11 February 2006

Maybe I AM a geographer after all!

My latest acquisition from the library is a book called Sixty Million Frenchmen Can't Be Wrong by Jean-Benoît Nadeau and Julie Barlow. The authors' purpose is to explain why the French are the way they are, using the question that I've been pondering recently of why "we" love France but not the French.

So far, I can't decide if I like the book or not. I've read chapters one through six, and only found one particularly provocative idea thus far. Before I get to it, though, I have to share some of the background information that led up to it:

"[W]e read an excellent book on French-American cultural differences called Cultural Misunderstandings, by French ethnologist Raymonde Carroll. ... She says the typical American couple seeks to display harmony. American spouses rarely contradict each other in public, but instead try to show support for one another. Arguing and criticizing one another in public is regarded as distasteful, if not dysfynctional. It's something you do in private.

"The French expect exactly the opposite: there's something wrong with a couple that doesn't contradict one another in public and constantly displays harmony. In their minds, a relationship should be strong enough to withstand differences, which are only normal in a couple. All the better if differences are displayed in public with wit and spirit--it makes conversation more interesting. It's not that French spouses disagree all the time and that Anglo-Americans never argue. The behavior is just restricted to different spheres (43-44)."

I think that this assessment of American couples culture is dead-on. It is most certainly a bad idea to call your spouse out in front of other people in the US -- definitely a way to end up in the proverbial dog house! Plus, we tend to feel very uncomfortable when another couple has an argument in front of us, as if we're witnessing something that we shouldn't be.

As for the French side, it's tougher for me to verify because my French is not strong enough to have first-hand information. I can say, however, that I've read this "theory" in many different books on French culture, so I think there is at least some truth to it. With that assumption in mind, here is the point that I found interesting in this book:

"Americans are definitely irked by the French habit of contesting the United States on every issue, but what really bugs the French is that the Americans seem to expect everyone to agree in every instance. We started to wonder if Raymonde Carroll's theory of couples' behavior didn't also apply to France and the Unites State's [sic] on the international stage. Americans want nothing more than a perfect show of harmony among allies. The French think that if the relationship is strong enough, it should be able to withstand strong differences in public (45)."

I definitely agree that Americans want a unified public front among its allies. If you have disagreements, that's OK: but work them out privately, so that we look strong to others. Need proof? Look no further than the familiar patriotic phrase, "United we stand, divided we fall." The message is clear. We have to come together on major issues in order to succeed.

So, maybe France's dissention with US policies, when viewed through a different cultural lens, should actually be viewed as a compliment. The French believe our relationship is strong enough to withstand public disagreement. So, from the French perspective, we have a healthy relationship! How about that? It's food for thought, anyway.

On the flip side for this book, I found chapter two, "The Land on their Mind," to be very disappointing. The basic assertion of the chapter is that the French are closely tied to the land, i.e. they have an attachment to their land. But what do they mean by this? What kind of attachment? What does "land" really mean to the French? What is their relationship with it? All I could think of was William Cronon's book Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England. He did such a great job of explaining how the colonists viewed land as something to be improved through intensive cultivation and development, and that, in turn, they viewed the Native Americans as lazy and irresponsible for not using the land appropriately (by the colonists' definition). It's been a while since I've read this book, so I don't remember all of the details very well anymore. But, you really got a strong sense of how the European colonists felt like stewards of the land, and as such felt a moral responsibility to improve it as part of their intrinsic role as civilized human beings.

But, there is no explanation along these lines for the French connection to the land thus far. The authors mention that farming activities are extremely important, but they don't talk about how the "peasants" (a supposedly complimentary term in France) view their relationship with the land itself. Do they want to live in harmony with nature? Do they believe it is their destiny to improve the land? Does Mother Nature reign supreme, or can mankind tame her? What is the root explanation for the French attachment to "terroir"?

After rolling these questions and others around in my head for a few minutes, something became crystal clear to me. I was asking the questions that geographers ask! A lot of people take time off to "find themselves" by traveling through Europe, and amazingly, I may have just done that today.

Holy crap. I might actually be a geographer after all.


At 12/2/06 04:53, Blogger Linda said...

Hmmm, this sounds like a very insightful author. I'll bet that our outward attempts to appear harmonious seem fake and cowardly to the French. If so, no wonder they get so worked up about us...and vice versa. In my experience, it is ALWAYS a good idea to give the other side the benefit of the doubt. No one thinks they are an ass. We all have reasons for our behavior, that are justified somehow in our brains. Amazingly, however, I never really thought of this in a global way. What a good thought to roll around...THANKS!!


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