American “you-can-do-it-ism” vs French debate…ism

Last week an article from Slate caught my eye about cultural differences between Americans and the French that just might explain a few things..

You can do it !

In the U.S. it’s true (admit it!) that we’re raised with a certain American dreamish “you can do it” attitude. Not everyone is raised the same way and there are certainly circumstances in which children are discouraged, but growing up in the U.S. has definitely made me appreciate our spirit that is willing to try. Why else would someone have thought it was a good idea to try and reach the Pacific Coast? Or build a giant highway system just in case of a Cold War. But I digress..

Online, this translates as a certain spirit of encouragement that you can see in blog comments. Comments are typically “yeah! great post!” or “thanks for your input”. Even if someone disagrees with the author, it seems illogical to go to someone’s blog specifically to criticize them. Constructive criticism. It’s a beauty. However…

Does American opptimism go too far sometimes?

At other times it seems as though no ome would DARE disagree with a well-known, appreciated blogger. …to the point that comments can sometimes seem overbearingly fake. Can you imagine, though, reading a comment on Jeremiah Owyang’s blog:

“wow, Jeremiah, you have way too many typos. I can’t believe you’re allowed a blog.”

(Disclosure : I personally very much Jeremiah’s blog and have never seen a typo. And if I had–WHO CARES?)

However, this can sometimes go too far. There is a term for what we call, well, butt kissers in French : the “bisounours”. They exist and they’re definitely not appreciated. Not.

In fact it was pointed out to me that ever since the French Revolution, part of the French spirit takes pleasure in debating an issue, pointing out the other side, and reveling in disagreement.

So — French pessimism (or French realism?)

Contrary to an occasionally suffocating American bubbliness, the French are known for being, well, frank. If they don’t agree with something or think that something has been done ot made poorly, you can bet you’ll hear about it from someone (and sometimes not in the nicest terms).

— But where does this leave the French web? The web is full of characters that have built their success om trying new ideas.

In France, if it’s new, it’s most likely to fail.

Hence, If you must fear being attacked for an action that perhaps isn’t the best or most perfect way of doing something, how can you possibly imagine launching a never-before-tested project and/or investing in it?

There are innovative people in France

Don’t get me wrong, if there weren’t innovative people in France, there wouldn’t be as many start-ups as there are or as many French people going to the US to start their businesses or work in the Silicon Valley. Did you know, for example, that the iPhone touch screen was invented by a French person?

Can criticism just go too far? possibly killing innovation?

To this I have to say, unfortunately…..maybe.

Recently (yesterday!) My Little Parisa successful newsletter (some still do exist!), launched a “Twitter School”. My Little Paris is a daily mailing aimed at Parisian women (but appropriate for men and foreigners) that sends a daily “it thing” to do or try in Paris. A guide for everything and anything off the beaten path, it’s a go-to guide for many of us.

Twitter — it has to be said — is still off the beaten path for many a Parisian, and the site’s founders, Fanny and Amandine, invited me and a friend to be the first to take part in their Twitter School, sharing our favorite tips and tricks as well as stories to explain what you can get out of Twitter.

The “class” is aimed at people in their thirties that have never used Twitter but would like to start. For many people I’ve met that have never used it before, it can be cryptic..

Sounds like a fun idea, right?

Here’s the catch :

1) I was misinformed that the class would be 15€ per person (to rent the hall where it will be held)

2) For people ON Twitter, it’s as if you were teaching people how to breathe

so what?

We agreed to do this for free! Just for the enjoyment of meeting new people, sharing, and learning in return. Even though social media comes as easily as reaching into my pocket and pulling out my phone to many of us, for some people it isn’t so easy to understand.

Why bash those people that would try to learn?

And why bash those that would try to help them?

AND even if we were charging 15€ per person for a class, where is the problem? It’s called a free market.

the moral of the story?

I now truly understand why entrepreneurial spirits would be hesitant to launch a new idea in France.

If it hasn’t been tested or tried before, or it seems like someone might be making money, an idea is attacked before it is even understood.

Rather than supporting others that would set an idea in motion and see your “ompetitors” as an opportunity to improve yourself and your own business, the spirit seems to be to go on strike against anyone that would establish a profitable business or be innovative or creative…

I can also understand why there ARE start-ups in France

There are also people on the flip side, supporting and helping, at all costs. Two of my former roommates (both French) are launching their own businesses in Paris. La Cantine hosts a number of start-up events and welcomes entrepreneurs into their open space. Entrepreneurs and tech spirits from all around France push the boundaries and launch new ideas…

Like Axelle pointed out, Paris will never be Silicon Valley, but so what? We have our own thing going on here. And it’s pretty interesting.

