How do you know what it means to be French, German, Dutch, English, American or Japanese? Of course there’s more to it than just living in the said country and speaking its language(s). But culture is very elusive. You might not really see your culture until you’re confronted with different ones. Until then you’ll want to attribute every behaviour to personality rather than culture.
“When you are in and of a culture—as fish are in and of water—it is often difficult or even impossible to see that culture. Often people who have spent their lives living in one culture see only regional and individual differences and therefore conclude, ‘my national culture does not have a clear character’,” Erin Meyer explains in The Culture Map.
A couple of weeks ago, my essay titled “Navigating across cultures and getting ready for the future of work” resonated with many of you (it’s the most viewed newsletter so far with about 3,000 views!) In it I mentioned how impressed I had been with Erin Meyer’s book and offered to dedicate a newsletter to her “culture map”. I’ll try and apply it to my own journey of cultural (self) discovery, i.e. how I discovered I was actually very French 🇫🇷. Perhaps this essay can help you examine your own cultural dispositions and communicate, live or work better with people from other cultures.
Learning to be French
As a child I was raised (mostly) by my German mum. And like immigrant children who want to fit in, I was embarrassed by my mother’s (slight) German accent, her grammar mistakes and her culturally different behaviour. (Today I’m so happy I didn’t have two French parents!) On top of it, it was the 1980s and I would still get so many remarks about the Nazis, the “ugliness” of the German language, and lots of anti-German sentiment (Germanphobia) from the French around me. But at least back then the best French students would learn German at school (France’s elitist school system valued German because it was supposed to be more challenging and elitist).
Today the French don’t hate the Germans as openly as they did in the 1980s but fewer people than ever get to learn the German language at school. Basically most French people know next to nothing about German culture. Weirdly enough the situation is asymmetric: the Germans like (and know) the French more than the French like them. (Like so many people who love somebody and aren’t loved in return!)
Anyway I became French by being good at school. That’s what’s helped me overcome this initial feeling of not being “quite right”. Going to school is what shaped my Frenchness in the most profound way. I am the product of France’s elitist school system, and that makes me as French as you can possibly be. Only I didn’t realise I was so French until I confronted my culture to other cultures. Only when you’re a foreigner can you learn what it means to be the product of a culture.
Erin Meyer’s “culture map” consists of 8 different criteria pertaining to how you communicate, evaluate, persuade, lead, decide, trust, disagree and schedule. I’ll focus on three of these criteria and try to put the map to work to understand what it means to be French!
Communication: high-context vs low-context
In some cultures, like the German and the American cultures, people are taught to express themselves literally (explicitly). These are the “low-context” cultures where effective communication must be simple, clear and explicit. In low-context cultures, if you are not understood by others, it’s your fault—you weren’t clear enough. As explained by Meyer, “the United States is the lowest-context culture in the world, followed by Canada and Australia, the Netherlands and Germany, and the UK.” It might be because the US had to incorporate so many different cultures in so little time that adopting the lowest communication denominator (explicitness) was what made sense. Saying what you mean and meaning what you say is the easiest way in a culturally diverse society.
I was faced with my first cultural clashes each time I visited my German family during the holidays. As a teenager I had learned to express myself in a sarcastic way, for example to mock xenophobic or sexist people. With a deadpan expression I would say something violently sexist to convey my anger at the (sexist) world… but that would not be understood in Germany. Not in the least. Likewise my faux self-disparaging comments would get completely misinterpreted. People would look at me as if I was crazy (or dumb, or insecure).
The French is a more high-context culture where situation and background, and your level of education will determine the meaning of the message (not the words per se). The French speak or write primarily to send signals to their own tribes, not to be understood by all. There will be hints, allusions, subtle references...not understandable by everyone. There’s a fine line between subtlety and arrogance. If you’re not “subtle”, you must be “stupid”. That explains why the French are quite arrogant and often find the Germans (and the Americans) either “not too subtle”, “too literal” or “a bit stupid”.
The irony of it is that the French culture is not the most high-context in the world. What matters is always your relative position on the high-context / low-context scale. To the right of the French are some higher-context cultures that may find the French not too subtle. The Japanese culture is reputed to be one of the highest-context cultures in the world. They even have an expression for the ability to understand context, what’s behind words: to “read the air”.
When it comes to communication, I have personally learnt to value the American way: “Being explicit is good communication”. I appreciate books by US scholars because they write to be understood by the many. Meanwhile, the French wallow in useless jargon and insist that not being understood by everyone signals intelligence 🤔.
