Review: Cultural Misunderstandings by Raymonde Carroll

Published in 1987; 147 pages; ★★☆☆☆

“Of course, we are all human.  But we speak thousands of different languages, which makes us no less human, and do not find it inconceivable to learn a variety of “foreign” languages.  Yet we refuse to accept the idea that we communicate with others through something similar to languages, “languages” of which we are unaware – our cultures – despite the fact that we speak a great deal today about cultural differences.”

Raymonde Carroll presents an intriguing and thoughtful analysis of the many ways French and Americans—and indeed any members of different cultures—can misinterpret each other, even when ostensibly speaking the same language. Cultural misunderstandings, Carroll points out, can arise even where we least expect them—in our closest relationships. The revealing vignettes that Carroll relates, and her perceptive comments, bring to light some fundamental differences in French and American presuppositions about love, friendship, and raising children, as well as such everyday activities as using the telephone or asking for information.
(From Goodreads)

This review requires a preface:  I am thoroughly aware that a lot of my perception of this book is, ironically, shaped by cultural premises.  For one thing, American standards of scholarship are different – it would be unusual to see an American scholarly book with no list of references or index.  A text lacking these acknowledgements of other research reads, to me, more like an opinion piece than true nonfiction.

With that said… fundamentally, I found there to be a kind of irony here.  On the one hand, I’m fairly convinced that Carroll wrote this in good faith; that she believes in the power of cultural analysis to resolve misunderstandings; and that she’s earnest in her desire to understand different perspectives.  On the other hand, there’s very little indication in this book that she actually sought out American viewpoints, and her analysis ended up feeling one-sided and shallow.

I couldn’t help but compare Cultural Misunderstandings to You Just Don’t Understand, as both works share the goal of explaining communication difficulties and repairing or avoiding conflict between groups.  One of the striking differences between them was that, though I shared a perspective with Deborah Tannen, I often felt challenged by the arguments she presented and compelled to re-evaluate my perspectives and assumptions.  By contrast, Carroll seems to spend much of her pagetime explaining the French perspective, even though this book was initially published for a French audience.  She also goes into much greater detail regarding motives behind French behavior than she does for Americans, which makes her analysis seem unbalanced in favor of the French way of doing things.

Of course, one factor here is that, personally, I disagree with the premise that it’s possible to contrast all Americans to another nation, especially one with a shared history that’s centuries longer than the United States’.  Obviously, every country has cultural variation and diversity, but the differences between, say, Southern California and rural Georgia, or Harlem, NY, and Anchorage, AK are… pretty dramatic.  This is an area in which Carroll’s lack of source citations or details about her research was a stumbling block for me, because had she made a thorough survey of at least major geographic regions and determined that yes, it was possible to categorically say ‘Americans do X’, I wouldn’t have this objection.  But it’s hard to accept, for instance, the idea that Americans converse less with people in customer service when that’s actually contentious across different regions.  Carroll mentions these regional variations at the end, but dismisses them as ‘surface differences’:

 “The difference is in the manner of expression, not in the meaning of that which is expressed.”  

But… this is a meaningless distinction, because those two things are connected.  I could say the same thing about French and American friendship, as Carroll describes them – the French express friendship in a way Americans might find caustic, and Americans in a way the French might find coddling, but ‘what is expressed’ is fundamentally the same: a bond between two people.  Dismissing the connection between ‘manner of expression’ and ‘what is expressed’ without clarification of meaning essentially writes off the bulk of Carroll’s own book.

(Personal aside:  Having hosted three European exchange students and interacted with quite a few other Europeans, particularly French people, I feel like the sheer geographic scale of the United States can be difficult to grasp if you live in a small country.  An American might drive for two or three days home from college at the end of a semester; that’s longer than the drive from Paris to Budapest.  I have a sneaking suspicion that works like this, which paint the US with a broad brush, contribute to this initial incomprehension.)

There were some things Carroll presented that I found interesting – although often the conclusions I came to were different than those she enumerated.  For one, I felt that as she presented it, French society seemed strikingly individualistic in motives, but in a different way than individualism is presented in the States.  For instance, the chapter on child-parent relationships emphasizes the need for the parent to publicly rebuke their child in order to demonstrate that they (the parent) are fulfilling their social obligations.  This is an act which appears to be about the parent’s social status, as an individual; it says ‘look, I’m doing things right’.

“In other words, by scolding, slapping, and repeating “Are you going to stop that?” I am justifying myself in the eyes of others.  If my child behaves poorly, it is not my fault, I’ve done everything I could to make things different.”

This also seems to come up in the chapter on small accidents; the French people mentioned in the examples criticize their hosts for creating the circumstances of an accident, thus validating their own social status at the cost of their host’s.

There are some areas in which I felt that Carroll completely trivialized American relationships.  Chief among them was her approach to the supportive component many close relationships have.   Her commentary on American couples:

“In order to prove my love completely, I must support him without reserve or hesitation, as is obvious in my good mood and my smiling face.”

And on American friendships:

“John must not take my adversary’s side; on the contrary, he must agree with me, since he is supposed to be another me.”

Reading these analyses, I found myself genuinely wondering if Carroll had ever… actually experienced or observed a close American friendship.  The way she writes about these relationships (or, in fairness, the way Carol Volk translates her writing) makes it sound like mutual support is an uncomfortable burden limiting the behavior of the people involved – rather than a choice made out of a genuine affection for the other.  (As someone with anxiety and depression, I feel like the French model of friendship as described here would be wildly unhealthy for me.)

The height of absurdity is her analysis of the role of secrets in American friendships:

“One also tells “secrets” to friends.  I will therefore consider myself to be the exclusive repository of my friends’ secrets, tacitly sworn to complete discretion.  This situation has interesting implications.  The first is that I must have enough secrets to be able to share one with each of my friends.  (If I have fewer secrets, does that mean I will have fewer friends?)  The second implication is that I will feel betrayed if I learn that I am not the sole repository of a particular secret; hence the feeling of possessive jealousy which logically has no place in friendship.  The third implication is that, in order to be assured of total secrecy, I will keep my friends from becoming friends, or even keep them from meeting each other.  This would imply that American friendships are generally dyadic in nature.”

This is one of the few areas where she cites examples, but… tellingly, all of her supporting anecdotes describe friendships between children.  There’s no evidence given to suggest that this is a pattern that continues into adulthood, and as an American adult, my own anecdotal experience is that adulthood brings both group friendships and pairs, often with overlap between those categories (IE, two people might have a dyadic friendship but also be part of a larger group).  The quantification of secrets, especially the idea that one ‘must have enough secrets to be able to share one with each of my friends’ is wholly unsubstantiated.
It feels, on the whole, as if Carroll wrote this book without ever discussing it with someone of a different cultural background.  The outcome is that, while as an American I think I learned some interesting things about French behavior (or at least, Raymonde Carroll’s perspective on French behavior), I’m not sure a French reader would glean similar insights, because Carroll doesn’t represent an American perspective as thoroughly as she presents her own French one.  Of course any effort towards cultural comprehension is to be applauded, but I just don’t see this one being as useful as it wanted to be.


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