Asselin, Gilles and Ruth Mastron, Au Contraire: French and Americans

Reviewed by Dr. George Simons at diversophy.com   Amazon Review

As good as bread

Give it 4.5 Michelin for both nourishing the mind and charming the heart. Its flavors are bold, its presentation is stylish and colorful. Au Contraire is the culture book on the French that Americans have been waiting for.

Chock full of up-to-date detail about life and work in France and the specific contrasts and bedtimes conflicts that the US expatriate or visitor can expect, Au Contraire also introduces the general principles the reader needs to deal with cultural difference and culture shock. Asselin and Mastron avoid loading the reader down with intercultural jargon and use simple contemporary concepts, like “default mode,” to explain cultural dynamics.

While pithy bulleted tips are provided as needed, the book is not the behavioral checklist that some might expect. It is a good read that provides context and perspective on the behaviors and thinking patterns one must attend to in dealing with education and play, self and others, friendship and romance, politics and religion” in France. It should be read more than once. As one’s experience with the French grows, fresh “Aha’s” will emerge.

Au Contraire takes particular pains to explore the dynamics of working and managing across cultures. It is replete with clear examples of cooperation that have \ succeeded or failed. In the current surge of mergers and global partnerships, the information Asselin and Mastron provide can prevent much personal distress and save many corporate bucks.

Unlike Jonathan Fenby’s recent volume, On the Brink: The Trouble with France, Asselin and Mastron have resisted the temptation to bash the French for being too French, as well bashing the Americans, just because they are Americans, as the French sometimes do.

“They Drive Me Crazy! Ils Me Rendent Dingue!” As this chapter title points out, living with the French is to be exposed to their contradictions and failings, and quickly to discover one’s own. It is easy to blame the host culture when customer service fails, for example, rather than viewing the event as something that might happen just as well in one’s own culture, or seeing our own expectations as being off the mark. France and the US are indeed like an old couple that know each other’s quirks, nag each other predictably and sometimes unmercifully, but stay together because in the end, they have been through a lot together, and, well, they love each other. One can always sense this crusty love lurking beneath the prose of Asselin and Mastron.

Useful appendices close the volume [the order might change—ICP suggested to insert appendix 3 in the text? And keep the last chapter (journeying) out of the text. What do you think?]. The first is a look at the French educational system. This is not just useful information about picking schools for expatriate children. The French educational system is in fact the key force in shaping economic, political and intellectual life in the Hexagon, and needs to be understood as such, whether your children are involved or not. The second appendix provides a quick and very useful guide to social behavior and etiquette, while the third focuses on tips for succeeding as an expatriate in France.

Though Au Contraire is, strictly speaking, not an academic book, the authors provide an ample bibliography of sources as well as a solid list of items of interest to the reader seeking to understand and appreciate the French experience.

The book could have been called, “C’est la vie!” and delivered with a Gallic shrug. “Here you go,” say the authors, “live with it—and enjoy it!" And we do. This book is not “as good as gold,” but the French themselves would say, it is “as good as bread.”


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