Jun 6, 2011

But I Must Have Some Bias

My bias, I admit, is to be really disappointed in the nature and the process of international contact and stereotyping.  To understand why I want to discuss clichés that get thrown back and forth across the Pond, I’ll have to start with my own development on that score.  I can admit my own faults here. 

I moved to France in 1997, going on sabbatical from Indiana University to the Université de Provence II, and, I hoped, from a couple of really bad relationships.  I chose France because I spoke German already and I wanted to learn French.  It was in the context of taking an intensive French course in Aix-en-Provence that I learned what many Europeans thought about Americans.  I had traveled in Europe quite a bit, but I had never really learned the depth of these beliefs, which were that Americans are: imperialistic, fat, superficial in all manner of relationship, poorly raised, and poorly educated. These beliefs were often topics of daily discussion in my French class, usually linked to a news piece on the radio that we were made to decipher. 

When after a year I decided to stay in France to continue to learn French, ad then decided to get a job in the CNRS (Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique) because I had met my husband (who is German), my strategy was to more or less accept the stereotypes.  I didn’t ever buy the superficiality thing, but I for the most part I acknowledged whatever people said and agreed that la vie in Europe, and France in particular, was plus sane (basically less stressful, and therefore healthier).  I recognize this now as a strategy; one that I do not recommend to other people.  The other assimilation strategy that I adopted was to avoid the anglophone community altogether.  In fact, I did not really befriend any Americans until I had lived in France for about 5 years.  My first son was born in 2001 and I wanted him to be around other English speakers.  I think my psychology colleagues in the US found this a bit too much, and they were right.

A social psychologist friend of mine once said that it takes seven years to really decide how you feel about a new country, and I think he is on to something.  Embracing a new country is like having a new lover.  At first, everything is novel and exciting.  You do not understand the meaning either both good or bad characteristics of that person (country), you are just charmed -- or think you are charmed -- all of the time.  You also do not yet recognize the problems that your future in-laws (the history and the culture of the country) have transmitted to the person (current country), or that those problems can never really be eliminated from the relationship (country).  And, you cannot rid yourself of your own family (the history and culture of your country) and just become a new person in that context.  There is also the problem that your lover (country) may have limited knowledge of or a frank lack of interest in your family (history and culture).  It takes at least seven years to figure this out.  Or it could be that I am slow.

So, after seven years, I realized that France can, of course, be just as stressful and therefore unhealthy, as any other (let's say, Western) country if you are not used to its particular sources of stress.  For instance, if you are habituated to a style of driving that reflects a hostile relationship with authority, a service sector that has this same relationship, the very fast elicitation of conflict in the workplace, and the fact that people constantly judge and comment on the behavior of your children in public (I have a story about that for another time too), then perhaps the stress is lower in France than some other country.  But if you are not used to or do not condone those things, then the stress can be higher.  In psychlogy we know that stress has to do with people’s evaluation of the severity of the event that they are confronting, and their resources for handling that event.  I often feel that I cannot handle some of the experiences on that list there.  It might be a failure of mine, as I certainly am not bragging here.

But the point is that stress, like everything else about a country, is in the eye of the beholder.   Another point is that some pleasurable things may or may not outweigh these problems in everyday life.  But people do not know what makes them happy, so this is a very complicated problem, and another problem to which I will turn empirically in another post.

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