Derek Sivers

Au Contraire: Figuring Out the French - by Gilles Asselin and Ruth Mastron

Au Contraire: Figuring Out the French - by Gilles Asselin and Ruth Mastron

Go to the Amazon page for details and reviews.

The absolute best book I've ever found on explaining the mindset of a country. (Runner-up is “Watching the English” by Kate Fox.) I wish every country had a book this deep. Not just what but why! Also appreciate the bold writing, skipping caveats.

my notes


Interculturalists use the iceberg metaphor to describe culture. 10 percent is visible: obvious elements such as art, literature, music, dance, traditional dress, and cuisine. 90 percent remains hidden, apparent only after an extended period of living in another culture.

Values, beliefs, assumptions, notions of morality, and, in general, rules about what is and is not done.

Spending substantial time abroad also allows us to understand the hidden elements of our own culture.

Enter the assumptive world of the other culture to understand how it works and makes sense.

Look beyond what we are given to see. Look for the subtle, invisible connections.

Imagine you have an elderly relative who is very ill and the prognosis is not good. You have to convey this message to three other people: a small child, a young adult, and an older person. This communication would need to be adapted for your message to be delivered effectively. This example illustrates the central skill of intercultural communication: You are not changing who you are, only how you present yourself and your message.

French and Americans both see their own social model as the best for others. And in this, they differ from most other cultures! Many cultures see their own way of life as preferable or even superior, but the United States and France have sought to bring the benefits of their systems to the rest of the world.

What Makes the French So French? French icons: Marianne, Astérix, and the rooster:

Marianne is the feminine symbol of the French Republic and represents the daring bravery of Frenchwomen fighting for the Revolution, for freedom. The very words republic, revolution, and freedom are feminine in French. Marianne continues to represent France in the European Union, appearing on French-minted Euro coins, and as a statue in every town hall.

Astérix and his friends are symbols of the French inclination toward resistance and rebellion.

The rooster wakes up the entire village at dawn, attracts attention from others, and never retreats from his defiant and domineering attitude toward the rest of the coop. French roosters like to remind everyone that France has awakened the entire world to the beauty and grace of its civilization, culture, and language.

France is abound in contradictions: Deeply conservative yet avant-garde, dispassionately rational yet given to wildly dramatic outbursts of anger or affection, reserved with strangers yet passionate romantics.

The country has a vaguely hexagonal shape. An actual geometric hexagon often serves as a visual shorthand for France, and summaries of domestic news in the media are headlined simply L’Hexagone.

The French think of themselves as supremely rational beings - logical and intellectual. They have a high regard for reasoning, and their schooling places a premium on philosophy. The realm of ideas for their own sake is valued and respected.

The vision of their country as a geometric structure - neat, tidy, organized, and clear - confirms their prowess and pride in matters of the mind.

Cartesian thinking, refers to the proper approach, rather than on practical applications.

Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité! - unity, solidarity, and universalism.

France is one united country and one indivisible republic. Regions with a strongly marked local identity make their point with particular customs, languages, and traditions rather than with calls for self-determination or political autonomy.

A single system treating everyone the same is seen as most fair and equitable.

Centralization in the form of a centralized administration and bureaucracy has been the one stable feature in all of France’s political landscapes. Louis XIV was not speaking metaphorically when he said, “L’état, c’est moi!”

Paris is not just the capital but virtually the center of the French universe. It is the nation’s political, literary, historic, economic, artistic, financial, and cultural heart.

Ethics are not set in stone and tend to be applied in a very contextual manner, which is paradoxical in light of the emphasis placed on universalism.

Everything in France happens at least twice: once en théorie (or en principe) and once en pratique (or en réalité).

Practical self-interest is important, and they tend to admire someone who can gain an advantage in a situation. Self-interest must be served, of course, but this should be done subtly, almost indirectly. Blatant self-interest and greed are seen as tactless, unsophisticated.

Style counts; the way the result is obtained may be more important than the result itself, particularly if an individual displays a great deal of cleverness and panache.

Telling the French that something is not allowed is a direct challenge to their ability to do it gracefully, finding an elegant way of bypassing the rules and not getting caught. Being able to do this well is a source of personal pride and satisfaction.

