Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Why are the French Fair Game for ...

In my last post one of the comments asserted without justification that The French will never be as good at Engineering as the Germans. Rather than ponder if this is racist or bigoted, I would challenge the poster to either give HARD EVIDENCE that this has been true in the past, and a REASON to think it will continue. I still stand by the notion that globalization will make all of these local factors go away. Mainly because locality is not longer as important as it once was.

However, that is not the topic of my post. My topic is the French and bigotry against them.
  1. Upon coming back from CCC 2009 several people said It was in France. Were they rude to you as the French are apt to be? Several of the people who said this never met a French person.
  2. There was a line on the ST-VOY along the lines of No wonder he is arrogant- he is half-French and half-Romulan (note- this is from memory so it may be off but something close to it is true)
Can you imagine someone saying to me When you go to the Jewish Deli do they try to rip you off? or when you teach in that summer program for students from HBCU's (historically black colleges and Universities) are many of the students lazy? on crack? or When you go to Dagstuhl Complexity (Workshop in Germany, I"ll be there in October) make sure they don't know you have Jewish ancestry. We would all find such statements distasteful and bigoted. Yet a remark about the French being rude or arrogant seems commonplace. Not even the forces of Political Correctness (be they real or imagined) seem to object to bigotry against the French.

Star Trek already stereotypes entire races, though they are fictional and of their own creation, so I suppose that's okay. However, the show seemed to be against bigotry, most glaring in Let this be your last battlefield from ST-TOS (more commonly known as The one with the half-black, half-white guys). The other shows had much less on this topic. (Side Note--- the later Star Trek series were undercut by the fact that you no longer needed to be a Science Fiction show to talk about controversial issues. For example, there was an episode of ST-VOY that was a metaphor for AIDS. It seemed silly since other TV shows talk about it explicitly.)

I may be wrong about all of this, so let me rephrase it as several questions: (1) Is stereotyping the French acceptable in modern American society? (2) If so why is that given that stereotyping other groups is largely unacceptable (at least in the circles most of us travel in). (3) Am I a Trekker or a Trekkie?


  1. Groups such as French people, white people (in general), and men do not have a long history of being oppressed and persecuted. So generally speaking, they tend not to be as touchy about any negative stereotypes that might remind them of the past including and especially the unhappy incidents of childhood.

  2. Because I am not often ripped off at a Jewish deli, and the blacks I know are not usually lazy or on crack, and I've never had a German treat me bad because of my Jewish ancestry. However, when I go to France, they are usually rude to me in customer service.

    This doesn't mean that the French are rude -- maybe they are rude to Americans because to them we are arrogant, but are otherwise very nice. But it does explain why it is more politically correct to say this stereotype than the others.

  3. I have to be cautious in saying this, but I think part of the reason why Americans love to bash the French is that they cannot accept how the French can be so "insert your favorite adjective here" and still get to enjoy all the good things that Americans secretly envy them for. Really, it comes down to differences in lifestyle, and the French simply seem to value different things than the Americans, and the Americans don't think this is fair.

    Curiously, something similar happens in India, between North Indians and the rest; e.g., people from the north and west usually find it OK to stereotype people from the east and south. Comes down to the same thing---basic lifestyle differences. Moreover, this relation is often not commutative because of the very same culture is more "casual" in its outlook than the other, so it actually doesn't mind the differences.

  4. (as the poster of the mentioned comment) In retrospect, I do not have hard evidence of why french are not as good engineers as germans, and perhaps this is not correct (perhaps it is though). Because I cannot defend it, it was a bad example.

    But I would defend myself if such a statement is called bigoted or racist. Whether it is depends on how people interpret it. I interpret it as follows:

    We can measure every french person at how good they are at X, and plot the distribution (f). We can do the same for Germans (g). When I make a statement that "the french are not as good as germans in X" I am saying that the expected value of f is significantly lower than g. I am not saying about why this is (it could be connected to culture, or it could be connected to the weather, or it could be connected to the fact that the french never had any need to do X). I am also not saying anything about a particular french person and a particular german person. There is a prior on whether the german is a better engineer, but this prior is usually insignificant given that I would probably have much more information about this people besides that they are french and german.


