Lutz, Natalie, French and American Perceptions of Arrogance in the Other: A Comparison of French and American values and implicit norms

Reviewed by Dr. George Simons at   Amazon Review

Mutual snootiness

Cultural differences frequently excite accusations of arrogance, but perhaps in few places has this been more true and explicit than between the USA and France. Rarely however does anyone look into the causes, or should I say the triggers of these feelings and their articulation. Now Natalie Lutz examines the discourse behind the values that each culture uses to define itself and its righteousness in respect to the other. As a US American living in France, it was pretty easy for me to recognize again and again how spot on her analysis was.

Most fascinating to me as a professional in this field was the author's ability, particularly in the introductory chapters, to proceed from a basis of what we are learning today about the fluidity of cultural discourse, its constellation into mythology and values, as well as the contribution of linguistics, pragmatics, and other contemporary disciplines. These perspectives are catapulting us out of the stale and inflexible essentialism that has so long dominated work in this field.

The book is the fruit of a dissertation, written by a bicultural author, for whom identity construction has been a conscious personal project, and who blends firsthand observation with studies in critical literature in the field. The perfunctory literature review at the outset is not just a bibliographical survey but a very readable comparison and knitting together of diverse disciplinary insights about these two cultures, each on one hand distinctive, and on the other hand fraught with much in common, each with internal diversity of its own. This literature review leaves you curious to read titles on the list that may have escaped you to date. Particularly well articulated here are the challenges defined by the concept of cultural capital and the process of identity formation.

The work’s challenge lies in establishing legitimate comparisons of real phenomena that give rise to conflicting discourse about the attitudes of the other. To make it concrete the author starts by looking at the promotional activities of the bookseller Amazon in both the US and France around the same publications, counting on the bookseller’s marketing ability to appeal to what consumers like and expect in each culture. Advertising copy for the same product (in translation) on either side of the Atlantic must appeal to the diversity of the bookseller’s respective reading public. The exploration begins by highlighting such differences in the advertising done on a very controversial book, Michael Moore’s Stupid White Men.

The key here is "legitimizing" the literary offering in the eyes of each public. This also leads to an examination of the boundaries in each country, which permit or encourage the publication of certain works. This is reflected in the choice of societal values to appeal to, and in the case of works of biography, which the Lutz treats next, how the subject of the book reflects the values and ideals assumed dominant for the readership. Given this double focus, Lutz compares the publicity given biographies of sports figures, Lance Armstrong of Tour de France cycling fame and tennis star John McEnroe. In retrospect, given the current doping confessions of Armstrong, the values analysis, though this development could not be commented upon at the time the book was written, shouts out the socially constructed nature of the values in both countries and in the sport itself.

Lutz then examines Serge Batson, a Cameroonian French rugby player, singer Hélène Ségara, actors Annie Giradot and Jean-Louis Trintignant. The keywords in these analyses are passion, pudeur (discretion), faiblesse (endearing weakness), which are manipulated to correspond to the expectations the French readers and which, on the other hand would likely be off-putting to US audiences. The marketing pieces, drawn on for each of the books discussed, are conveniently placed before the bibliography at the end of the book so that one can taste the language for oneself.

Attention turns to the specific topic of arrogance and its definition as seen by either side. Sensing one as superior immediately raises the question of how superior is defined by each culture. Here the author has turned to individual interviews to gather and explore the data. Differences around how each culture sees politeness and authenticity, formality and informality, and, again, how they are defined and expressed, come out of the mouths of the subjects interviewed.

Self-confidence is built in the USA by stressing the importance of the individual, the self-determination and resistance to critical, negative speech and thinking. “Just do it,” prompts action vs. reflection. Linguistic inflation, “best,” “fantastic” as well run contrary to French values and upbringing.

Lutz does a fine job of comparing the perceptions stemming from the contrasting values of economic vs. cultural capital. American money can thumb its nose at culture, though the gesture may reveal insecurity. In the small town in which I live, there is a chateau restored in the first half of the 20th century by the heir of a New England clothing mill fortune, Henry Clews. As a sculptor Clews had enough money to not only ignore Parisian art critics but also felt the need to parody their arrogance in his work.

French cultural capital is a threat to US economic capital and vice versa, when it comes to provoking each other’s sensitivities to the point of name-calling. One case in point is the dismissal of John Kerry as a presidential candidate and even attacks on his manliness because he could speak French, enjoy quiche and drink fine wine. Personally this reviewer found it even more bizarre that, when France and Germany both resisted joining US ambitions in the Middle East, French fries became “liberty fries,” but sauerkraut did not return to its World War status of “liberty cabbage.” The US needed Germany as its model of democratic reconstruction; less docile France was disposable.

One issue only indirectly touched upon is the fact that US capitalism, its “economic capital” is directly linked in the dominant US Anglo-Protestant culture with what we might call “moral capital,” that is, the religious belief that we are rich because we are good. French attitudes to hierarchy, centralization, money, and pudeur are direct, if often forgotten, genetic endowments of “the eldest daughter of the church,” i.e., Catholicism which was seen as a threat and abomination in the ethos of the dominant US cultural mainstream for close to two hundred years. While USians readily identify with French post-revolutionary secularism, it is the latent Catholic values system behind many French attitudes and behaviors that still brings them into conflict with US ones, even if religion is not mentioned.

France might also be seen as a rejected lover, in that, historically, when supporting and assisting the American resistance to the British, they were weakening an old enemy, and, after the French Revolution, rejecting the pretensions of monarchy. This appeared to put them in the same bed with the Americans, at least until it became evident that the values of Anglo-Saxon Protestant capitalism were at the heart of the American Revolution, which was conducted more for economic than ideological reasons. The marriage of Marianne and Uncle Sam was never consummated. Nor did it take too long before common language and communality of cultural values re-espoused the divorced couple, the US to Britain, in a seemingly perpetual nuptial contract. When it comes to WWII talk, Yanks constantly remind the Froggies that US devils in baggy pants rescued them from the Heinies. Somehow we have no need to tell this to the Tommies.

It is hard to do justice to the richness of Lutz’s analysis and the light it sheds on our experience of each other as well as how it contributes to the state of intercultural thinking. If you don't read French, you will miss the full flavor of this book, as the author cites texts and interviews in the original languages without apology and without translating them. This feels excusable, particularly when one is trying to develop an authentic palate for cultural differences. Here the principle “traduttore, traditore" obtains. It is nonetheless worth a close look.

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