Something about France and the French invites criticizing. The French themselves are highly self-critical, as well as critical of others. They criticize other French (in particular French politicians), ways of cooking, speaking, living. Without exactly criticizing other cultures, they make a point of noting how things are done there versus in France. This is a normal attitude, but one that’s been refined in France. It’s probably a result of a history of aristocratic court behavior mixed with homely everyday rituals, of social upheavals and cultural regimentation and a certain adherence to propriety regardless of the constraints that the French throw off when they’re fed up with toeing the line.
People love to criticize the French because the French have ideas about themselves. And having a sense of yourself is a sure way to make others resent you.
When I first started spending a lot of time in France, and learning French, I resolved to avoid groups of non-French-speaking expatriates. I’m not exactly an expatriate, since I divide my time between New York and Paris, but I wanted to get a sense of French culture as someone who lives there rather than as a visitor passing through (although unless you were born and raised in a culture you’re always a sort of visitor – you may be a citizen of the world, but you can only really be native to your own cultural education). I wanted to get a sense of myself by being among others who weren’t like me. I didn’t want the impressions of people living in anglophone enclaves to influence my impressions of France, or even my feeble understanding of French culture. I wanted to create my own interpretations, even if unwittingly I resorted to or even recreated my own clichés of what a “people” do.
Still, any time I’m with non-French, I’m asked my opinion of French opinions related to current events, world affairs, American politics and of course what I think of French food, music, literature and mores. I’m certainly no expert, and don’t pretend to be, but despite my reluctance to say that a society as a whole acts in a particular way, I find that even voicing an impression on something that I’ve noticed in France can underscore cultural stereotypes. It’s as if my efforts to relate my experience of the individual rather than the generalized fall away in voicing an opinion. I believe, perhaps naïvely, that I have a finer understanding of what I experience than I can relate to people in casual conversation. Or perhaps I delude myself into thinking that I can see beyond clichés or preexisting social prejudices. Or maybe the French do behave in a certain way (such as living to talk and to criticize.)
I cannot possibly know France as a nation. I can only begin to comprehend people as individuals, which is hard enough in one’s own language. And yet we persist in defining a country not by its individuals but by our reinforced ideas of collective behavior. But you can’t help confusing the specific with the general sometimes. If you can identify an individual cultural action abroad that helps you feel that you are more at home in another place, and that can give you a realer sense of that country, then perhaps you can avoid the generalized cliché about that other place. Until you open your mouth to describe what you experienced. And then you fall back on confusing the individual for the people, and vice versa.
Still, I have noticed that my French friends love to criticize. Not bitterly, or negatively (or at least not all the time), but with interest. They talk about something as if it’s worthy of notice, which can be part of the same thing: criticism is examining, after all, and arriving at an opinion. This is perhaps what leads others to criticize France: because French people notice things and most people prefer not to notice. But the French, or at least most of the French whom I know, look and look and look. And talk about looking. (Some might argue they only notice what’s wrong, but at least they’re alive to that, and you can infer that they have a sense of what’s right, even if they keep that to themselves.) Most of us go through life without exploring why it is that we like what we like, or do what we do, or see what we see, and what it all means. And yet, despite the criticism or the criticizing, I know when I’m in France that what’s important can be the very things you criticize – the service, the light, the weather, even the attitude – because at least you can sit for awhile with another person while you engage in such criticism. It’s a collective activity that reflects individual passions.
I spend time in France to shake myself out of habits of perception. I still trade in clichés, since I can’t help but fall back on lazy thinking. But I’m aware of my failures. I’ve doubtless been criticized by the French for my ridiculous Americanness, whether it’s by association – such as our gun culture – or for my own irredeemable curiosity and optimism. But I know that at least I’m noticed. And being in France has helped me to notice things elsewhere, too. I have an idea about myself that’s different because I’m often forced to confront the clichés of my own comprehension.