Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Setting the Record Straight

The French do not hate Americans. There, I said it. Now can we finally, once and for all, stop saying that they do? Earlier this week, while sitting in my soul-crushing cubicle on the 19th floor of a Minneapolis high-rise, I heard my neighbor to the left tell her neighbor to the left that she was sick of having to be fake nice to people on the phone. "I wish I could be like the French. They might not be nice all the time, but when they are, you know it's genuine." There are many levels on which I do not agree with this statement, or the woman's dislike of the niceties I so appreciate in Minnesota culture, but what really got my goat was her friend's response: "Yeah, the French don't really like us, do they?" Excuse me?

First of all, how does, "I like French people because they're genuine," have anything to do with French sentiment towards Americans? Nothing! But for some reason, an alarming number of Americans have developed the amazing ability to turn any statement about the French (Many of them live in Paris! Their president married an international pop star!) into something about them (They hate me!). Narcissistic, much? And just what do these people mean by "The French," anyways? Are they referring to cultured Parisians? Uncultured Parisians? Wine producers in Burgundy? Wine producers in Alsace? The wealthy and fabulous of St. Tropez? The Basques? The Bretons? The Bourgeoisie? Or are they taking the unbelievable diversity of a country whose history stretches back into prehistoric times, whose people are incredibly varied in terms of their backgrounds, beliefs and lifestyles, and cramming it into one, narrow definition? I swear, if it wasn't for the soul-crushing effect mentioned earlier, I would have jumped across the cube walls and tackled the lady.

Ok, now maybe I'm not being fair. I don't know this woman very well. Maybe she's an expert on French society. Maybe she's traveled to France multiple times - lived there, even! - and has numerous French contacts both here and abroad. Maybe she knows what she's talking about. And don't we all make sweeping statements from time to time? Sometimes they're even necessary to categorize and compartmentalize our complex world. I get it. But, frankly, I'm willing to bet the farm that she's never set foot inside modern-day Gaul. I'm willing to bet she can count the number of actual French people she's met on one hand. I just don't understand how this horrible lie gets spread, and why it seems as though the only people who spew it are the ones who have no idea what they are talking about. I heard it on television so it must be true!

Here's the truth as I see it: I've lived in France on three separate occasions. I have friends who are French both here and abroad. I have worked in France, studied in France and traveled around France. I have never, ever felt that French people hated me because I was an American or hated Americans because they were Americans. Are there jerk French people who say stupid things about the United States and are ignorant and act like they know all about us even though they've never even been over to see us? Of course. But these isolated incidents don't necessitate a sweeping statement such as "The French hate us." As is true with most anywhere you travel, people are people. Some will be friendly, some will be jerks, but honestly, most will like you. Or at least be willing to exchange niceties.


Nomadic Matt said...

did you tell her she was wrong?

When I was in france, i had some good conversations about politics but no one ever see you suck for being american.

Tanya said...

I should have. I think it just put me in a state of shock. I froze! Working on my angle for the next time...

Stevo said...

I have found that other nations may dislike a country as a whole, but not its citizens. In China there isn't any love lost over America (having a view much like of the rest of the world. I'm sorry to say this, but America is not universal adored by the international community), but on an individual, person-to-person basis, there are few problems.

Didn't Depeche Mode sing, "People are People..."

Tanya said...

Stevo: This is a fair observation. I would take it one step further and say that there are certain aspects of a country that can be disliked while others are quite enjoyed. For example, a country's foreign policy can be a point of contention (India vs. Pakistan, the US vs. the Middle East, France vs. Algeria, etc), but its culture or food or history or innovations might be appreciated.

Speaking of my experience in France, I met many people who balked at the actions of our government and at our perceived consumerism, but who were fascinated by the newness of our cities, the vastness of the west, and the openness of the American people.

Opinions tended to be very nuanced.