Confrontation is not necessarily a loss of harmony in a group; rather, argument serves to move things along and prevent boredom and stagnation. Consensus is rarely an important goal. They disagree with an idea rather than with a person.

What interests the French is not what people have in common, but their differences - vive la différence! Uniformity is dull; difference, exciting.

Universalist en théorie and nonconformist en pratique. Everyone agrees with universalist principles. However, because of their strong feelings about individuality, the French tend to resist rigid procedures and look for a more personalized way of doing things.

Establishing their unique character, not knuckling under to an anonymous system.

Solidarity: a concern with national solidarity - sharing equally what is available rather than letting the strongest or most powerful get more than they need.

At the same time, the French may display complete disregard for the welfare of those around them. Library books disappear and articles are torn out of magazines. That others might want to use these public resources seems not to matter; there is little sense of civic responsibility in relation to common property.

Mission to Civilize. La Semeuse, the woman sowing grain: a symbol of the dissemination of French culture.

Status and rank still count in this hierarchical culture: an aristocracy of educational degrees. unapologetically elitist.

French people are experts at creating islands of psychological privacy in crowded public areas. Desire to keep one’s personal affairs private.

Americans discard what is old and eagerly embrace the new. History has little bearing on everyday life. The past in France is immediate and important. It is difficult to overemphasize the importance of history to the average French person. The present is seen as the link between the past and the future; the future is the continuation of the past, so all three are inextricably interwoven. History, continuity, and tradition are critical.

Change is not seen as intrinsically good. The benefits of the change must clearly outweigh the loss of security and continuity.

The desire to show France’s independence from U.S. influence in thought and action is almost a reflex in most French politicians.

Any description of a culture invokes an implicit comparison or contrast: compared with whom? Descriptions and stereotypes reveal at least as much about the describing culture as they do about the culture being described.

Cultural values and behaviors are tendencies.

While Pépé Le Pew teaches little Americans about the French, a cartoon cowboy called Lucky Luke teaches French children that Americans go for the “ready, fire, aim” approach as they shoot from the hip on their way across the wide-open spaces.

Style - in dress, manners, conversation, and in presenting oneself: The French prefer a certain restraint, while Americans are more informal.

In conversation French people prefer to make their points quite directly but in well-phrased, articulate arguments. The linguistic subtleties may be lost on Americans. American conversations are designed to impress. The listeners become an audience.

French people feel that everyone should aspire to speak French. Any civilized, sophisticated, and educated person should possess this linguistic key to culture itself.

Albert Camus elegantly expressed this notion in the famous quotation, “Ma patrie, c’est la langue française” (“My homeland is the French language”).

One Frenchwoman’s impression of an American colleague: arrogant because he took up a lot of space! He sat opposite me and leaned on the chair in a very relaxed way. As we talked, he was so at ease! He seemed to have no doubt that building relationships with others is easy. He was so confident and so comfortable! That’s what made him come across as arrogant.

In the U.S., informality is often appreciated and creates a relaxed and friendly “vibe” that shows we are accessible and transparent. Meeting someone new calls for a display of this kind of “solidarity politeness” to put the other person at ease by making it clear we see him or her as equal to us. A casual air of confidence can put others at ease and show we are trustworthy. It also conveys that we expect we’ll be able to get along with the new person just fine.

French culture: “deference politeness.” Reserve, self-restraint, and formality show a degree of modesty since this type of behavior doesn’t assume we’ll get on famously. Informal behavior is associated with the private sphere of family and friends. The private and public spheres in France are more clearly separated, which means that by expressing formality and respecting protocol, you show you know your place is in the public sphere, not in the private one.

An equal relationship is one where both parties do not assume that the other is “their friend” and maintain a respectful distance in the early stages.

The French person, seeing American informality and casual confidence, can quickly see someone arriver en terrain conquis (arriving on conquered ground), saying in effect, “I own this place, and I own you.”

Rodin’s The Thinker, a statue of a man sitting - and thinking. French society values thought and ideas for their own sake. They may or may not have any practical application, and either way is fine.

French people tend to be more concerned with who they are, individually and socially, than with what they can do or what they have achieved. They think of themselves in terms of what school they went to, what position they occupy in a company, or what social level they have reached either by birth or by acceptance in a specific circle. A simple word or title often says it all, and people easily associate the person with the context and the meaning of that context.