What do you think?

Do Americans sometimes go too far in their optimism?

Do the French sometimes go too far in their criticism?

UPDATE : I had missed it when I wrote this but Roxanne wrote about this as well – – definitely give it a look

(Do you have no idea what I’m talking about? 😉 )

21 responses to “American “you-can-do-it-ism” vs French debate…ism

  1. Don’t give up the fight! Stand up for your rights! The Twitter School is a great idea and thanks God we have my Little Paris to fresh us up every morning.
    The French are afraid of change and new ideas… until the time has come and they switch with brutality… (GSM, DSL, Facebook…Monarchy to Republic and vice et versa). That’s because we’re to proud and sometimes too stupid to see the truth… and it’s not going to change overnight…
    In the meantime, the Brits are developing a innovation hub in London (Tech City) that will probably attract all European entrepreneurs and VC money…

    • Thank for the support for the Twitter School, Laurence. Not all French are afraid of change and new ideas, which is something I still tried to keep in here ; there are so many great ideas here that it would be a shame to have all of that go to London 😉

  2. Michelle,
    As someone who has lived on both sides of the coin, I tend to shy away from generalizations.

    But you are right, one is an old country steeped in tradition which goes back hundreds of years and the other is a young country where the gold rush wasn’t so long ago and the pioneer mindset is considered a good thing.

    From my experience I think the two education systems have something to do with this and Roxanne Varza wrote a great piece about it.
    From the French side, if you are a good student you are pushed into joining a ‘prepa’ and if you are really good you end up in one of the nation’s top civil servant schools. All this is based on something which doesn’t exist in the US, the famous ‘concours’. I could go on but I will point you to Peter Gumbel’s excellent book, On acheve bien les ecoliers.

    Now to your second point, charging money for education. Well this goes against a deeply seated French idea that any education should be free.
    The fact that one could charge money to train/educate someone else is close to blasphemy in France. The notion of education being a business has a long way to go and US universities are often criticized in French media for being run like corporations.

    Considering the very slow pick up for Twitter in France and how behind France is when it comes to social media being integrated into business, I think you had a great idea.

    I wouldn’t let this minor setback kill your spirit. After all you are American so where is the “you can do it” attitude?

    Great piece Michelle, always interesting to read US impressions on France from an educated perspective

    • Thanks for the comment, John. As a continual student in anthropology, I also try to avoid generalizations (which is why I always put in that there are always exceptions), but in order to look at a phenomenon they are necessary to a point. I love French tradition — if I didn’t I wouldn’t live here! — and thank you for pointing out the differences in education. It’s true that Americans can easily assume that it’s normal to charge for a course — we see it all the time! and see no problem in paying to learn something — which is perhaps a side of the conversation I misunderstood. In any case, I am excited for the changes that are happening here and definitely won’t lose a “you can do it” attitude 😉

  3. While characterizations (fewer negative connotations than stereotypes) are obviously meant to be extreme, there usually is some element of truth in them or else they never would have been generated. I’d take an environment of healthy opptimism tempered with some well-timed, well-positioned, well-intended (that’s key) criticism anyday. To me, it’s all in the intent. If French criticism is intended for social discourse (and not merely to be derogatory), vive la difference!

  4. “It’s called a free market.” LOL. It’s not a free market, it’s scam. You cannot charge 15€ to learn to people how to send messages through Twitter. It’s just a too high a price. You face critics and you suppose it’s because people don’t like your free market. It’s only because it’s shameful to make someone pay 15€ for some silly advice.
    Well, I’m french, but i’m sure my honesty has nothing to do with it. It’s just maybe that blogs are more businessy in USA and you don’t want to lose an opportunity with a bad comments. (and one day Jacques Cartier tought “What about crossing the Atlantic ?”)

    • Thank you for your input. Just to be clear, I did not know that a fee would be charged, and I don’t see a problem in My Little Paris charging for the hall location. People can absolutely learn how to use Twitter in their free time. In fact, I highly encourage it, that’s how I did.
      The definition of a free market however is supply and demand. If someone is offering a class on how to cook super meals like a gourmet chef for 50€ the class, and I agree to pay it, there’s no problem because I inherently assume that I am OK with it as I simultaneously hand over my credit card.
      I didn’t want to enter into this part of it too much as it’s true that we are giving our Monday night for free (on our part) to share and learn with other people interested in joining Twitter, but hey. “Silly advice?” maybe. But we all start with 0 followers.
      As for blogs in the U.S., many are more marketing-focused (there’s also a larger population so that helps 😉 ), and the amount of litterature that people buy on marketing far exceeds that in France.

