But I Must Have Some Bias
Of course I have some bias. I’m triggered by international comparisons. So I’m motivated to discuss the issues that make me most crazy. I have a feeling of indignation that I can’t possibly be the only one to experience. I have met a few other people like me. We should have a club. But almost none of me is in academia. Anyway, in order to introduce why I am motived to write about US-Europe clichés, I have to explain first how this moving back and forth between the US and France came about.
I moved to France in 1997, going on sabbatical from Indiana University to the Université de Provence II. I hoped, to put a distance between me and a really bad relationship. I chose France because I spoke German already and I wanted to learn French. I had bent France, both Paris and areas in the south and south-west a number of times. Actually, a famous psychology, Jerome Brunner, told me during a long phone call that I should go to Aix-en-Provence because he had spent time there and liked it. So I moved all by myself, without speaking French and knowing absolutely nothing about what American-French relations were like. It was in the context of taking an intensive French course in Aix that I learned for the first time (wow, I must have been totally sheltered) that in Europe the “typical” American is fat, superficial in all manner of relationship, poorly raised, and poorly educated. These beliefs were actually the topics of daily discussion in my French class, usually linked to a news piece on the radio that we were made to decipher. We didn’t discuss the validity of the cliches, ignoring the fact that I was American. We assumed them and they were a spring board for discussion of articles carefully selected to confirm them. At the time, George W. Bush was in the White House, so there was a lot of grist for the mill.
When, after a year I decided to stay in France to continue to learn French, and then decided to get a job in the CNRS (Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique) because I had met my future 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, healthier both mentally and physically). I recognize this only 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.
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 yet recognize the 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. But I think it does take seven years.
So, after seven years, I understood 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 or adapted 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 believes that smiling is inauthentic, the very fast escalation of political conflict (and by political, I men party politics) 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 psychology 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 coping with that event. I often feel that I cannot handle or do not want to handle some of the experiences on that list there. It might be a failure of mine.
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, and this is another problem to which I will turn empirically in a later post.