  5. > (1) Is stereotyping the French
    > acceptable in modern American society?

    It's not just an American thing, it's part of some sort of long standing rivalry between English speakers and French speakers in general.

    I've always found it to be obnoxious and mystifying.

    The notion that the French are rude seems to be taken seriously by lots of Americans, and I'm not sure why. I'm an American who visited France on one occasion, and I didn't find anyone there to be the slightest bit rude.

    Maybe people who felt that French people were rude to them are rude themselves? Or maybe they consider it rude to not understand English? Of course, most people living in France do understand English, but there are probably more non-English speakers there than elsewhere in Western Europe.

    Or maybe its just confirmation bias from people who have previously heard others say that the French are rude.

  6. I recently spent some time with French. They were very sweet, but they sure did resent anything American. I am a non-American living in the states. My French companions attributed the fact that I am enjoying living in the USA to my inexperience. Then they proceeded with a rant on health insurances, American arrogance, and American disregard for the environment.

  7. For what it's worth: I visited Brittany (northwestern France) for about three weeks in a non-tourist, non-academic fashion and most (say >90%) people were kind and helpful. Some facts:

    * I'm not American. Well, I'm Latin American. ;-)
    * I tried as much as possible to spend my time there as a local would.
    * I speak (very) basic French. I did try to speak in French whenever possible; people enjoyed it and encouraged me.
    * Young people do understand and speak English. That's not too common with older people (I noticed the same thing in Italy) for a good reason: even though they might have studied English at school they probably haven't used it much since then unless they need it (e.g. academia, corporations).

    In my country the French are not stereotyped as rude. There's another stereotype for them but I'd rather not write it here. :-)

  8. Paul, you think your reasoning makes your comment not racist? Really? Isn't that basically the definition of racism?

  9. The level of French bashing has diminished quite a bit since the heydays of the Good War.

    Looks like the WMD's were not there after all and that there's another Good War to fight in Afghanistan where the French have eagerly send some troops. So the cheese-eating surrendering monkey stuff has dwindled and we're back to the rude and overconceited French bias, and every Hollywood villain is not a French anymore. That's an improvement.

    Meanwhile, we've elected our own GW/Berlusconi hybrid (actually, not me personaly, but 53% of the French did, and the sad thing is Sarkozy did really win the ballots). So we're not ungrateful snobs anymore. Just rude.

    As one commenter said, most of the bias comes from 800 years of English/Franch rivalry, and 200 years of French/Ferman Rivalry. The USans just got the habit from their former rulers. Just like UK, France suffers from a Lost Empire Complex and just like UK we're mostly irrelevant now, but we've not become the 52nd state. We share the megalomany of the US and none of the actual power. I agree it's something to laugh it, though.

  10. I'm a complete francophile, I love the place and the people, and I think I stereotype them more than most.

    These are mostly positive stereotypes though - their attitude to life, theit priorities, their cuisine, their beautiful language and their sense of style.

    Oh, and the germans are incredible engineers, no-one comes close, except possibly the japanese.

  11. Often the language is a problem and many Americans and also Brits feel insecure in countries where they don't understand the language, even in the hotels. (Yes, lost of staff working in small French hotels, restaurants, or even tourist places, don't speak english or don't want to speak english.) Though it's not only in France; some of my colleagues (from the states) complained once about rude Germans after a conference there, because they had problems buying beer in a pub.

    Also, in the US, lots of anti-French sentiment started with the resistance of France to join US army during the attack on Iraq (cf freedom-fries).

  12. Anonymous says: Groups such as French people, white people (in general), and men do not have a long history of being oppressed and persecuted.

