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Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The French/American Divide - a Few Good Books

In a previous post, I expressed my overall disappointment with the books I’ve read about moving to and living in France. (To name names, I loathe both Mayle and Gopnik)

In compensation for that sweeping generalization, here are a few books that I think are well worth reading if you have a genuine interest in bridging the cultural chasm.

Warning! These are books that may make you uncomfortable. You could be offended by the authors’ conclusions about French or American culture. They will, however, get the grey matter stirring and make you question what you think you already know about Them.

Beyond Culture by Edward T. Hall
Very good book that proposes a model for how to approach and interpret another culture. For example, Hall talks about high-context (French) and low-context (English) culture. No value judgements on his part – both are fine – but you navigate differently depending on which one find yourself dealing with. He makes a good case for his belief that French and Japanese cultures have a lot in common and are very much alike.

Cultural Misunderstandings: The French-American Experience/Evidences invisibles: Américains et Français au quotidien by Raymonde Carroll
The author tackles some of the most sensitive topics that cause real tension between French and Americans. I particularly enjoyed the chapter on Americans’ attitude toward money and her suggestion that the French have very similar feelings about sex.

Français et Américains: l’autre rive/French and Americans: the Other Shore by Pascal Baudry
I gave this book to the elder Frenchling to read when she started asking tough questions about why Americans think one way and the French another. M. Baudry has a doctorate in psychology and the book explores what he thinks are the foundations of our cultural programming. His description of what happens between a mother and child in a typical American playground versus what happens in the French equivalent is, from my experience 100% dead on. Both the French and English versions of his book are available on-line for free here

Sacrés Français : un Américain Nous Regarde by Ted Stanger
This is the book I loan to my French friends and colleagues when I am being bombarded with questions about why Americans think this or that. It has very astute observations about French versus U.S. culture. His style is conversational (how he manages to sound like a Good Old Boy in French is beyond me) and he has a very gentle and funny way of introducing sensitive topics. The last person I gave this book to (a colleague at work) reported back that he enjoyed it very much but some of the chapters had him swallowing hard and fighting to move on to the next page. However, his overall judgement was that it was a fair book and well worth reading.

Bonne lecture!

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