In 1997 I moved to France, to Aix-en-Provence, for a year on sabbatical from Indiana University. I wanted to write and to learn French. I stayed and got a job as a researcher with the National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS), working at Université Blaise Pascal in Clermont-Ferrand. I lived in France for 13 more years (with a year sabbatical in the US after 10 years), married a German, raised two step-sons (whose mother is French), and had two little German-American sons (not French, confusingly for them, because in France there is the law of paternity, meaning that at least one of your parents has to be French for you to have that nationality; or you can wait and apply for this as an adult). I already spoke pretty fluent German, but I had to learn fluent French, which took more than four years of hard work and a lot of tears. When, in 2006, I moved with the whole family to Madison, WI for a year-long sabbatical at the University of Wisconsin, I was stunned. I realized that for 10 years, I had listened to what the French said about Americans and about themselves, and just accepted everything as truth. Most of what they said about themselves was positive, and most of what they said about Americans was very negative. Especially in academic circles.
I learned in my first year in France that the French (and most Europeans) believe Americans to be fat, superficial, imperialistic, arrogant, and pretty simplistic, if not stupid. Less well-raised and less well-educated. I didn’t do a good job of sticking up for the US in part because I was so out of context that I couldn’t remember the truth. When I went on sabbatical, I was both embarrassed at myself and enraged about clichés. Sure, some behavioral facts are true (Americans have a greater problem of obesity, for instance), but the interpretations of what that behavior (e.g., obesity) means were often so far off the mark, or just downright ignorant, that I reeled. The frustrating fact was that while countries are in general pretty ignorant about each other, US-Europe clichés are not symmetrical in their value. While some Americans say stupid negative things about France (and other countries in general) many say stupid (in the sense of incorrect, with data available) positive things. This is mostly not true abroad. Few consensual clichés about the US coming from Europe are falsely (or correctly) positive.
This asymmetry (US is bad and everywhere else is somehow better) describes not only informal beliefs (clichés) but also, perhaps more dangerously, some of the science of culture. Cross-cultural psychologists quite often “find” things wrong with the US and “find” things right with other (their!) cultures. This seems inevitable for the following reason: Most cultural psychologists come to the US and tell Americans what the US is like. They learn English pretty well, and comment on the differences between their culture and American culture. However, American cross-cultural psychologists do not go abroad and live and work for years (and fully master the language) in other countries. Partly this is unsurprising because North American academic and scientific institutions have some very nice features that are hard to give up. But if American scientists do not go abroad and actually be part (live, work, speak) of other cultures, they can not serve as the natural interpretive correction for inaccuracies in the conclusions and interpretations that cultural psychologists who immigrate to the US quite naturally make.
The problem is even bigger than it seems because since Americans tend to have inaccurately positive clichés about other countries (e.g., thinking kids abroad to be better raised or better educated; thinking that other cultures are more worried about others than the self), then anything that the transplanted scientist says is accepted without question. They already believed that their country was inferior, so when a visitor tells them this, they simply agree. This is like a European saying to me (before I learn German or French) that their interpersonal relationships are deeper and more meaningful than those in in the US. I say, “Yes,” because I can’t tell yet (and because I had already accepted that cliché as fact). It is only when I do learn the language and the culture that I can say, “no, in the US our relationships are not less good. It is just that good and deep involve different behaviors. Ones that you don’t recognize as important.”
I think that people and scientists should not judge one another, but rather try to understand differences. Testing whether relationships in one culture are “better” than in another. Testing whether people are “happier” in one culture than another. These are not scientific questions; these are competitive and hostile gestures.
I moved back to France in 2007 and then lived there until late 2011, when I moved permanently with my family to Madison, WI. So here is my blog. I love the US, and France and Germany (countries I have a personal connection to, and whose language I can speak). If I take on clichés in a way that seems to favor the US, this is only because my best ability is to inform the misunderstandings of this country. However, wherever I can, I unpack the negative and positive clichés about other countries and their artifacts. The goal is to show how many ways we misunderstand each other, not to find one culture or country better than another. And if I ever fail in this, I sure hope that the reader comments to correct me. I don’t need to be right; we all need to be fair.