    With respect, no American historian would agree with this ... just look up Mark Twain's hilarious writings on the commonplace 19th century phrase "No Irish Need Apply."

    Perhaps it is in the medium of opera that the spectrum of stereotypical passion is most clearly portrayed ... the tragic operas of warfare, genocide, and destruction ... the romantic operas of forbidden and/or transgressive and/or just plain foolish love ... the opera buffa of comedy and satire.

    The great art is to ensure that our stereotypes---and their big cousin, our archetypes---serve us as wellsprings of love, comedy, satire ... in short, serve us as mirrors of our shared humanity ... without overmastering us as engines of ignorance, hatred, genocide, and our own destruction.

    This separation is IMHO not to be accomplished by any PTIME algorithm ... it really is true (IMHO) that the best heuristic algorithms we have are to be found in opera.

  13. The very few instances of rudeness I've encountered in France, having lived there for several months and visiting maybe a dozen times, have all been in Paris. Most Americans who visit France only visit Paris, so maybe that's where the stereotype comes from, but it makes about as much sense as stereotyping all American driving habits after visiting Boston or Los Angeles.

  14. With respect, no American historian would agree with this ... just look up Mark Twain's hilarious writings on the commonplace 19th century phrase "No Irish Need Apply."

    Key words are "in general".

  15. Oh yeah ... my wife reminds me that the classic Star Trek episode The Enemy Within makes the same point!

    That point being, if the harmful power of stereotypes/archtypes could be eliminated only by giving up their enlivening power too ... well ... maybe we would be well-advised to remain as we are?

  16. Stereotyping the French has a long history in both British (for obvious reasons) and American (by association) literature; the examples I can think of include Voltaire and Mark Twain, although Voltaire was perhaps complaining more about the French aristocracy. Perhaps people are just repeating insults that no longer apply, if they ever did?

  17. Whoops; Voltaire was French himself.

  18. Also, one more recent work that has an in-depth analysis of stereotypical thinking in science is Graham Farmelo's (wonderfully conceived and beautifully written) biography of Paul Dirac, The Strangest Man.

    I started reading Farmelo's book because it discusses the historical origins of Dirac's (stereotypically) geometric/symplectic approach to quantum mechanics ... nowadays Dirac's approach is coming back into fashion because it is advantageous in practical calculations of molecular and spin dynamics.

    But what turned out to be just as interesting was Farmelo's in-depth discussion of Dirac's stereotypically introverted persona, as contrasted with his wife Margit Wigner's stereotypically extroverted (Hungarian) persona.

    Farmelo's account rang true to me ... a stereotypically introverted Swede who is happily married to a stereotypically extroverted Hungarian. For better or for worse (mostly better, if we are fortunate) these issues of stereotyping touch all of us every day, in both our professional lives and our family lives.

    So when it comes to scientists like Dirac, IMHO it is infeasible to understand either the person or the scientific work without touching upon these issues.

    These modern, in-depth, "operatic", scientific biographies seem much better to me than the old-school (boring!) hagiographies that I read as a student, in which these subtle issues were (stereotypically!) ignored.

    There is still one question that bedevils me about Farmelo's biography: in the cover photo: Why is Dirac holding a (skillfully constructed) rubber-band-powered toy airplane?

    The photo that Farmelo chose is troubling precisely because it does not fit any stereotype of Dirac ... that's why it's a great choice! :)

  19. Mr. Sarkozy has Hungarian origins, so he should be a good combinatorist, but probably he is rude and not a particularly good engineer. At least this is my understanding from reading the recent posts on this blog.

