This semester I’ve had the pleasure of teaching a course that compares French/American culture. During my research for this class, I discovered a new book on the subject of French/American relations by Pascal Baudry, called French and Americans: The Other Shore. Baudry, like many people who have written on the French/American topic, has extensive experience in both the US and France, and previously worked as a psychoanalyst in France. Baudry’s book is essentially written for the French, to explain to them their own culture and help them understand some of the basic foundations of American culture. One of his ideas that I’ve found particularly intriguing is the concept of implicit vs. explicit culture.
Baudry claims that French culture is inherently implicit, meaning that there are many codes that are not transparent to the uninitiated observer. This is contrasted with American culture, which is much more explicit. This idea of implicitness permeates many facets of French life, from conversation to the value placed on abstract thought. What’s more, this ‘implicit’ characteristic of French culture also means that one needs to earn the right to have access to the culture in France. He contrasts this with the US, which he categorizes as more explicit and binary. One of his reasons for this description of the American system has to do with its history and the necessity to assimilate many different groups of people into one country. Baudry argues that the United States historically had to deal with many different demographics and so was forced to create a system where information and culture were transparent and easily available to newcomers.
Basically I think Baudry puts into words something that many foreigners in France feel but have a hard time identifying. I see this idea of implicitness working in two different ways. First and foremost, the French value things that are implicit, so abstraction over concreteness. On a more basic level, I also think there are many processes and procedures in France that are in a way implicit, meaning that they are very complex and not transparent to outsiders. This is my view on implicitness in French culture and I’d like elaborate on each point above.
A great example of implicitness is visible in what I would consider the typical French film. The reason an American might be adverse to watching such a French film is because it’s slow, sometimes boring, and the end is often ambiguous, raising more questions rather than finishing with a happy ending. The ending may suggest what happens to the characters, but not actually show them getting married and living happily ever after. In short, this preference for suggestion over explicitly showing the audience the outcome at the end of the film is an example of the French preference for suggestion over demonstration, implicitness over explicitness.
Getting back to my second point, implicitness also reigns in many processes and procedures in France. I think in particular of administrative processes, which are by far the most frustrating and difficult obstacles for foreigners trying to settle in France. Many of these processes require extensive paperwork, very often that foreigners do not have if they haven’t been living in France very long. Administrative procedures also involve trying to get accurate information from telephone lines which charge by the minute. And these processes also often involve surly French people who don’t want to be bothered by your questions and really just want to go take their cigarette break.
What may seem like a harsh assessment can be explained somewhat by this idea of implicitness. All of the difficulties above are part of a network of ‘knowledge’ and experiences that the average French person understands after having spent his/her life in this system. After living in France for a while, one realizes that even though paperwork is extensive, it is usually the same documents that are required for any administrative procedure. Much proof is required for many procedures, especially those involving money, because many contracts are very difficult to break. And so, providing mountains of justificatifs (proof) helps protect the other person involved (i.e. the landlord, bank, etc.).
The lack of readily accessible information is another matter. This ties in more generally to the fact that France functions less as a consumer culture. More specifically, the client is not entitled to as much information as in the US. Finally, the grumpy civil servant you meet who wants to have a cigarette is another matter. This person may or may not have the answer to your administrative question. Regardless, he/she is probably not concerned by customer service, because he/she has a stable job for life, but also isn’t paid that well. Therefore, civil servants assume that it isn’t their problem if you’re having a difficult time. And they also don’t risk their jobs if they're not helpful or friendly with the public. They will get paid, whether or not they try to help you.
And so here is some of the background that doesn’t necessarily make these administrative procedures more pleasant, but does help to understand why things function as they do here. Just imagine the frustration not only for foreigners but Americans in particular, who expect to have information readily available, telephone customer service lines free and on call 24 hours a day, and few intrusions into their private information (bank accounts, proof of housing, etc.).
To finish, I agree wholeheartedly with this idea of implicit culture. Baudry even goes so far as to claim that because French culture is so implicit, it is the responsibility of the French to ‘decode’ their culture to others to make it more accessible. I hope any French person reading this will take the time, when necessary to help explain their culture to outsiders. There are so many wonderful things to discover about France, and it always makes me saddened when I talk to foreigners who have had enough of being here because of these frustrations that can make daily life extremely complicated.