  5. the major thing that amuses me is that America actually exists.
    I mean, the main thing between US/Fr s is that one country counts and one country counted.
    The bloated, almost elegiac way of the French to pretend to still exist, through hysteric parading of a few cultural idiosyncrasies (called “exceptions” as a perfect example of what I mean) is strangely appealing, yet pathetic.
    While the US have created their culture (like it or not) and are not looking for a role model, the French (much more then other European nations) are still trying to define themselves “against” the dominant model.

    A few years ago, I had the pleasure of hanging out with a french writer, Philippe Sollers. As he eloquantly put it. “the Americans have, in awe and surprise, discovered that the French hated them. We have discovered that they did not know we did.”

    the obsession of their own “culture” (le terroir, l’exception culturelle, etc) is much more a passive agressive way to define themselves against something.

    • That is an interesting thing to be amused by… 😀
      I think France absolutely exists, just like any country in the world. Each has its strengths and weaknesses (which is what makes them interesting, in any case!)
      Both cultures are very strong, and Philippe Sollers’s quote makes me think of a comment from a host sister when I was first in France 7 years ago — she said “Why do Americans hate the French?” (this was right after the beginning of the Iraq war, mind you) — I said, “They think you hate them”
      Go figure..

  6. First of all I thank you about this very good article as of Roxanne article!
    I just came back to a week at San Francisco and your description is 100% true! When you discuss about a product or a feature with guys, they replace punctuation with “amazing”, “great”, “so cool” and French’s guy thinks this doesn’t seem very sincere. But as you say it’s just optimist! It’s incredible, this give you desire to work more and more. In France you should to prove your successful experience and only what you done without fail.
    Second point, in france the “free” culture is to abusive. Everything should be free and perfect but everybody want a big salary it’s very ambigous!
    That changes currently and it’s a very good attitude for future.

    • Thanks for your input Cédric — and what did you think of SF?? Americans can be optimistic to the point that it’s almost ridiculous sometimes, but it’s true that positive energy breeds positive energy..
      As for “free” vs “paid”, I have no shame of being a capitalist. For me, that doesn’t mean taking advantage of anyone ; it means that services are paid for or free, as you wish, but supply and demand work, no matter how you look at it. Thanks for stopping by 🙂

    • Thanks for your time to reply at each comments!
      What I think of SF ? As we say in france “c’est la mecque de l’internet”! Just incredible with lot of positive energy!

    • That was the feeling I had 😀

      and I think it’s normal! I love knowing that people have reactions to what I’m writing, and I think a blog post is just to continue the conversation 😉

  7. France has been a frequent business destination for me so I have caught a glimpse of the attitude you express and certainly I am immersed in the world of entrepreneurism here in the states. While the wild-eyed optimism is aline and well I find that there is a checks and balnces in place and that occurs at the funding level! When it is time to get the money, you better have a business plan and check exuberance at the door. Overall though the systwm works. Most large cities and many small ones have extensive support for entrepreneurs. That is where the heart of the economy lies — innovation. Unless of course people give you money to tour your museums, vineyards and chateaux : )

    Thanks for pithy observation Michelle. I am loving your posts from your life in Paris!

    • Thanks for that, Mark, it’s true that I haven’t had experience (yet 😉 ) seeking venture funds but I imagine it’s not as cheery as one might think. Like you point out, though, there are even small infrastrucutral or socioeconomical structures like open spaces and entrepreneur support that allow for entrepreneurs to develop their businesses.
      I’m glad to see you here, as always, Mark !

  8. Pingback: Twitter, entrepreneurs and vive la France

  9. Hi Michelle,

    I enjoy your posts because they give folks here a glimpse of life outside of the U.S. So keep up the good work!

    Also, I found it funny that you had a typo in the heading right before you mentioned the hypothetical typo in Jeremiah Owyang’s blog. Knowing your sense of humor I wonder if you did that on purpose 🙂

    Hope all is well!

  10. Hi Michelle,

    It took me time to react on this one, as I first realise I have nothing positive to say.

    But I read this today :

    I wanted to share it, as it shows that the neighbour’s grass seems always greener. While we envy the americans on some points, they admire some things on us (although some may never admit it).

    So, down with our inferiority complex, and “vive la difference”.

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