Jun 16, 2011

Who Am I to Say?

Let me just stop right here and ask that question: Who am I to say anything about the U.S. and Europe, other than that I believe that clichés are often perpetuated by impatient and indignant people who don’t understand each other, and that that description characterizes a lot of us a lot of the time.  The certainty with which people assert clichés worries me.  That’s why I want to insist that the best we can do is ask for data, or at least for any evidence at all for a claim (for instance, the first step in making a claim is to have been in the country per se).

The problem with any of us claiming anything about anyone else is that we make other people behave in certain ways just by being who we are (not because of who they are).  The first thing that a European shakes hands with when they meet me is my American-ness.  Similarly, when an American is meeting a European, their first instinct is to assimilate the European to what they believe about his or her national group.  This word, “assimilation” (used in psychology) is a word that means using a category:  It is like, “ah ha!  Here is an X, they must be very X-like.”  You have probably been assimilated too, or if you haven't you should find out how it feels.  And you can feel it happening: Some person assumes that you have all the good or nasty traits that they believe your group X has.  And then they treat you that way. 

Here is the real kicker: if you think that someone is some way, then you can make it happen!  You can prove yourself right.  Just like a magician.  This fact, called the Pygmalion Effect in social psychology (also, the “self-fulfilling prophesy”), is a hugely robust phenomenon.   It means that if you think that Americans are poorly raised or Germans are rigid or the French are arrogant, then you can make it so.  Your beliefs will make you treat them like they are that way, and they’ll respond by being that way.  Of course, some Americans, Germans, and French are that way, or at least some appear to do or be what you think they all do or are (although the behavior or way of being might be have a totally different meaning – or possibly a complete lack of meaning – to them).  With your self-fulfilling prophesy working over-time, other people help you right out with your faulty reasoning.  You can keep on keeping your clichés, because you can accord a lot of attention and importance to them, and ignore all of the people who don’t seem to have the American, German, or French traits that you are so sure they have.

If, for some reason, an American or German or French person behaves really differently from your expectation, and you can’t deny it, they sometimes benefit from (or are hurt by) a “contrast effect.”   I have benefited from contrast effects over the years.  For instance, I have often been introduced in academic contexts as the “American who went in the other direction” (i.e., I moved from a U.S. university to a European one).  Because in moving to Europe I was acting in an un-American (non-imperialistic and non-capitalistic) way, some Europeans have been happy with me about that.  I could bask in the contrast effect of not acting American.  The same thing happens all the time regarding the fact that I speak French fluently (which was long and hard in coming, and which, attention, does not mean I do not make errors). 

Once when my French was not yet fluent (I had been in the country for three or four years), I was in les Galeries Lafayette in Paris during the summer sales.  I was waiting to talk to a sales person when an American man rushed up and asked, in English, where to buy cologne.  The sales person did not speak English, and the word in French for cologne is not cologne said in a French accent (in case you need the word, it is parfum homme, man-perfume).  Increasing the volume did not help the sales person understand the word.  After he had been loud and she had been rude and sent him away (thus assuring that her belief about Americans and his about the French had been confirmed for the 10,000th time), another sales person came by.  She asked her recently-aggressed colleague, ça va?  The latter just grunted.  So, I said in French, “Well, she just had a run-in with an American customer.”  Both of the sales people looked at me in delight.  How fun! They thought, some weird American-like alien who speaks French and can identify and categorize typically American behavior.    

I do not know the American man and maybe someone told him that cologne in French was the English word said in a French accent.  Maybe he was rushing to a plane.  But, I totally benefitted from the contrast.  After some whispering and promising and giggling, the dress that was on sale for 30% off and the coat that was 50% off were now reduced 70%, and so was a scarf that I picked out at the last minute.

The point is that what we know about Country Y is what is it like to be an X in Country Y.  As an X, we will never know what it is like to be a Y in Country Y.   This is a fact that makes me worry about cross-national studies of any type.  Who can understand both countries well enough to compare them?  After about four years in France, I felt like I understood some things about living in France.  But after 14 all I know is that my understanding of things is very tenuous and that I am the last person to explain anything.

You should remind me of that if I pretend to know more than I possibly can.

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