European Affairs

Yes, France and America Really Are Different     Print Email
Jacqueline Grapin

Au Contraire! Figuring Out The French
By Gilles Asselin and Ruth Mastron
Intercultural Press, Inc.: 2001. 305 pages
Reviewed by Jacqueline Grapin

They say it themselves: “Not Another Book about France!” But this one is too much fun for you to miss. Gilles Asselin is French. Ruth Mastron is American. They have succeeded in producing a “tour de force” by looking at every aspect of the two countries from both sides.

The book includes, for example, both “Guidelines for American Managers in France” and “Guidelines for French Managers in the United States.”  If you don’t know France, or are only slightly familiar with it, you will learn everything you need to know about the country - from “What makes the French so French?” to how to behave when invited to a French dinner party, without forgetting “The Art of Seduction.” And if you have spent your life traveling back and forth between France and the United States, you will recognize everything you know, and smile from the first page to the last.

What makes this book a great read as well as a valuable practical tool is that it is based on a deep understanding of both French and American culture, and a realistic recognition of the fact that the structure of French society is fundamentally different from that of the United States. Rather than the usual pompous description of the French by the French and America by the Americans, the authors have adopted a cheerful view of the French by the Americans and vice versa.

If you absolutely need to, you will find out how to convert your “Resumé” into a “Curriculum Vitae,” but you will also learn about the French passion for school and how the school system works. You will be reminded to avoid at all costs talking about money and religion at French social occasions, as they are very private topics. You will learn how to make friends at the gym and why a “rendez-vous” is not a “date.”

The book includes such practical recommendations as: “Don’t be over-enthusiastic and use superlatives like ‘great’, ‘wonderful’ or ‘terrific.’ They are not popular in France and sound insincere.” More generally, “Avoid the aggressive, hard-sell approach. The French will not be impressed when you tell them that your American know-how is just what they need to get them out of the mess they are in. They might not agree that they are in a mess at all.”

Finally, Asselin and Mastron have the great merit of not avoiding the key question: “To Be or Not to Be ... Perfect?” It is up to the reader, whether American or French, to make this difficult choice. Of course, other Europeans who know both sides - or even if they don’t – have always enjoyed watching the Franco-American duel.


This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number II, Issue number IV in the Fall of 2001.