French individualism is expressed toward others in the sense that it tends to negate other people’s contributions or even their presence.

I don’t care about the harmony of the group; my personal ideas are still more important and more valuable than the group making a decision.

It is deeper than simple selfishness, French individualism negates the “Other.” Little can be gained from the Other, and one’s ideas or personal satisfaction remain more important

Family and intimate friends are never considered Others. They are rather an extension of the self. Family ties and obligations of friendship must be honored and leave no room for the standard expressions of French individualism.

American individualism does not negate the Other. Instead, it needs the Other in order to reinforce the self. Americans place a great deal of value in what Others have to say about them - a strong need to be liked and a tendency to avoid criticism. From a French perspective, American individualism appears closer to self-centeredness.

The paradox between French solidarity and individualism can be summed up as follows: “On a personal level, I don’t care if my cigarette smoke irritates you, but I will hold up the other end of your protest banner as we march together against the government!”

In France, people’s individual actions and struggles wouldn’t make them especially worthy of respect; they did not save any lives or work for the good of others and thus, in French eyes, did not achieve anything extraordinary.

Being self-reliant means not just going along with the complexities of French society but also being able to use it to one’s advantage. A person with this capability is called débrouillard(e) - “resourceful.” Brouillard literally means “fog,” and une personne débrouillarde knows how to untangle things, where to go, or whom to reach to make things happen and avoid hassles. The typically French notion of débrouillardise refers especially to the ability to deal with complex situations and to find one’s own way out of the maze of red tape in French society.

The French value personal honor and integrity above all. Honor refers both personal pride and to notions of individual dignity.

Use the metaphor of a coconut and a peach to contrast French and American personalities. The coconut has a tough and not very appealing shell that contains pleasant meat and liquid within. The peach, on the other hand, is soft and inviting but has a hard core that is difficult or impossible to get into.

French culture strongly emphasizes pudeur “self-restraint.” A certain degree of intimacy must be reached before a person can open up.

Americans' cultural assumption is that in the end we have only ourselves to fall back on.

French parents raise their children to be dependent on the family.

The résidence secondaire (country home or apartment) plays an important family and social role in France. The importance of quality time to be spent with relatives and friends.

French form the circle in social situations. No forming of little clusters, as often happens in informal discussions in the United States.

By age ten, then, the French children have become bien élevés (well reared). They have learned about limits, boundaries, delineation, and appropriate behavior. They have learned control over themselves, over their bodies. They have acquired tremendous inner psychological independence.

THE LANGUAGE OF FRIENDSHIP AND LOVE: in the U.S. they use the word friend to refer to someone they met yesterday or to someone they have known since childhood. The only distinction is between a “casual” friend and a “close” or “best” friend.

French culture requires the most subtle of gradations:

un(e) ami(e):
a friend une connaissance: an acquaintance, someone you know superficially

une relation:
mainly a colleague or other professional contact

un(e) camarade:
a good pal from youth, school, university, or military service

un copain (f. une copine):
a buddy; etymologically someone you share bread with

un(e) pote:
like copain, but more familiar

un(e) petit(e) ami(e):
boyfriend or girlfriend; may be in a romantic sense depending on the context

un(e) ami(e) d’enfance:
a friend from childhood

un(e) ami(e) de toujours:
an always and forever friend

un(e) meilleur(e) ami(e):
best friend

mon ami(e):
normally means “my lover” but depends on the context

un(e) cher(e) ami(e):
a dear friend - more distant than a simple friend, oddly enough


Neighborliness is not appreciated in France. A good French neighbor does not disturb others.

American bonds that link friends do not necessarily go very deep. Friendship is not necessarily considered a major commitment. Friends in France operate according to the unspoken rule, “Say what you mean and mean what you say.” They expect promises to be followed up.

The important thing [in a French conversation] is to establish ties, to create a network. We [French] create the fabric of our relationship in the same way and at the same time that we “make” conversation. For the French, their networks are what defines them. American cultural premise: “I exist outside all networks.”

French friends do not seek to maintain harmony but rather to cultivate distinction and avoid boredom. They expect to disagree, to criticize, even to argue.

