Last night I finished reading the book “Cultural Misunderstandings: The French-American Experience”, a book by a French anthropologist who is married to an American herself and has done interviews with many French and Americans about their cross-cultural woes. The gist of the book is that the key to communicating cross-culturally is to understand both your own culture and that of the other person’s therefore much of the misunderstanding between French and Americans is found on an unspoken cultural level.
Several varieties of ways that miscommunication occurs were mentioned and it was interesting to note that while some of the values mentioned are similar in both cultures, the way those values are expressed or affirmed are radically different. We equally value friendship, of example, but what is expected and how friendship is structured have little resemblance between the cultures, making, on the surface, Americans look superficial and the French look stifling. Upon taking a closer look though, it’s easier to see the whys and hows into these stereotypes and that both are incorrect. The chapter on communication is especially telling (no pun intended… maybe). The author states “French conversation is loaded with meaning, especially in that it affirms and reveals the nature of the ties between the conversers.” This explains part of why it’s so important to have good conversational manners in France (but within their definition of it of course). But compare this to an observation about American culture: “For an American… it is the space between oneself and the other that reveals the nature of their relationship.” This is a great explanation for all of our back pats, handshakes, and the progression in relationships from a nod to a bear hug. Elsewhere the author states that a French conversation is more of an active thing to keep alive but Americans converse to exchange information, which is why we take turns speaking and listening but the French seem to be interrupting one another and constantly changing the conversation itself. In this case, both cultures can confuse and irritate the other without quite understanding why.
*It’s good that I am a “private person” because it affords me some grace within French culture. That is to say, I recognize another person’s space (in this case someone’s house or a part of the house I have not been invited to) as their own and do not wish to intrude.
*I don’t take it as an affront when random unknown persons don’t strike up a conversation with me while I’m waiting with them in line; I’m from the snobbish north after all! (Honestly I’m probably lost in thought about something or texting anyway.)
*I’m a slow relationship builder, testing out the waters before deepening ties.
BUT… then there are the other things that I do that are going to be difficult to change or adapt.
*I take turns in conversations. In fact, I like how Americans converse and it’s going to take some adjusting.
*I have a lot of (physical) personal space boundaries, which is very American.
*If people are at my house and I don’t feel like entertaining, I’ll go in my room and read or work with the door closed, a typical American barrier, expecting to not be bothered unless it is “important”. (Or, better, I’ll do this in a relative’s house while visiting them when I need to take a break from social interaction.)
*I am insatiably curious about other people, which generally leads to a host of questions that would be far too personal to a French person.
It was easy to see why such a book was recommended for Greg and I to read. The book itself didn’t claim to cover everything, but merely some of the bigger topics since the actual list of potential cultural clashes is endless. Learning about ourselves within the context of our own culture has been a great way to begin learning why we do what we do. As the author pointed out, you cannot go out your front door (or into an online forum) without encountering other cultures and the best way to communicate clearly is by understanding what the other person is hearing when you speak or type. This is even appropriate in religious circles because, for example, when I say “grace” I mean something rather different than a Catholic and if I don’t choose my words well I might be misunderstood. If we are going to be good communicators, we need to be conscientious of who we are conversing with.
You can read Greg’s post about the book here: http://leschampsdefrance.weebly.com/thought-blog/je-ne-comprends-pas
Update time! We are officially enrolled in language school (CCEF in Albertville, France) to begin in January and our registration fees have been paid. We still have a good bit of support to raise, especially our monthly support. We’re about 2k short of our monthly goal. After crunching some numbers, we do have the necessary funds for language school, plane tickets, and moving, but not quite enough to also cover our 2 year training program or other expenses. We are doing a lot of “wait and see” with churches who haven’t made a decision or are awaiting a budget vote and people who have requested monthly support forms from us but haven’t sent them in. A final decision will be made mid-November by Kontaktmission as to whether we have enough support to go or not. That being said, it has been a continual blessing to see unexpected special gifts on our monthly statement from Kontaktmission. We’ve met many wonderful people during our travels who continue to encourage us. People often remind us that they are actively praying for us. Above all, we are trusting God, who we believe has called us to France, to work all things out according to His will.