Aug 302010
 
Authors: Jim Sojourner

Over the weekend I had the chance to sit down with a friend who just returned from spending the spring semester studying in France.

A few minutes into our conversation Bryan told me that talking to people here in America about his experiences in France has been frustrating. I think his frustrations tell us something about how people relate to other cultures and how we can do it better.

Often the first thing Bryan said he hears from most Americans who have visited or know someone who has visited France is that the French are just rude.

The service, in particular, is terrible they say and the people are flat out unfriendly. Having heard the same thing many times myself and felt similarly about Germans after a family trip through Europe once upon a time, I asked Bryan.

In America, he said and as we all know well, within seconds of being seated, the waiter or waitress is hovering over our table, telling us his or her life story. They politely demand our drink order and hover over our shoulder like a foody guardian angel to see if we’re ready to order.

The point, it seems, is to make us comfortably uncomfortable, secure a better-than-bad tip and get us out the door in classic, efficient American style.

Not so in France, Bryan told me.

Instead, the wait staff sits you at a table and may give you five or even ten minutes before first approaching you. Once he does, the waiter never says anything more than formal welcome –– he doesn’t tell you about his happy childhood, dead dog or irritating mother-in law –– and if you don’t appear ready to order he leaves without saying a word.

Scandalized and assuming no one in the place speaks any English, the American in the corner of the Parisian café, Bryan said, starts criticizing the slow and unfriendly service in vocal volumes people can hear out the door.

To alter a line from the great sage and eminent extramarital-Oval Office-fellatio-recipient former President Bill Clinton, it’s the culture, not the economy, stupid.

Expectations of service differ between countries. In America we expect efficiency, informality and speedy service, expectations enforced by the expectation to tip.

In France no one tips, Bryan said, and the customers expect peace, privacy and time. Service in France isn’t really worse; it’s just different.

Too often, visitors to foreign cultures try to impose their own values or expectations on their hosts and it diminishes their overall experience. And it’s not just Americans.

For the past two summers I worked as a mentor for a group of about 20 exchange students from Iraq. Although cultural divides between Iraqi and American culture are many, one of the simplest, yet most difficult to overcome, was the Iraqi relationship to time.

From the Arabs I’ve befriended at CSU I’ve learned that throughout much of the Arab world, time is a relative concept and the Iraqi attitude is no exception. People rarely show up to events at the scheduled time because timeliness just isn’t often important.

As a mentor, that disconnect translated to frustration when I tried to get students loaded into vans, to meals or to class on time, and, at first, the students complained that “in Iraq we do this” and “in Iraq we do that.”

My response: You’re not in Iraq.

By the end of the four-week program some cultural learning had taken place. Many of the students thanked me and my fellow mentors for teaching them something about American culture even though that lesson was simply learning to appreciate and live within American timeliness.

To teach that lesson, though, I’d had to do some learning myself by trying to let go of my frustrations a little bit and see time from a new perspective.

My point is not that we need to accept all cultures as interesting or wonderful. In my experience, cultures are not equal and every culture has its positives and negatives –– some more so than others.

But in order to maximize our positive interactions with other cultures, we need to step outside our own perspectives and try to view our differences objectively. Doing so allows us to build better relationships and understand both our own country and our world. In turn, those relationships and that understanding are keys building a vibrant world community.

As the saying goes, when in Rome, do as the Romans do. When in France, well, remember that you’re dealing with the French.

Editorials Editor Jim Sojourner is a senior journalism major. Letters and feedback can be sent to news@collegian.com.

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