The French find it tedious to always be in agreement and for this reason may be attracted to friends who are quite different from themselves.

To comment honestly on their actions and choices: The bond between friends is not fragile and can stand up to this tension, even be strengthened and deepened by it.

To make French friends, you would do well not to rush the process. Take your cue for pacing from your French acquaintance, and try not to “come on too strong” in the early stages.

The explicit way in which Americans talk about their friendship sounds artificial to the French, almost like you are trying to convince them of something.

French distinguish between relationships of friends and relationships of romantic and intimate partners. These categories do not overlap. Summarize the French attitude thus: “La pire des choses dans une relation homme-femme, c’est d’être camarades” (“The worst thing in a male-female relationship is to be friends”).

Séduction is a vital component. Séduction in French means attracting by means of irresistible charm - playful, serious, or a combination.

American boundaries between friendship and romance are fuzzy and do not provide an external definition for the relationship, the interaction between men and women must provide an internal one. Thus, the tone and pattern of their communication have to make it clear that they are “just friends.” The firmer French boundaries provide the external definition for the relationship, which gives freer play to the interaction between those involved.

In the U.S., the first couple of dates are usually seen as a no-strings-attached trial period. In France, a woman who agrees to go out with a man is considered to be past that initial stage. She and the man have, in effect, agreed that they want to see more of each other.

To see their leaders engaged in manual labor would be considered inappropriate and undignified. The French admiration for things intellectual corresponds to a devaluing of manual labor.

The state plays such a central role in French life that politics is one of the most serious national preoccupations. Decisions made at the highest political levels can have an instant and significant effect on the daily routine of someone as distant as, for example, a farmer living near the Spanish border. For this reason, politics is more of an everyday affair in France. Every aspect of French economic and social life has some underlying political element.

While laïque can be translated as “civil” or “secular”, laïcité (nominal form of laique) suggests a dedication to the values of reason, openness, and tolerance.

In France, religion is virtually synonymous with Catholicism. French people tend to assume that nearly everyone is at least nominally a Catholic and may be quite taken aback when they find this is not so. For most of the French, Catholicism is simply a given. In fact, French Catholicism is more a matter of tradition than of faith, but anything else is considered marginal.

Four regions: Brittany, Alsace, Basque, and Midi-Pyrénées, represent distinctive cultural entities.

(Basque Country) is a single cultural unit that just happens to straddle an international border. Seven Basque provinces; four on the Spanish side, three on the French side:

The French universalist attitude requires that everyone in a given situation, regardless of origins and particular circumstances, be treated exactly the same.

France, with its traditional duty to spread its knowledge and civilization the world over while protecting its own borders from invasion, has never been culturally open to other populations.

The inability of France to learn from other cultures is one of its most persistent ailments.

Cultural minorities in France are acknowledged and respected only to the extent that they fit into the French social and cultural mold and do not disturb the social order. The magic word for success as an immigrant is assimilation.

A law was passed in 2004 forbidding anyone to wear conspicuous signs of religious affiliation in public schools.

The French Constitution forbids making any distinction among citizens based on race, origin, or religion. In this context, affirmative action laws, such as those in the United States, can be seen as a potential threat to the integrity of the nation.

Similarly, the gender gap: French people tend to identify themselves as members of the same society and nation before asserting their gender differences. Feminist movements have received limited attention in France. Women are usually more concerned with who they are and with their femininity - what makes them womanly - than with demanding particular consideration because they are women.

Universalism in France is based on a refusal to define a citizen by his or her particularity.

Friends tend to be made at similar social levels, and descendants of aristocrats rarely mix socially with descendants of the wagon drivers who escorted them to the guillotine. Americans wishing to invite French colleagues from various levels to social functions should be aware of the reticence they are likely to encounter.

The differences between the American and French legal systems: Legal judgment is rendered by trained judges rather than a jury composed of laypeople, and cases are determined according to written and codified law.

Americans tend to think that people are basically good and that eventually bad people can turn their lives around and start again. The French traditionally believe that humanity is either evil or a mixture of good and evil and are convinced that people rarely change their basic orientation. These attitudes are pervasive in France and reinforce the belief of Americans - who in principle are inclined to trust people until they are proven untrustworthy - that the French are basically mistrustful or cynical.