  20. I think people of different country or race indeed have many INHERENT differences because of the different physical and cultural genes. A silimar example is from great music, the classical German music, such as Betoven's, is very different from classical music of other parts of europe, a main reason of which is that the pronunciation of German is more non-smooth than Latin language, so Betoven's music have more non-smooth cadence. I also think Globalization doesn't equal that we all people will become the same, many people misunderstand globalization, and maybe globalization will make us more different than before, for example, under globalization, different country will produce more different products instead of more same. Why? Let us consider the physics explanation of our cosmology. Once upon a time, according to Thermodynamics 2nd rule, people believed the cosmos will become the same anywhere, i.e. equilibrium, but this viewpoint is wrong, because Thermodynamics 2nd rule just describes closed system , instead of open system. The newest viewpoint is our cosmos will became highly non-equilibrium, very different anywhere because our univese is open system. The environment in which globalization happens is indeed a open system that have new input, new problem, new future,and many new condition we have never encounter. I admire the host of this blog as a high-level scientist, but I disagree the non-science viewpoint to the Paul's post. Political correctness deny the difference, and always equal the difference and discrimination, which indeed make real discrimination on some people find difference, A famous example is James Watson, one of the two discoverers of DNA. By the way, I am a Chinese without any discrimination.

  21. I think no one can doubt that Mr. Sarkozy is rude and not a good engineer :p

  22. There is always a bit of a culture shock when I go back to France. Examples from this summer:

    - At the supermarket, a man brings his items to the cashier, who rings it up; the man says: "Well, how much is it?"; the cashier answers: "You didn't say Good morning or Hello or any kind of greeting. That's no way to treat a cashier! Why should I talk to you?" Upon which the man apologized and she let him pay and gave him his change.

    - At a horse show, the two persons giving the introduction says in the microphone: "Do you want to see horses doing tricks?" (The people: Yeah!) "Do you want to see horse riders wearing beautiful medieval clothes?" (Yeah!) "Do you want to see pretty girls riding?" (Yeah!) Then the man said something clownish, and the woman commented: "Don't listen to him. He's ugly!" (Laughs).

    - A friend's daughter got hazed, not by the other kids, but by her instructor! Who seemed to think it was a normal rite of passage and refused to apologize.

    Coming from the US to France, there is definitely a culture adjustment. I think that people in France are assumed to be tougher -- better able to absorb jibes without getting hurt -- and, perhaps, with practice it becomes true. The same jokes that in France are harmless are hurtful in the US, and with good reason: since they're not in the norm, the person who says them in the US is more likely to be mean.

  23. Interesting to see how much french bashing seems to be a problem in america, there seems to be a lot of web sites from french living in america (like Before, I was thinking it was only one more cliché (juste like anti-americanism seems to be a stereotype in france, and does not really exists practically).

    This reminds me the story of an english friend who was quite upset when a woman at a french airport ask him "what's your problem?", which sounds rude in english, but is a litterate translation of an very polite sentence in french.

    A german friend also told me that the problem was not really that french does not speak english, but that they tend to restrict themselves from speaking a language that they do not master.

    And by the way, there is a true difference in rudeness between touristic areas in Paris and France... even for french people :-)

  24. I think there really is this complicated social code in, let's just say, Paris, which can be hard for outsiders to grok.

    The rebuttal might be that why don't the french exempt outsiders from the code? Maybe what "rude" means is that Parisian french don't exempt outsiders from their rather complicated social code.

    Just tell the woman that they are incomparably beautiful, and the men that they are exceeding handsome, and all will go well.

  25. @Burt
    As a born Parisian, living in Paris for 40 years, I'm not aware of such a complex code.

    Parisians do have a superiority complex over the rest of France (people not from Paris are basically considered Rednecks, even if most of the people in Paris weren't born in Paris), and also, like in most of the heavy touristic destinations, people from the service business are usually awful to customers. Just don't go to the touristic places in Paris. You'll get better service, pay less and won't be overcrowded.

    As for your advice, it sounds like something straight out of a 40's toon with Pepe le Pew. Might not work as advertised.

  26. Of course, having been born in Paris you would not be aware of the code.

    Example. As a general rule, it is necessary to say hello and get a positive response before asking for any assistance.

    Eye contact is highly prized in Parisian society. If you do not offer eye contact you will have problems.

