Can we ever really compare cultures? Is it fruitful to say the US does X, and France does Y?
In a conversation with a friend the other day, he brought up that this comparison between France and the US is like comparing apples and oranges.
And yet, it's something I hear French people constantly do, and something I'm obviously doing in this blog. So is this a useful exercise, or are we just looking to draw parallels that don't exist?
It's true that every culture is unique and I think can only be fully grasped in its context. When taken out of this, it becomes meaningless, or much harder to decode. I think of my students watching American films and series and not catching many of the social codes because it's not understood in context, with enough background on American culture.
We can say that this is where stereotypes come from. After all, as Raymonde Carroll puts it well in her book Evidences Invisibles, stereotypes are really just examples of misunderstandings between two cultures. If I say the French typically do X, I'm saying just as much about Americans (and what we don't do) as I am about the French.
I also think that cultural comparison is like language. There are times when it may not be incredibly productive to compare France and the US (say if someone wants to argue that Americans are racist, a statement I've heard often over here). For me, this is in the same way that our native language can cause interference and sometimes, bad, literal translations into a second language.
And yet, I also think these 'bad translations' are inevitable. Our own culture is what we know, and we can't avoid using it as a model to understand a new culture, anymore than we can't avoid using our native language to help us understand the workings of a different language.
In terms of language, it's important to note where the two diverge (in French we say x but in English we say y). But in culture, I think it's important to explore why and for what possible reasons are the two different?
This is never a finished discussion and it's fraught with possibilities for overgeneralization. Nevertheless, I think the exercise in itself is what's important. Even if you don't end up with a satisfying explanation for why Americans do this and the French do that, the fact that you're interested in understanding in the first place is what matters to me.
If you're here, I hope this kind of understanding is what you're looking for.