The French are so deeply pessimistic that some talk about taking vacations in the United States for a “breath of American optimism.”

Although the word entrepreneur is French (a person who undertakes), entrepreneurship is not encouraged or nurtured by the French bureaucratic system or by the upbringing of French children. French parents do not suggest that their children make some pocket money mowing the neighbors’ lawns or shoveling their sidewalks.

There is little possibility in France - compared with the United States - for becoming a wealthy, nationally recognized person through one’s own efforts.

From the American perspective, turning in or reporting someone who is breaking the rules is usually seen as an action that helps the community as a whole. Post-World War II French behavior has been heavily influenced by the actions of the Vichy government, which cooperated with Nazi Germany. Many minority groups suffered as a consequence, and thousands of Jews and other populations were turned in and sent to concentration camps. This was one of the most shameful periods in French history, a period for which France is still paying a price, and it left a deep stigma in the French psyche. Attitudes toward denouncing people changed drastically - to the point that délation of almost any kind is considered bad and looked down upon. The French tend to assume - or at least to suspect - that turning someone in is an act of ill will.

It is peculiarly American to see idealized images as actually achievable, the American belief that anyone can achieve anything with enough hard work and determination. American mantras such as “Practice makes perfect” and “If you believe and you can conceive, you will achieve” have no equivalent in the French language or culture.

American thinking tends toward the dualistic and the absolutist - perfection itself is an absolute. Most Americans see things as either black or white, good or bad, right or wrong, a success or a failure. What this means is that if anything goes wrong in the quest to achieve the ideal, the entire enterprise becomes a failure. A nasty recurrent argument is enough to convince a couple that their marriage is in serious trouble.

C’est Comme Ça; La Perfection N’est Pas de ce Monde (That’s the Way It Is; Perfection Exists Only in Heaven). The French ideal is seen as a goal to be aimed for but which cannot by its nature be achieved. The mismatch is simply acknowledged and accepted.

People are expected to do their best and to achieve as much as they are capable of, but this capacity does not include perfection. The perfect grade of twenty points out of a possible twenty exists, at least en théorie, but en réalité, no one ever seriously expects to reach it.

Accepting - perhaps even by enjoying - imperfection. What seems to interest the French is deviation from the ideal.

Vive la différence! The French love of confrontational arguments, of making and valuing friends with whom one does not necessarily agree on important issues.

The Clinton-Lewinsky affair: For the French, it was largely another amusing story of childish, prudish Americans getting in a tizzy. “We know politicians lie. We expect it. We also expect them to get on with their jobs.” Dominique Strauss-Kahn's confession of an affair has not derailed his successful career.

The ideal American marriage: “Cheating on one’s wife or husband is unforgivable” French proverbial wisdom teaches that toute vérité n’est pas bonne à dire (all truths need not be spoken).

American culture encourages people to “open up” about their problems. In France, silence is often the preferred way to address a problem. The expression mettre sous silence (to place under silence). Something is wrong and everyone in the family, for example, knows about it. Since they already know, they do not need to talk about it but simply live with the situation.

In the U.S., a businessman shows his company’s financial statements but hides his mistress. In France, a businessman shows his mistress but hides the financial statements.

Nouveau riche (“new rich” in literal translation, “crude rich” in cultural translation).

Authority is an intricate part of French culture and history. French parents and schools provides the child with boundaries the teacher is the expert, so that knowledge flows essentially in one direction. The idea here is to develop an individual who has internalized the structure, discipline, restraint, and manners that are essential to living in society.

French society is not built on a “Trust Default Mode.” French expats in the U.S. have told us of their amazement at the basic trust shown in everyday American life. They could hardly believe that parcels on people’s front porches weren’t stolen.

Distrust society is a cautious society, win-lose: a society where living together ends up being a zero sum game, sometimes even a negative sum game (if you win, I lose); it is a society that sustains class struggle, unhappy living - both nationally and internationally - social jealousy, “closedness,” the aggression of mutual surveillance. Trust society is an expanding society, win-win, a society of solidarity, of common projects, of openness, exchange, communication.

The French tendency to oppose - to oppose virtually everything. Opposition creates friction, discussion, debates, even fights, and possibly value, but generally hard-won value.

