Cultural Misunderstandings: The French-American Experienceby Raymonde Carroll
Raymonde Carroll presents an intriguing and thoughtful analysis of the many ways French and Americans—and indeed any members of different cultures—can misinterpret each other, even when ostensibly speaking the same language. Cultural misunderstandings, Carroll points out, can arise even where we least expect them—in our closest relationships. The
Raymonde Carroll presents an intriguing and thoughtful analysis of the many ways French and Americans—and indeed any members of different cultures—can misinterpret each other, even when ostensibly speaking the same language. Cultural misunderstandings, Carroll points out, can arise even where we least expect them—in our closest relationships. The revealing vignettes that Carroll relates, and her perceptive comments, bring to light some fundamental differences in French and American presuppositions about love, friendship, and raising children, as well as such everyday activities as using the telephone or asking for information.
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The French-American Experience
By Raymonde Carroll, Carol Volk
The University of Chicago PressCopyright © 1988 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
Several years ago, an American anthropologist returning from France, where he had spent the summer on his way back from Africa, told me that what had really struck him was the distrustfulness of the French, who always kept their shutters closed. Just the idea of shutters ... They made the streets particularly gloomy, as if the villages were uninhabited, or as if people were spying on you from behind them (This anthropologist did not do research in France.)
When my mother came to visit me in the United States, she liked the style of American houses, the way they stood separate from each other, the big lawns, the architectural diversity, the space. One day, we were quietly seated in the living room when she suddenly became aware of the large bay window and, visibly shocked, said to me, "My goodness, you live in the street!" And I understood exactly what she was feeling. It took me years to get used to "living in the street." And when I stroll around my neighborhood in the evening, I am still somewhat surprised at being able to see right into each home. People read, watch television, throw parties, eat dinner, do the dishes, or whatever without closing their drapes, and they are apparently not the least bit bothered by the possibility of a stranger's eyes peering into their lives. And even today, I'm the one who always closes the drapes in our home, much to the amusement of my American husband.
The lawns surrounding American houses display this same refusal to separate the street and the house. In certain American cities the sidewalk itself disappears, the lawn ends where the street begins, and the owner of the house is responsible for its upkeep (as he or she would be for the upkeep of the sidewalk). Space substitutes for walls, railings, or fences, which are sometimes replaced by bushes or trees. But the cutoff point is not clearly defined. Thus, in spring and summer, it is common to see passing strollers sit awhile on your lawn to rest, without, however, going beyond an implicit limit. Backyards and gardens blend into each other in certain small American cities, but more often they are separated by low hedges, across which neighbors exchange produce from their gardens or simply chat. According to an old American tradition, when a family moves into a neighborhood the neighbors immediately come to welcome them, bringing hot coffee and cakes. I benefited from this type of welcome in two different cities, each with over one hundred thousand inhabitants. (I'm speaking here about moving into houses, not apartments.)
We can therefore understand an American's surprise when faced with the walls, gates, shutters, and drawn curtains that "protect" French houses, as well as the uneasiness of a French person before these "open" American houses. But these differences do not really cause any problems. It is inside the house that blunders or misunderstandings have a greater chance of arising.
Dick and Jill are invited to dinner at Pierre and Jeanne's. The conversation becomes lively during cocktails. Pierre speaks enthusiastically about a book he thinks would interest Dick a great deal. He has it fact, and goes to look for it in his study. He is taken aback, as he heads toward the room, when he realizes that Dick is following him. Jeanne goes to the kitchen to check if something is burning. She is just as taken aback when she sees Jill walk in right behind her. Jill offers to help. "No, no thank you, everything is ready ..." Or at the end of the meal, Jill gets up to clear the table and carries the dishes into the kitchen, or else Dick offers to do the dishes. Pierre and Jeanne protest; if they are unfamiliar with American habits, they might very well consider Jill and Dick to be "intrusive" or "inconsiderate," or they might be "ashamed" that Dick or Jill has seen the rooms "in a terrible mess." ("But what could I do? I wasn't expecting him to follow me all over the house, I didn't know how to stop him.") In fact, it would have sufficed to say "I'll be back in a minute" for Dick not to have gotten up, for him not to have felt obliged to accompany Pierre because Pierre was going out of his way for him.
French people are often surprised when, the first time they enter an American home, their hosts show them around the house, and they interpret this as "showing off." Without excluding this possibility, it is important to understand that an American considers this an attempt to make you "feel at home" by immediately giving you an opportunity to orient yourself, so to speak. Thus, instead of taking your coat when you arrive at a party, the host will show you in which bedroom and on what floor "the coats go." This, among other things, allows you to check your hair, or whatever you like, in the bathroom mirror next door. And if the party is a success, it will spill over into every room on the ground floor, with a definite preference for the kitchen. Guests serve themselves at the bar set up for the occasion (unless the party is more "formal"), help themselves to beer from the refrigerator—in short, they try hard to do as much as they can by themselves so as not to "bother" their host, who also has a right to have fun. This means that the cupboards and drawers are likely to be opened and closed freely, which would give French people the sense that they were being "intruded upon" or that their guests had "been all over the place."