I work hard to keep my writing as clear and explicit as possible. It’s actually more intellectually challenging to communicate “inclusively” (i.e. to try and include as many people as possible) than it is to communicate “exclusively” (i.e. to exclude the “stupid”). Also it requires more empathy.
The art of persuasion: principles-first vs applications-first
“Though most people are unaware of it, the ways you seek to persuade others and the kinds of arguments you find persuasive are deeply rooted in your culture’s philosophical, religious, and educational assumptions and attitudes. Far from being universal, then, the art of persuasion is one that is profoundly culture-based,” Meyer explains.
Principles-first (deductive) reasoning starts with theories and general concepts first, and moves on to specific facts and illustrations second. By contrast, applications-first (inductive) reasoning starts with factual observations and stories from the real world to draw broader conclusions about the said world. To persuade others you may use a mix of principles-first and applications-first reasoning. But depending on the type of education you received, the way you make a case will be different. The French art of intellectual persuasion is deeply shaped by the thèse, antithèse, synthèse structure of argumentation (a progressions of ideas, in which the first idea is followed by a second idea that negates the first, and then the conflict is resolved by the third).
This method, known as the dialectical method, is also quite familiar to the Germans (yes, the French and the Germans do have a few cultural traits in common!). After all it is said to originate with the German philosopher Hegel (who actually used the triad concrete, abstract, absolute) and mostly with German philosopher Johann Fichte. The French and the Germans both like to start with rules and theories to make their case. By contrast, Americans prefer to start with examples and stories. And they like to focus on what theories mean in concrete terms for real people.
I find that the way you convince others (and mostly the way you are convinced by others) is exceedingly hard to change. I was shaped intellectually by my French education. I value principles first. If somebody wants to explain something to me, I want them to start with the general rule. For example, if I want to learn to say something new in a foreign language, I want the grammar rule, I want to understand the syntax, I want to see the structure of the sentence, not just to learn a ready-made sentence by rote. I can’t learn if I am only given applications!
Working for an American company (five years ago) I understood how different my way of thinking was. My managers found my emails too “academic” and “wordy”. I wanted to demonstrate things, give context so we could discuss our next moves based on the common knowledge I was trying to provide (in this case, the aim was to recruit French engineers and I wanted to give context about the French school system and how it was different from what they were familiar with). They were just interested in actionable ideas. Not history and culture. Not general concepts. Not theories and systems. Just “What do we do next?”.
Applications-first cultures focus on the how and the what. Principles-first cultures on the why. The French want to understand why they are asked to do something. “One of the most common frustrations among French employees with American bosses is that the American tells them what to do without explaining why they need to do it. From the French perspective, this can feel demotivating, even disrespectful. By contrast, American bosses may feel that French workers are uncooperative because, instead of acting quickly, they always ask “Why?” and are not ready to act until they have received a suitable response” (Meyer).
Although you may learn to mimic applications-first reasoning, learn to start with stories of real people, write short emails, focus on actions and drop the rest, when you’re principles-first, you may never really value applications-first reasoning. And you may experience prolonged frustration with this form of reasoning. The way you reason was shaped by your education: how you think is who you are. But the good thing about having to adjust to different ways of persuading others is that it can make you feel more proud of your own culture. I’m kinda proud to “think French” 😉
Building trust: the Head or the Heart
Erin Meyer explains there are two forms of trust: cognitive trust and affective trust. Cognitive trust is based on the confidence you have in a person’s skills and reliability. By contrast affective trust comes from feelings of emotional closeness (or friendship). So in some work cultures trust is “task-based” (i.e. built through business-related activities) while in others it is “relationship-based” (i.e. built through sharing meals, drinks and sharing personal time with a person).
On the Trusting scale, you will find on the task-based end of the spectrum, the US, Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands. And on the relationship-based end, you have Mexico, Russia, Japan, Brazil, Saudi Arabia, and China. France is in between, but quite to the right of the most task-based trust building cultures. French people value relationships at work. To be able to trust someone, they have to have had lunch with them. Having lunch for two hours, preferably with a bit of wine, is how you get things done in France. A person’s ability to do a job isn’t enough. They have to also know the person a bit. And after the relationship is built, it isn’t abandoned easily.