    Do you not feel that is true?

  27. @Burt

    >Example. As a general rule, it is >necessary to say hello and get a >positive response before asking >for any assistance.

    Agreed. It's part of that highly cryptic and sophisticated set of French customs that warrants to say "thank you" and "hello" and "please". No one in is right mind, would behave like this anywhere else.

    As for eye contact, well, if you're talking to someone, it's better to look at him so he knows you're talking to him. I wouldn't say it's highly prized, it's part of basic primate communication patterns I think.

  28. Burt: Just tell the [French] woman that they are incomparably beautiful, and the [French] men that they are exceeding handsome, and all will go well.

    That is a wonderfully positive way to explore GASARCH's questions! Namely, what style of compliments best express stereotypical national affinities?

    Many of the simplest and most effective compliments are simple stereotypical inversions: Complement a young person on their maturity; complement a mature person on their youthful energy; complement a brainy person on their looks; complement a beautiful person on their brains --- these inversion-type complements are appreciated universally.

    There is also (in Europe, anyway) seemingly a north-to-south gradient in susceptibility to complements. In Italy, France, Spain extravagant compliments are freely exchanged ... in Germany and Britain some factual basis for the complement is expected ... in Sweden and Norway compliments tend to make people feel distinctly uneasy rather than comfortable.

    Just as Hungarian is a proto-Ugric language that is unrelated to other European languages, the Hungarian attitude toward compliments is also unique: to compliment a Hungarian friend, simply assure them that the power of their intellect and the physicality of their presence make compliments superfluous.

    Your Hungarian friend's immediate reaction will be to change the topic of conversation to one in which it is safe to disagree with you! :)

  29. That is interesting, if and what are the national tendencies towards receiving compliments, In specific, I'll just have to carry out this research plan, compliment some french people and see what happens, write you from the hospital, whatever.

    About Pepe le Pew, the french do call loved ones "my little cabbage". So really, what more can I say? :-)

    Anyway, Hi Claire! hope you are well and happy!

  30. In Italy, France, Spain extravagant compliments are freely exchanged ... in Germany and Britain some factual basis for the complement is expected ...

    In Romance (Latin based) languages your comments are supposed to reflect your current emotional state. In Anglo-Saxon languages they are supposed to reflect your honest take on the world.

    Hence the phrase "I went to a concert and the mezzo singer was the best in the world" for a French speaker means "I went to a concert and was extraordinarily moved by the mezzo" whereas to an English person it means "To the best of my recollection I cannot thing of better sounding mezzo".

  31. Very good examples ... and in Norway "That concert was OK, I guess" might well refer to Pavarotti and Sutherland starring in a Donizetti opera ... because the speaker is concerned that listeners might feel bad if they had missed the concert.

  32. Here's a possible answer to why stereotyping the French is largely acceptable in America, from one of your observations:

    "1. Upon coming back from CCC 2009 several people said 'It was in France. Were they rude to you as the French are apt to be?' Several of the people who said this never met a French person."

    It's also worth noting that many of the most bigoted students in colleges come from suburbia or a similarly homogeneous background. It's much easier to harbor stereotypes and misconceptions about groups that you've never met or interacted with, and most Americans haven't really interacted with French people very much, if at all.

  33. Claire Mathieu said...

    - At the supermarket, a man brings his items to the cashier, who rings it up; the man says: "Well, how much is it?"; the cashier answers: "You didn't say Good morning or Hello or any kind of greeting. That's no way to treat a cashier! Why should I talk to you?" Upon which the man apologized and she let him pay and gave him his change.

    A perfect example of a breed of people (who exist everywhere) who actually think they are polite, but are in fact extremely rude.

    It is in fact polite to say hello, or thank you, but pointing out that someone else failed to do so is much much worse, it's an insult, and they don't even realize. If someone did that to me I'd immediately leave the shop and probably tell them to shove their wares up the rectum, and that reply would be less rude than the cashier's behaviour.