These few examples, and there are many others, already show how different the relationship to the home is in these two cultures.
A French informant told me that he had never entered the kitchen at his grandmother's house, where he ate lunch once a week, until she became very old and less mobile and resigned herself to sending him to get things from the kitchen during meals. While the division between public and private is clearly marked outside the house by its division from the street, thanks to the walls, gates, and drawn curtains mentioned earlier, it is not so clearly marked inside the French home. But the dividing line, though implicit, exists just the same.
One can, in fact, determine the degree of intimacy between two people if one knows to which rooms one person has access in the other's house. The unknown person, the stranger, stays at the door. The next step consists in access to the foyer, then to the living room, then to the dining room (and, if need be, to the toilet). Many visitors will never go any further. A child's friends may have access to the room of that child, as well as to the kitchen for something to drink or for a snack, if they are regular guests in the house. The bathroom, which is separate from the toilet, is off-limits and is reserved for those who could be invited to spend the night. The refrigerator, the closets and the drawers are rarely accessible, except to those considered to be true "intimates" of the house. The room that remains sacred is the parents' bedroom. Of course we are talking about a house that has all these rooms, but space is not the significant factor in this context. Rather, it is the way in which this space is opened, or not opened, to all those who are not part of the "immediate" family (comprised of the parents and children). Thus, if my father-in-law or mother-in-law, or even my father or mother, lives under my roof, that does not automatically give him or her access to my bedroom. On the contrary. "Well brought up" French people know all this. But one can easily imagine the misunderstandings that can arise when Americans are invited to French homes or when they live (as students) with French families for a period of time.
Similarly, there are misunderstandings in the reverse direction, which may seem surprising given the "relaxed" attitude with which Americans receive guests. A French writer, whose name I will not mention, wrote a book explaining Americans to the French. He enthusiastically tells us that when the lady of the house receives you wearing curlers, it is precisely to make you relax and "feel at home." No problem up to that point. The writer, grateful and admiring, describes the comfort of the room reserved for him, mentions the small touches like letter paper and stamps on the desk. Then the maid (rather a rare character, except in certain social spheres) asks him if he is going to dine with his hosts, and what he would like for dinner. The first evening, he tells us, he goes down to eat with his hosts. Then the second evening, because of the "relaxed" attitude and "kindness" of his hosts, and because he has a great deal of work to do, he decides to eat dinner in his room and "orders a steak and french fries from the maid."
If the writer in question actually did this, his hosts undoubtedly respected his wishes. But it is also more than likely that they attributed his request to "the well-known arrogance" of the French, or at least that they were deeply shocked by the "vulgarity" of this French person, whom, nevertheless, they would never think of enlightening as to his "monstrous" blunder. (The two questions he was asked probably mean "Are you planning to go out for dinner?" and "We'll do our best to please you," or something of that nature.) An unfortunate misunderstanding crowns the best of intentions in this case: the writer-character comes off as a boor, whereas it is his enthusiasm for American hospitality (as he understands it) that makes him unknowingly behave in an impolite fashion.
The misunderstanding is easy to comprehend. Indeed, when you are a house guest in an American home, your hosts immediately show you your room, the "bathroom" (which includes the toilet), the place where towels are kept (or where you can get new ones, if there are already some in your room), the kitchen, including everything you need to make a cup of coffee or tea if you wake up in the middle of the night, and, finally, the refrigerator. At the same time, they invite you to "make yourself at home" and to "help yourself to anything you want." It is therefore possible that one's enthusiasm for "so much openness" might leave one with the impression of having all the advantages of a hotel at home, and that this would result in one's taking the invitation not to stand on ceremony literally. It is, in fact, almost impossible, without cultural analysis, to know where the line is drawn, a line which remains completely implicit. All the Americans to whom I told this story were shocked by the blunder, surprised that such a mistake was possible. One need only, however, carry the logic beyond the invisible line to make such an error.
An American student who spent a year living with a French family told me that an uncomfortable situation had developed toward the end of her stay, that there had been a kind of estrangement, for reasons which she did not understand. After she answered all kinds of questions from me, we reconstructed the misunderstanding as follows. At the beginning of her stay, as she did not yet know the family, she spent a good deal of time chatting with the mother and children on returning from school, before going to work in her room. Since she didn't feel quite comfortable yet, she kept the door to her room open. Much later, when she thought that she had become "a member of the family" and really felt at home, she (unconsciously) began acting exactly as she did at home. That is, on returning from school, she simply said hello and went directly to her room to work, automatically closing one door. It was at this point that the family, who must have felt she was rejecting them without understanding why, began to treat her with greater distance, "like a foreigner." Only after our discussion did she realize that what was for her a kind of compliment to the family (they made her feel at home) was on the contrary an insult (undeserved, and therefore all the more baffling) to the family, who had treated her as one of them.