“In China, business relationships are personal relationships. The loyalty is to the individual and not the company. If someone leaves the company, the personal relationship would be much stronger than the severance between that person and the organization,” Meyer explains. Though French trust is somewhat more task-based than Chinese trust, the French can probably identify more easily with the Chinese than the Americans on that subject.
Americans tend to be friendly with people they don’t know. They smile much more than the French (and the Germans). They can engage in personal discussions with complete strangers, which may seem very strange to French people. Americans can spend half an hour talking about their family, their children and other personal things with someone they may never see again. They will engage in friendly small talk with whoever they come into contact with. Americans are “peaches”: “In peach cultures like the United States or Brazil, people tend to be friendly (“soft”) with others they have just met”.
Unlike the Americans, the French are not “soft” on the outside. They view the American way as “fake”. They want “real” relationships. They don’t give their trust easily and are hard on the outside. They’re not nice to strangers. They are coconuts. Coconuts are delicious but very tough to get into. If you can manage to break their (hard) shell, they’re all squishy and juicy inside.
They can’t help but feel “betrayed” by “friendly” people who did not really want to build a relationship with them. I’ve had that feeling of “betrayal” the first time I visited the US (I must have been 16 or 17). I went to a concert in Central Park with my father and we had this very friendly talk with a couple...who gave us what we thought was intimate information about them and who seemed so friendly we were sooo disappointed they didn’t ask for our contact information. How could they invite us to come and visit...and not give us their phone number?
It just takes some getting used to. Now I must say I find it very nice to be surrounded by people who are friendlier to me than the French (especially the Parisians). When the fishmonger (in London) asks, “salmon today, love?”, I know it’s not love 😏 but I like it anyway! Of course I will continue to secretly wish to build deeper relationships with people like the utter romantic I can’t help but be.
There are more criteria in the culture map that I won’t develop in this essay (which is long enough as it is!). I urge you to read Meyer’s book to complete the map! Do you want me to cover the rest of the “culture map” (there are five other criteria)?
New “We’re all biased!” articles have been published on Welcome to the Jungle: “How sampling bias influences your HR decisions” (in English) ; “Cinq compliments pour compenser une seule critique : découvrez le biais de négativité” (in French).
I’m in Paris today (February 20) for a debate at the Fondation Jean Jaurès “Que va devenir le travail ?” with Jérôme Giusti.
I was interviewed by Clotilde Sauvage (and Samuel Chabre) for Ouishare: “Mais où est passée la dignité du travail ?”
Last Tuesday (18/02) I was interviewed by Philippe Delaroche for Radio Notre Dame (“Décryptage”) about my book Du Labeur à l’ouvrage (in French): “L’inévitable métamorphose du travail ou comment le travail va changer de nature ?”
Wednesday 19 February was a big day! In France a new union for freelancers was launched. It’s called independant.co and you should check it out! 💪 🚀
Content related to this week’s newsletter:
🗞️ “Why Americans Smile So Much”, Olga Khazan, The Atlantic, May 2017.
📚 The Culture Map, Erin Meyer, Public Affairs, 2016.
🗞️ “The Surprising Benefits of Sarcasm”, Francesco Gino, Scientific American, November 2015.
🗞️ “How 'reading the air' keeps Japan running”, Bryan Lufkin, BBC Worklife , January 2020
🗞️ “Language Alters Our Experience of Time”, Panos Athanasopoulos, The Conversation, June 2017.
🗞️ “Never Mind the Internet. Here’s What Killing Malls”, Austan Goolsbee, The New York Times, February 2020: rising income inequality has left less of the nation’s money in the hands of the middle class and the traditional retail stores that cater to them have suffered ; and we’ve shifted to more and more services.
🗞️ “Tampon wars: the battle to overthrow the Tampax empire”, Sophie Elmhirst, The Guardian, February 2020: “A taboo, seen another way, is just a market still invitingly unsaturated”. For decades, one company has ruled the world of tampons. But a new wave of brands has emerged, selling themselves as more ethical, more feminist and more ecological.
🗞️ “Networked Reading: How to Think Like a Polymath”, Zat Rana, Medium, February 2020: “the world is most interesting when we can see the complex patterns that connect its different parts to one another. And we can’t truly do that unless we look beyond the boundaries and the compartments of singular disciplines and singular ways of thinking about reality.”
That’s all for this week. I look forward to reading your thoughts on cultural differences when it comes to communicating, persuading others and building trust. 🥥🍑