  34. Anonymous said: If someone [committed a rudeness upon me] I would immediately [commit a rudness upon them].

    Game theory tells us that "tit-for-tat" is a nearly optimal strategy ... yet perhaps information theory tells us even more ... ""Tout comprendre, c'est tout pardonner", as the French saying has it ... wouldn't you be more understanding, and inclined to be more polite, if you knew the clerk was an underemployed recent graduate in CS?

  35. if you knew the clerk was an underemployed recent graduate in CS?

    That's entirely impossible in France.

  36. Gosh ... I had no idea that French CS graduates were so well-mannered! :)

  37. To Anonymous 8:52am Aug 29:

    You think the cashier is extremely rude, but that's from your own cultural perspective. Perhaps she feels people are partly responsible for one another: if someone behaves in a way that she finds unacceptable, she feels she obligated to tell him; if on the other hand someone is in trouble, she also feels obligated to help him.

  38. I've tried to avoid commenting on this, but I just have to. I've had two multi-day experiences in France. The first was as a student, on a tour in Paris 20 years ago. The second was for a meeting in Lille, again some years back. In both cases, the people were so unbelievably rude, I wouldn't go back. I mean this to the extent that if a major conference/meeting was held in France, I would avoid submitting a paper. The first time, I was actually traveling with a group of Spanish students, who also found the French in Paris unbelievably rude, so it wasn't simply an American thing.

    Obviously, while I understand the extrapolation to all of France or the French people is unwarranted, I would find nothing bigoted about asking someone who visited France if the French were rude to them, based on my own firsthand experience.


  39. The temptation to take this thread seriously may be relieved by watching The Life Aquatic a few times ... Q: Anne-Marie, do all the interns get Glocks? A: No, they have to share.

  40. Stereotypes of the French are no different in either kind or degree from those of Americans. A typical view by the outside world of Americans is that they:
    (1) have the vacuity of the characters on their exported TV shows,
    (2) have little knowledge of or desire to know the world outside their borders, and
    (3) are at the same time convinced that they are better than everyone else.

    Much of this involves ignorance and exaggeration. However, there are patterns of culture and custom that do impact personal behavior in the aggregate. The values of different cultures are not all the same. It isn't racism to recognize some of these differences in cultural norms.

    For example, many times I have heard Israelis make light of their own national tendency towards being argumentative. Noticing this is very different from being anti-semitic.

    It is only racism if extrapolated beyond differences in cultural norms and tendencies to assertions that people have some inherently different human nature because of those differences in culture.

    BTW: The negative attitude towards France in the US seems fairly recent - though maybe based on earlier British bias. In the late 1940's and 1950's Americans were fascinated with France and the French, as any number of Hollywood movies shows. The independence of France in international affairs (including the spat that led to France's withdrawal from the NATO military command in 1966) seems part of the root of the 'acceptability' of these criticisms. France has seemed less willing to accept US hegemony than have most other Western countries. Also since the Nixon era, France's social-democratic policies and leftist movements have made France an easy example for the right in trying to characterize the left in the US as foreign and un-American.

  41. "Just like UK, France suffers from a Lost Empire Complex and just like UK we're mostly irrelevant now, but we've not become the 52nd state. We share the megalomany of the US and none of the actual power."

    The "irrelevancy" of France in international affairs is easy to overstate. Nobody has quite as many planes, bombs, Bombs (the bomb, that is), ships, etc. as the US does, it's true. But France is a pretty heavy contender in the "light heavyweight" category.

    I suspect a lot of the animosity is due to France's role in the cold war, which was somewhat parallel to the leader of the "loyal opposition". Clearly, if it came down to East/West or Democracies/Soviets, France was a Western Democracy. When internal frictions were at stake, however, France was often the opponent.

    This was probably a good thing, overall, but every leader is annoyed by the guy at the party who is trying to draw everyone off in a different direction.