about being seen as sociable and not defensive, it is because in their contemporary society, they can only rely on themselves and think twice before taking a risk. You live constantly on loans. We don't. You have to deal with an army of lawyers to protect yourself or attack the others, we don't. That is a big, huge, significant difference. You have much more to lose when you rely on yourself, so you think twice before speaking up your mind. And the Fox News constant brainwashing on "don't forget to live with fear" does not help at all. It only confirms the dynamics of a safe, selfish individualism!

But let me end on this note, and this is my outing as a socialist here: self made men do exist, and yes they are wonderful role models. But they belong to the happy few, and their success story should never be a pretext to legitimize the absence of a basic, financial support from the Nation in the name of social justice and, as we say in France, fraternité. So God Bless America, and those who want to change it radically!

PERMALINK | Posted at 1:01 PM | Post a Comment (2)

2 Comments

While I was doing research in Japan, my host made the exact same observation about Americans. I explained to him that our "rhetorical lube" is just our form of "politeness," which is no different than the funny bows and other customary things they do to show "politeness" in Japan. He understood my answer because they value politeness in Japan.

Another fact is that highly educated Americans don't want to look like uneducated Christian fundamentalists, such as Republican Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin, who frequently make emotional and dogmatic statements that are either false or not provable.

Author Profile Page Thomas Kraemer User Profile | February 4, 2010 7:04 PM

You might be able to find a parallel cultural situation to France in classical Athens, where there was a similar social support system for the economically disadvantaged (the poor, orphans, women without surviving male relations).

Do you think the difference between French and English in marking politeness (I mean of course vous vs. tu) might play a role?

Author Profile Page paterconfessor User Profile | February 13, 2010 11:24 AM


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