When a student decides to study abroad, they must not only accept the physical and symbolic separations of the home culture, but assimilate to an entirely different one as well. Naturally, the sojourner will juxtapose the cultures in an attempt to understand. This is the moment when many stereotypes arise. These all-encompassing terms exist as a way of categorizing certain facets of a culture. To Americans, the French (particularly Parisians) are snobby, stripe-wearing chain smokers who carry a baguette in one hand and a beret in the other. While some of these descriptions may ring true, it is unjust to classify a city of eleven million people, consisting of Paris itself plus its conglomerating suburbs, under a specific yet harsh definition. (For instance, I could count the number of people I have seen sporting a beret on one hand).
One particular hurdle I will overcome by the end of my semester is adopting the softness with which the French speak. They also tend to speak rather quickly, although probably their natural pace, and only quasi-pronouncing words. Therefore, the French view Americans as loud speakers who over-annunciate. This, however, is very apparent on the Metro, especially if I am with fellow Americans. The boisterous, and not so auditorily pleasing English drowns out the eloquent mutterings of French. That is not to say that English is an ugly language and French is the best in the world! In contrast, every time I visit Franprix, the cashier asks me, just above a whisper, if I have a “compte fidelite.” I have yet to understand him the first time and must ask him to repeat the question. Speak up for the deaf Americans, please! I have found this same issue at boulangeries and clothing stores. I do not understand this, as my host mother and I have no trouble communicating.
On the other side of the Atlantic….
Given the tumultuous state of the upcoming presidential election with Donald Trump leading the delegate count in the Republican race, opinions of Americans amongst the French have since declined. They are disappointed in their ally, as they should be. Although I am unable to speak from personal experience, a friend of mine wrote a Facebook post that detailed her experience in Paris. She describes being asked how our country can support a candidate as wildly outspoken and pompously ignorant as Trump, to which she recalls a feeling of being “lost for words.” Just as I have previously explained Americans’ narrowed view of the French, the opinion that all Americans are enabling and supporting Trump is infuriating. Due to my four months abroad, I was too late to submit an absentee ballot. I surely would not have supported and would have in fact, endorsed any candidate but him.
Stereotypes have existed for many generations with some validity. The majority of French people, if one is not educated about the many aspects of their culture, may come off as rude and unfriendly. This is simply because they do not smile at strangers with whom they make eye contact, as is common practice in the U.S. Most of the French, once you get to know them, are very friendly and approachable. The stigma simply originates from the perception that the majority represents the whole, which is a common misconception. This is the same logic behind the French disappointment in the American Trump supporters or that we are “loud or too friendly.”
I have included a picture of what appears to be an American southerner greeting a French man, who is sitting on the same bench, with a huge smile. The American is sporting a loudly printed shirt with a baseball cap and a large camera around his neck. I liked this image in particular because it portrays the common misconceptions between each culture. One key element of the American stereotype is that we all wear white tennis shoes. Interestingly enough, white Adidas are extremely popular amongst the French youth. I think this fashion trend that is continuously gaining status is symbolic of the breakdown of cultural typecasts between the French and Americans. Although it seems ridiculous that a sneaker could change the view of one culture, perhaps in the future we will see this new footwear fad spark a series of cultural adoptions, instead of barriers, between both France and the U.S.