The Cliché of Liking

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I met someone at a party recently who said they had happened upon my blog.  I forgot to ask why or how. “It’s really interesting,” he said.  And then after a moment, he added, “You didn’t like living in France, huh?” Actually, he is Austrian, so he probably didn't say "huh?" but rather something closer to, "nicht wahr?"  I asked how many posts he had read, and he admitted that he had read only one, the post called Top-down vs Bottom-up. Oh, I said, it is true that I didn’t like the institutional structure that I worked in. Or perhaps any of the educational structures in France. 

Does that mean I didn’t like living in France?  The reason to think and write about clichés in the first place is to worry about the basis for liking or not liking.

Here is the real truth:  I liked living in France and I also prefer living in the US.  I also like living in Germany.  And I have lived and will always live some amount of my life in each country (France, because I lived there for 14 years and gave birth to both of my sons there, and Germany, because my husband is from Munich). But I like all of those three countries, the ones I understand best, for reasons that fall well outside of the clichés that I hear in my social environment.  This is probably because the better you understand a country, the more your likes and dislikes are based on how you fit into the deep structure of the country, and indeed the relationship between any particular feature and all others. 

The features of a given country are not, finally, separable.  The problem of inseparability means that some potentially likable aspects of a country become less desirable once you comprehend the role that they play in the whole of its history and culture. You have gone beyond the cliché of something you just find “nice” or even “better” (than in  your country) while on a visit, and find it less good or even unbearable when actually living it.  The reverse is also true such that some things that you thought you did not like become neutral or even positive once you understand how they fit in the whole.

I think that what people end up liking about a country, then, is not individual aspects of it, but rather the extent to which they can be themselves or a different, “desired” self in that context.  France, for instance, allowed and allows me to be many selves that I desire: a speaker of French, a negotiator at the flea markets, a finicky, discriminating taster of cheese, a train traveler (unless there is a strike), and a ritualized Sunday-afternoon-hiker-and-picnicker. Notice that none of this involves an evaluation of a particular content, just of  myself: I do not believe that French cheese is always better. I just like how I get to deal with it in the formagerie or in the market.  It is my experience of buying cheese, not merely the cheeses, that determines my liking judgment.

The same thing is true of my liking the United States (in addition to the fact that having lived outside of it, I can now say that I am American by culture).  “How is your family adapting to living in the US?” people ask me in Europe all of the time, usually expecting me to fall apart and admit that we are moving back to France.  We are great.  All of us.  But each of us is probably great for an entirely different set of reasons. And that has to be true, because every member of my six-person family wants to and can be different desired selves here where we live in Madison, Wisconsin.

I want to be an esteemed colleague at an American university, and a cross-country skier, a winter bike rider, a Friday fish fry diner, a National Public Radio and a popular music (in order to keep up with my boys) listener, a drive-my-kids-to-swim-team mother, a no-stress driver, a smiler and a smile recipient, and a Northern Midwesterner (with all that means to me, personally).  I want to exercise my job and talk to my friends the way I was raised to do it.  And my sons want to be other things that I would never assume to know.  They seem to me to want to be school club members, and public school pupils, and band members, and swim, soccer, and ice hockey team players, and stand-up comics, and American history buffs.  But who knows?

The reason that clichés and even generalizations do not work here is that I can’t imagine some of my American friends, never mind some of my European ones, necessarily finding their desired selves in Madison, Wisconsin.  My friend, Vic, lives in South Carolina and is from Oklahoma originally.  He can achieve all sorts of desired selves in South Carolina. If I presume to guess, Vic can be his desired weekend golfer self, and watch-my-kids-play-outdoor-sports-almost-all-year dad, and fly home to attend University of Oklahoma football at the drop of a hat fan, and driver of a Ford half ton pick-up, and manager of American reports at work.  These are not selves that Vic would necessarily attain, at least in the same way, in Madison, Wisconsin. 

In the end I do not think that what is pertinent to behavior is people’s liking or disliking of whole countries or populations of people.  The subtext of conversations about liking countries is how much people like their expressed identities in those countries.  And even this changes over time.

So, no, I do not dislike France at all.  I just don’t appreciate it for the reasons cliches might dictate!

Paula NiedenthalComment