Another student, this time one who lived in a small hotel which had been transformed into a residence for foreign students, told me of an unpleasant experience which she didn't understand. This story, once again, involves a door. One Saturday morning, as neither she nor her roommate had classes, they told the cleaning woman that they would make their beds themselves because they wanted to sleep late. The cleaning woman, according to them, left looking very angry. The following Saturday, in order to assure that they would not be awakened, they put a "do not disturb" sign on the outer doorknob. This in no way stopped the cleaning woman, who knocked and entered. The two young women didn't stop her, because "the only other solution, which is very difficult for Americans, would have been to tell her to leave." What shocked them most of all was that the cleaning woman knocked and entered almost simultaneously, without giving them a chance to answer. What they considered to be an inviolable space, a room with a closed door, was simply invaded, as if by right. The student who told me of this experience summarized the source of the misunderstanding in this way: "In France, people knock on the door to announce that they are entering, whereas in the United States, it is to ask for permission to enter (for which one must wait) or to make certain the room is empty." I myself remember that, after having spent several years in the United States, I was shocked when a new colleague, who had just arrived from France, knocked and "barged into" my office. Everyone else waited for a "come in," including French people who had been living in the United States for a longer period of time.
A young American, who was boarding with a family in the sixteenth arrondissement in Paris, began, he says, to "behave like a member of the family" until the day when, to his great disappointment, the mother told him that she had rented him the room for purely economic reasons and not to establish a quasi-familial relationship with him. He could not understand how one could have someone in one's home and at one's table and at the same time treat that person "like a stranger." In an equivalent case in the United States, a family who rents a room to a student gives him access to the kitchen ("kitchen privileges") but not to the dining table without a special invitation. A permanent invitation to share the family meal calls for "member of the family" behavior, which undoubtedly explains why the "pension" system does not exist nowadays in most places.
A French student in the United States explained to another French woman, in my presence, that she had moved into a room she liked very much and which an American professor, known for his fine cooking, rented to her. When the woman asked if she ate with the professor's family, the student protested, with both an amused and indignant air, "Oh, no! He made it clear that meals were not part of the deal, and that I shouldn't feel tempted, no matter what kinds of smells emanted from the kitchen ... He promised to invite me to dinner.... I can't wait." The dividing line had been clearly indicated in this particular case—a rare occurrence. But this clarification did not seem to have prevented the French student from feeling somewhat ruffled, so difficult it is to get used to the assumptions of others. It is all the more difficult for a French person to understand this attitude, since "everyone knows" that Americans invite "people they meet on the street" to dinner, "warmly" open their homes to people they hardly know, easily lend their houses to friends so that friends of their friends, whom they don't know, can use it in their absence. The nonexistence of the boarding system can be explained by the fact that an American will easily put his possessions and himself at your disposal if you are his guest but will not agree to "sell" you his services right inside his home, to give you the rights of a "paying customer" over him and over his freedom. In the French family, everyone usually eats dinner together. The meal must therefore be prepared in any case, and one more person at the table doesn't make much difference. In the American family, on the other hand, it is possible for each family member to eat dinner separately on certain evenings, when it is most convenient for her or him, because schedules are often difficult to coordinate. Having a boarder and owing him or her a meal every day would demand more of the "parents" than the children do themselves.
It is now clear that French and American houses differ not only on the exterior. Their differences are in fact reproduced, but less visibly, inside the house. The distinct separation between the inside and the outside in French culture anticipates the barriers to be crossed once inside. Access to different rooms denotes the path toward intimacy, so to speak, and corresponds to the visible/invisible division. What I mean is that the rooms which are "off limits" are closed and hidden from the eyes of those who have not been specifically admitted. By the same token, someone who stands close to a window, perfectly visible from the street, should adopt an "outside" form of behavior, even though he is separated from the outside by the window.
On the other hand, the American house is as open to strangers as it is visible from the street. In the evening, lit up on a dark street, it even attracts attention. If this does not seem to bother an American, it is because such openness in no way encroaches on his privacy, which he defines by setting up the barriers of his choice—by closing the door to his room, by surrounding himself by huge lawns or thick trees, by refusing all boarders, or simply by stopping you on your way to a room by saying "I'd rather you didn't see the mess," or "I'll be right back." Fences, walls, and high hedges give him the impression of being closed in and seem to deprive him of the spectacle of the street, the forest, or the beach bordering his house. And he will consider as an invasion of his privacy any instrusion made without his knowledge or against his wishes (electronic surveillance, of course, but also a door opened without waiting for permission, and the like). An American colleague does not enter your office without being invited: he or she remains on the threshold, even if the door is wide open. If your window is near the street, passersby will make it their business "not to see you," and if by chance your gazes meet through the window, they will smile or make a friendly gesture as if to say that they were looking into your house "by accident."
Excerpted from Cultural Misunderstandings by Raymonde Carroll, Carol Volk. Copyright © 1988 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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