It’s the little things.

Probably one of the hardest parts of life in London for me was the difficulty I had in differentiating between what were cultural differences, and just my own stubbornness/bad attitude/personal issues. It feels hard to articulate now, but at the time it was impossible.  I was dealing with the pressure of being a new grad in a completely new profession, with with a less-than-zero understanding of the way that field worked in my own country, let alone in a new one.  I didn’t even have a clue how finding a job worked generally in England.  I had just moved from one of the sunniest places in the world – Southern California – to one of the greyest – London.  I had a partner but no other friends, a goal but no idea how to reach it, and a lot of natural-born impatience with which to contend every day.  The fact that everyone spoke my language (although that’s debatable in itself, and many of my Brit friends would concur) and none of the food was that surprising (and therein lay the trouble!) made me feel like there was no culture shift I had the right to be shocked about.


Fast-forward to the Philippines, and, in spite of the fact that it wasn’t my first trip there, it had certainly been a long time.   And there was the cultural buffer of my best friend the last time – born in the Philippines and raised in the U.S. – to cushion the blows from the many bits I didn’t fully comprehend.  More importantly, perhaps, was that on my first trip I lived in Manila.  Life in the provinces is a bit more…intense, let’s say, and it felt like every moment of every day we were contending with a world view, a set of circumstances, a way of coping and surviving we’d never seen, and had no context to understand.  With time came understanding, but at no point did we forget our entitlement to claim culture shock – quite the opposite of my five years in London.

And here I am now, in France, where I’ve been many times before, but never for longer than a couple of weeks at a time.  So I know the basics – the food, the music, some of the habits and norms of the average Joe’s and Josephine’s.  The other day, though, I went for a beer with a new friend who’s got a gig teaching English at the local high school part-time.  He was telling me how his students wanted a lesson geared around exploring cultural norms that were noticeably different between the U.S. and France, and he asked my help.  Here’s a couple we came up with, but of course bear in mind that this is a) our perception, b) applicable to many or most but not all, and c) the product of a beer-inspired chat and not in-depth paid research:

Talking to strangers

The difference: U.S. Americans do it with impunity; French not so much.  It’s not that the French don’t smile at strangers at all, and as with most countries, the smaller the town, the bigger the role of smalltalk.  And it’s also worth noting that in every place I’ve lived the world over, elders like a smile and a chat…I guess that goes to show that we don’t give enough time and respect that direction, but that’s for another post entirely.  But there’s an element of plasticity the French sense with our “Hi-how-ya-doin’s.”  know – and I know most of my fellow U.S. Americans would agree – that while we do not smile say “How are you” in the hopes that the recipient will repay our query with an hour-long speech about his unfaithful ex-wife and hemorrhoids, this exchange is nevertheless very a very humane expression of solidarity.  It doesn’t have to mean that we’re prepared to loan somebody enough money to make rent that week, but we’ve all been on the receiving end of that smile or brief chat with a stranger that pulled us out of a difficult moment, and that’s worth its weight in gold.  On the other hand, the French have a point worth considering.


The difference:  too difficult to sum up in a sentence.  Oh, the profound complexity of a simple and seemingly instinctive piece of our body language:  the smile.  Any western visitor to the Philippines will be warned not to assume they’re well-liked by someone simply because that person smiles at them.  While a Filipino smile can be a warm sign of affection as with any other cultural group, it can also mean anything but good will.  Likewise, U.S. Americans are a little notorious for their fake oh-isn’t-that-nice-dear smiles…I’ve done it, to be sure, and its been done to me.  I guess the French are a bit more reserved with their smiles, although I can’t say for sure there’s a more limited number of expressions conveyed with the gesture…that takes more time than I’ve given it.

Paying compliments

This one’s a doozy.  The difference:  same again – Americans love it and the French…well, to an extent.  There were warning signs I should have heeded years ago.  Chris once told me that I wasn’t obliged to compliment everything his sister wore.  Little did he know that I was completely overcome by intense awe and adoration for her incredibly natural grasp on all things stylish, and was completely sincere about every compliment I issued.  The second warning sign was Chris’ teasing every time I got together with my girls…imagine his voice about 3 octaves higher:  “Oh my god that’s so cute!  Where did you get that?”  etc.  A lot. Thing is, I was trained from a very young age that if you’ve got nothing nice to say, say nothing at all (as if I heeded that one), and if you’ve got something nice to say, by all means say it immediately!  My mother compliments cashiers at the grocery store on their beautiful eyes, and I do, too.  Why shouldn’t I?  Doesn’t one want to know their skirt is gorgeous/hair is stunning/shoes are perfect for that outfit?

As it turns out, no.  Thing is, compliments are hard to take, but for Americans, they’re hard to go without. My friend and I were joking about the fact that U.S. Americans even have the expression “fishing for compliments,” which I’ve never heard anywhere else.  If we feel insecure, we talk about it in the hopes that somebody will tell us how crazy we are (No you do not look fat in that!), but there is that moment of discomfort when someone pays us a compliment.  I’ve always gone with the just-say-thank you, but people from compliment-light cultures get really flustered, and if they keep getting compliments from the same person, they might start to think there’s an element of insincerity involved, or kissing up, which can be even worse.

Thankfully, my dear family-in-law has learned that this is a habit I am virtually incapable of abandoning, and so accept my compliments with the grace of Southern belles, and my sister- and mother-in-law even go out of their way to pay them to me far more often than they do generally.

That’s it for now, but rest assured, there are going to be a million more differences worth noting…maybe I’ll create a new category for it…

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0 thoughts on “It’s the little things.

  1. Victor Halsig says:

    What I find interesting in this “culture” stuff is that, no matter how one approaches it when they get to a different place, it is almost impossible to avoid stepping in something at least part of the time. I’ve found that to be true even when we’re only talking about “the other side of town.” In one place, “That’s a pretty dress” is a compliment and in another it’s a come-on. We just gotta “keep on keepin’ on” and eventually we get where we need to go. Miss you!!!

  2. suncitymom says:

    Very interesting; I do believe my compliments are real. When I see something I admire in a person then why should I keep it to myself? Hopefully my compliment will make that person realize they are recognized for whatever. And, I think your compliments have always been heartfelt as well. I am glad your mil and sil are complimenting you—you have much to offer, you are beautiful, you have a warm and loving heart and they are d____ lucky to have you for a DIL and SIL!

    • ann says:

      they are – from both of us! communication’s just so tricky…if only we heard just what the speaker intended – nothing more, nothing less…but maybe that would be boring…quien sabe?

  3. Wow… informative to say the least. Here’s to drinking beer more often!

  4. Kate B says:

    Fascinating! Am going to send this to Ralph, who knows France and the French much better than I do. I might add that ‘fishing for compliments’ is something the English do as well – I’ve been accused of it now and then, sometimes when actually feeling very fat, occasionally when feeling very glam, can’t win, can you? Glad you are enjoying life! love from Kate

  5. Victor Halsig says:

    Like I said above, you never know when you’re gonna step in it. One time when I was with a group in Deutchland the child sitting next to me shivered. I asked her, “Bis du Kalt?” (Not responsible for spelling here, BTW). I was trying to be thoughtful and had intended to let her use my jacket, but her mother and father were absolutely GLARING at me. Turned out that that question in German means “Are you Gay.” How was I to know? After someone explained it to me, I just had to clean off my shoe and move along. (The family was no longer there for me to apologize to them….)

  6. Shoshana says:

    Thierry once told me that people in France know an American because they look strangers in the eyes and the French don’t do that. Don’t know if that is true…. It was advice he was giving me about riding the metro in Paris.

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