I wish Raymonde Carroll's "Cultural Misunderstandings: The French-American Experience" had been available when my son lived abroad for a year as an exchange student. It might have saved both him and his host family some of the pains of inter-cultural adjustment. Participants in his program were obliged to acquiesce to the fiction that they had become full-fledged members of their new families by addressing their hosts in the linguistic equivalents of Mom and Dad. The program operated on the premise that family dynamics are pretty much the same in all cultures.
Carroll challenges this premise. She is a cultural anthropologist who explores the underpinnings of apparently universal attitudes toward the very texture of what holds societies together--family, friendship, marriage, child-rearing, even such apparently superficial behaviors as the way people in different cultures treat technological innovations like the telephone. (Americans use it constantly and don't hesitate to call anyone at home, while the French treat it as a mechanical intruder to be kept at a distance.) These quirks are like the peak of a glacier, apparently small but in fact the manifestation of a base of enormous cultural differences. Carroll cautions that "We constantly fall into the trap of trying to reconcile these two truths; we are caught between the desire to deny difference (we are all human) and the right to emphasize them (the right to be different).
Carroll, a Frenchwoman born in Tunisia who is married to an American with whom she spent three years doing anthropological research on an atoll in the South Seas, is in an ideal position to analyze France and America. Her aim is not simply to compare the French and Americans--that has been done by many before her--but to focus on those "meeting points between the two cultures where there is a hitch, where cultural misunderstanding can arise."
My son, like the student she describes in a chapter on "The Home," unwittingly antagonized his "family" by closing the door to his bedroom after dinner to do homework. He did not understand that closed doors are considered rude and that he was expected to join them in small talk and television watching to be truly part of the family.
Carroll recalls how an American anthropologist stopping in France en route home from Africa mentioned to her "the distrustfulness of the French, who always kept their shutters closed." In contrast, Carroll's own mother, visiting in Ohio from France, "became aware of the large uncovered bay window in her living room and, visibly shocked, remarked, 'My goodness, you live in the street!" Attitudes toward privacy are culturally determined, what seems cozy to a French person may strike an American as hostile.
Small things, like the way people knock on doors, can spell social chaos. In the United States, a knock is a signal, and we wait to hear if we may come in. In France, the knock is part of opening the door, not a question but an announcement.
Carroll tells us, "We have believed for too long that the best quality is adaptability, repeated for too long that in Rome one should do as the Romans." But adaptability can only go so far, and she estimates that it takes two generations to make the transition from one culture to another. Those in the middle, whom she calls "heterocultural," can suffer from cultural trauma, even after years of apparently successful "adapting," and experience a kind of cultural nervous breakdown. Because the world is so much smaller than it once was, and people from different cultures mix more than ever, Carroll suggests that people suffering from cultural displacement seek a new kind of therapy, cultural analysis, rather than psychoanalysis for their problems.
"Cultural Misunderstandings" is a good introduction to the kind of analysis she prescribes. It is especially useful to anyone about to live abroad for the first time, but may also serve as a source of revelation for those of us who have already traveled and have French friends whose behavior is now finally explained. Gracefully translated, full of colorful anecdotes, Carroll tells us a lot about the French but even more about ourselves.