jeudi 2 février 2012

Cultural Misunderstanding

T he majority of cultural misunderstandings occur not due to a lack of cultural sensitivity, but more because of an innate reflex to interpret the alter culture through the lens of one's mater culture. It is in this juxtaposition of a prioris where clashes and frustrations are born. "If only they could be more like us!" is a frequent cry heard when Americans come up against some of the French idiosyncrasies.
Don't Go Thinking Banks Are Where the Money Is
I'm not quite sure what the main purpose of French banks is, but I've found that they are the least reliable places to perform monetary transactions. (The French like to go to the post office to do their banking. Maybe the bank is the place to go for stamps?)

I needed to pay my grad students their stipend, so I called the University's banker, the appropriately-named Mr. LeSot ("the fool") and prepared him for my arrival. "Please have xxxx,xx euros ready for me," I tell him, because I know, as a long-term resident of the Hexagone, that one must order one's cash withdrawal in advance. You see, French banks don't actually have any money in their tills.

So I present myself at the window a couple of days later but the teller cannot provide me with the correct assortment of bills, despite my pre-order. "We only have large bills," she tells me. But you are a bank! This is where the money is! If you can't supply me with bills of smaller-denominations, who can?

She suggests I take the large bills to the Post to break them.

(I almost asked her for 10 books of stamps, but held my tongue.)

Do Not Announce The Name of Your Business
When I answer the phone at work, I always say "University of Euphoria" because, well, I'm not at home, I'm at work! But whenever I call a French homologue--be it my colleagues over at the Ministry of Education, or the assistant to the President of the Sorbonne, that person will pick up the phone and say


making me think I've misdialed. So I always have to say something like

"Je suis bien au Ministère de l'Education Nationale?"
("I've reached the Ministry of Education?")

to which they reply, all huffylike:

"Bien sûr [quelle idiote]. Vous n'êtes pas au Pizza Hut!"
("Of course, [you idiot]. This is not the Pizza Hut!")

Never Display the Hours of Your Place of Business
I can't figure out why this is taboo here, but you'll never see one of those "Open: 9am Closed 5pm:" signs affixed to the merchant's door. Maybe it is just so they can arrive as late as they want and not have to be accountable to the customer for their tardiness.

Children Pee Openly In Public
Part of this is the lack of public toilets, but it is also due to the freedom the French feel they have to display their genitals at all ages. I must say, when toilet-training a child, it is a blessing to be able to pull down their underpants and hold them over the gutter when the toddler feels the need to "Go potty, Mommy!" But the first time I tried this in the States, I got arrested.

I long ago learned not to pull my hair out when confronted with the vagaries of different cultures. (I'd be bald if that behavior had continued.) The best way to go about it, as I tell my students, is just approach it all as a learning experience. Listen, observe, take notes, and go home and write about it mockingly on the internet.

1 commentaire:

  1. I find that as a service oriented society, we as Americans, are incredibly spoiled. Don't misunderstand, I LIKE IT THAT WAY but boy, oh boy, does that become clear when we travel! This is not only applicable to France but to a majority of European countries.
    Several times I purchased items from "chain" stores and upon reaching my hotel room I found that they malfunctioned or were broken. It was impossible to return the items to a location other than where I purchased them. I definitely learned to check everything in the store, even if the slashing of boxes and registering cell phones was necessary in order to be certain that I would not be stuck with an unusable purchase or to return to the city where I bought the object.