The Self and the Country

In the orientations both preceding and following our arrival in France, myself and my fellow travelers had one point driven into our heads.

The French are different.

I found two specific points of difference to be particularly intriguing. We were told that Americans are quicker to form social relationships, and American culture is more about the individual. French people take longer to form social relationships, and French culture is more about the group. I found this confusing at first. To me, it made more logical sense that people who seek to form relationships more quickly would be oriented more to other people, and that those who take their time would be more oriented on themselves. I was curious to see how these cultural patterns would manifest themselves in Parisian life and culture, and how my own American mindset would fit in.

As I’ve spent a little more time being debriefed on French culture, life, and safety, I’ve seen that these cultural landmarks are far from being mutual exclusive, and instead interact in nuanced and interesting ways.  I think that my public transport experiences sum up the differences pretty well.

Public transport is a fascinating gaze into the inter-relational norms of a culture because it represents a common resource that must be shared, and (sometimes) requires a heightened awareness of complete strangers. The Paris metro is fascinating to me because it is so often silent. I often find myself in a subway car, packed to the brim with commuters, and no one is saying a word because they are all strangers (slow to form social relationships). However, space is efficiently used, I have yet to see a senior citizen forced to stand, and people are quick to make room so that those who need to exit can do so (group-centered). This stands in stark contrast to my experiences with Pittsburgh public buses: I have often had, or have seen others have, full conversations with strangers on the bus or at bus stops (quick to form social relationships). I have also seen students consistently sitting in reserved seating as they watch elderly, disabled, or pregnant commuters get on, backs left on seats when the bus is packed full, feet put up on other seats, and people having to shove past walls of unmoving backpacks to get off at their stop (individual-centered). Of course there are always exceptions, but this is my current view of how these things differ, and I wonder if my hypothesis here will change with time.

The recent French campaign and election have made things even more interesting, especially with regards to patriotism. Take a look at this photo:MarshallS1

In this shot that overlooks much of the center of the city’s capital, many proud, French symbols are visible, and yet you see no flags popping out to the eye. If you squint, you can see one (and only one) flying atop the point of the Grand Palais. In the U.S., it is not common for shops, private homes, and personal vehicles to have one or more U.S. flags flying from them. Again, this seems like another contradiction: wouldn’t a group-centered culture be quick to identify with their country’s pride?

It seems to me that French patriotism is really a love for and preservation of the country’s history. The museums, the buildings, restorations, and traditions are a lifeblood of this city. Waving a French flag does not seem to be nuanced enough to capture the variety of France’s past. The way that people interact with the city’s history is what seems to make them French, not just the bleu, blanc et rouge. This photo reflects that. A love of French culture is separate from French patriotism.

Thus, the recent election cycle and the comparisons that were drawn between it and the American election are especially interesting in this aspect because of how they dealt with patriotism.

In both cases, the candidate that was perceived as being more left used a slogan that emphasized togetherness (“Forward Together” for Clinton and “Ensemble, la France!” for Macron), while the “right” candidates used slogans that emphasized an idea of country (“Make America Great Again” for Trump and “Choisir la France” for Le Pen). How does patriotism relate to a culture’s conception of a group, and how can patriotism draw lines and divide people? It seems logical that togetherness would be an integral part of patriotism, but that doesn’t seem to wholly be the case, especially here, where they represent competing ideas.

I, certainly, have already been asked what I think of the French election cycle and the current political state of affairs in the United States. I hope that, as I spend more time here, with these people, I will gain more insight into how our ideas of countries are not necessarily ideas of being with other people.