The minority parties in the French parliament are called “opposition.” This term is a clear indication of an environment where those parties’ job is to fight and not to cooperate in the creation of a healthier society.

Interculturalists use the “sunglasses” or “colored lens” analogy to explain how our worldview is filtered through the perspective of our deep culture. Before we are open and free to learn about another culture (and put on their sunglasses) we have to remove our own, so that our interpretation of the new culture will not be “colored” or filtered by our own values, attitudes, and beliefs. We are not here to judge another culture, but to learn about it. We need to develop “double vision” or the ability to see more than one side of an idea.

Intellectual mastery of an issue is very important in France; results are what matter in the United States.

In France, “Why” is always a very important question, and people love to argue and debate just for the sake of the enjoyment. Rational thought is the highest expression of French intelligence, and thinking about something rationally can be an end in itself.

This brings us to René Descartes, as most discussions of French thinking inevitably do. Virtually all of Descartes’ scientific conclusions, reached without leaving the comfort of his study, were wrong, but it does not matter as long as the method was convincing. Descartes is the intellectual father of French preoccupation with form.

Descartes' ideas correspond with three profoundly French characteristics: “the inability to learn from experience, the inability to tolerate contradiction, and the refusal to change one’s opinion in the face of a valid objection

A general who devises a perfect battle plan with incomplete information about enemy capacity, and goes on to elegant defeat, is Cartesian.

The Cartesian method requires that all elements of a problem and its solution be thoroughly mapped out before any action is taken. Intellectual mastery of the situation is what matters. Americans prefer to take action as quickly as possible and deal with details as they crop up.

Americans pride themselves on their pragmatic approach to thinking about and solving problems.

Despite their Cartesian passion for classification and definition, the French defy classification, even their own.

French students learn to think through a problem using the “thesis-antithesis-synthesis” method. Presenting arguments in favor of the position, then by providing counterarguments. Finally, one integrates both arguments to determine which has the stronger claim. Presentations often begin with the theory, abstraction, and context of the problem and attendant issues show that the speaker has mastered the subject in all its complexity. Then the speaker essentially tries to poke holes in his or her own argument to show that all possibilities have been foreseen and addressed. This also demonstrates objectivity. Out of these emerges the best (most logical) conclusion. The point does not need to be hammered home, as the speaker assumes his or her audience is intelligent enough to get it by themselves.

Americans do not work from theory. They value specifics, use these concrete examples to develop a theory or abstraction that accounts for the findings.

Had Descartes been American, he would have risen from his desk, left his office, and gone out to look carefully at things before concluding anything about the nature of the world.

In American thinking patterns, the shortest route to action must be the most efficient and the most practical, and therefore the best. Americans make decisions and implement them rapidly, making adjustments as they go.

The French prefer to map things out completely before taking action. The shortest route may not be the most scenic one, and though it will get you to your destination quickly, you might miss something important along the way. Only when they have an intellectual control of all aspects of a plan do they feel confident enough to implement it.

French individualism: going against basic principles of cooperation and consensus in favor of drastic and spectacular intervention.

Whatever the circumstances, the French absolutely must throw in their two centimes worth.

France’s often stubborn stance against American international policies acts as an essential counterweight to American hegemony.

Americans like to think they stand for elevating humankind by advancing freedom and prosperity. The French feel culturally superior and destined to enlighten the globe.

“Le français n’est plus une langue de pouvoir mais il pourrait être une langue de contre-pouvoir” (“French is no longer a language of power, but it could be a language of counterbalance”)

Those who travel outside their own culture wear their country on their sleeve.

When you arrive in a new country, you bring along “cultural baggage” - your own set of assumptions, values, beliefs, and certainties. They can be a heavy burden, slowing you down as you explore new territories. Try to empty the cultural baggage from your mental suitcase.

See not only what you expected to see; also be open to anything and everything that comes your way. All experiences can be enriching.

The tourist takes his culture with him; the traveler leaves his behind.

To travel is to discover that everyone is wrong about other countries.

To feel at home, stay at home. A foreign country is not designed to make you comfortable. It’s designed to make its own people comfortable.

Those who like to feel they are always right should stay at home.