In my ten years living with a Frenchman, and the 4 + years actually living in the country (I know, I’m a total expert already) I’ve started noticing a difference in how we celebrate success and praise towards each other, ourselves and even our children compared to the French. When it comes to applauding success, the French seem to take on a more reserved stance compared ‘les Anglosaxons’, who tend to overdo it – so I set myself the challenge to find out why.
It’s been my experience in France that they don’t want to give their praise away all at once, often choosing not to overdo. If you’re doing something well, it’s kind of a given that they appreciate it and it doesn’t always need to be said out loud. Positive feedback is given less frequently, and when you do get some, it’s often less intense. Negative feedback is not always viewed as criticism, but rather a way to help you advance and develop yourself or your project further. An Anglophone, on the other hand, is quick to externally praise someone’s efforts and tends to sugar-coat negative feedback to sometimes soften the impact. Just look at the different ways in how French and Anglophones applaud in a crowd; you’ll notice that the Anglophone’s side is often louder and more enthusiastic (or at least on the outside), even if the show wasn’t all that great. Of course, like any opinion piece, all this remains a gross generalization of both cultures. Not all French are negative nit-pickers when it comes to success, nor do I view all Anglophones as coked-up cheerleaders who’ll praise any little thing. Nevertheless, I remain intrigued by the subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) differences between the two approaches in telling someone they’ve done a good job.
During the French Revolution, noble families had to play it down a bit after the king was beheaded and aristocrats were guillotined (yep, that’ll do it). People with a more comfortable upbringing learned how to be discreet about their wealth, which seems to have grown into an everyday mindset in present day France. One could argue that someone’s ‘wealth’ not only gives an indication of their financial status, but can equally refer to their general success and accomplishments in life. Leaning on that, we can perhaps contribute it even further to the historical influence of the Catholic Church in France. France in itself is a secular country, however, we can still see remnants of the church’s modest influence; as people do not want to be seen as someone greedy nor as showing off their riches. With that in mind, perhaps one of the reasons people don’t openly celebrate success as much in France, is due to its underlying mentality towards ‘wealth’ in general?
An underlying focus on the negative
Any French person will easily admit that they are systematically negative. That doesn’t mean they don’t know how to take a break or have a good laugh. Far from it, after all, they coined the term ‘joie de vivre; but it’s true that it’s an underlying sentiment in their everyday life as they are ‘taught’ to be gloomy by elements of their own culture. Somebody who is ‘too positive’ could be considered naive and unaware of possible negative consequences to a situation. In fact, being negative might even be seen as being more intelligent to preview possible defects and risks that another (less clever) person might have missed. A French person (especially in the workplace) wants to be viewed as smart and competent, and not as naive and a dreamer. One must act serious to be taken seriously. This seriousness (aka initial negative approach) is also present in the French language. Something is either very much on top or very bad, but they don’t have words to describe an ‘in between’. A movie was “pas mal” (not bad) rather than “good” and describing someone good looking as “pas moche” (not ugly) seems an unnecessary detour to the word “beautiful”.
In saying that, the French’s seemingly (but unintentional) demotivating or unappreciative behavior might not always be such a bad thing. After all, we do learn best from our mistakes and if the intention of negative feedback is to be constructive, then we can only develop ourselves further. The Anglophone’s desire to be (too) politically correct or extra positive, isn’t always the way to go either, and sometimes leads to miscommunication. Someone might feel praised by positive comments and encouragement, and completely miss any negative feedback/suggestions that were subtlety worked into the compliment.
I think it’s important to take on the French’s inclusion of negativity, and view it as a helpful tool in self-development (e.g.: being analytical, thinking before you act, etc) however, I do believe a healthy dose of positivity should not be seen as naive, but rather as a motivational force to take on new challenges.
Where the French tend to somewhat hold back on praise, the Anglophones tend to go a little overboard at times with it. Praise isn’t just about how we appreciate others, but also how we celebrate our own success. We say we are our own worst critic, but the French turn that into a subtle art form, if you ask me. The so called arrogance of a Frenchman is just a smart cover for deeper self-confidence issues and harsher self-criticism. I’ve often seen French colleagues or friends play down their achievements towards their fellow countrymen (even though they seem more open about their success around Anglophones). Be it because of an underlying insecurity that they feel they might be judged, or the fear that they would be perceived as ‘showing off’, a French person often shies away from tooting their own horn.
Anglophones, again, are natural self-promoters; and when we’ve worked hard on a project we have no issue is sharing our excitement about it. That doesn’t mean we feel the need to show off or act better than everyone else, but we don’t see the point in dumbing down a great achievement, especially if a lot of effort went into it (by the way, I just wrote and published a book which you can find in my bio below…. thought I’d throw that one in there … you know, as an example of course! 😉
Others argue that the French’s deficiency in praising others is a jealousy thing. In a country that strives on the concept of ‘liberté, egalité, fraternité’ (everyone’s in this together), the ones that sometimes outshine the average, are not necessarily always celebrated. France is not particularly known for its overt praise of the upper class. However, jealously is not limited to faceless millionaires, but includes those in our own social network that have accomplished above average success. For example, I live in the 93 (the ghetto some might argue, but it’s perfectly fine… just wanted to set the record straight). When speaking to a friend who grew up in this area, and later became extremely successful as an entrepreneur, I was surprised at the reactions he received from his family and friends. For years he had educated himself, worked hard and gave up a lot to build his achievement and success and the first reaction his loved ones gave him was ‘oh, Mister Big shot has moved up into the world’. I was rather surprised at such as response, because someone who went through such efforts to achieve something they believed in, shouldn’t be made to feel guilty about it.
I wish I could say the Anglophone’s are not jealous, as a counter argument, but we totally are. The only difference is we’re not as open about it and will often keep that little gem of resentment for ourselves (letting it consume us from the inside out… like a petty tumor). Which approach is better then, you might ask?
The French have a very different way to praising and encouraging their children. The school system focuses on a very strict curriculum and there is little to no room for coddling and sheltering them from the wee, big, bad world. If anything, and I see this as a very positive note, children are allowed to explore their world a lot earlier and are encouraged to be autonomous.
Anglophones, in a general sense of course, take on the ‘everyone get a trophy’ approach. They avoid certain words because they sound too negative and children are praised for the smallest achievements with the aim to lift up their self-confidence. However, if you tell a child they are amazing at every little thing they do, and no negativity shall ever penetrate their growing, young minds; how can we expect them to learn and develop themselves further?
Undoubtedly, in order to prove a point, I’m looking at two rather extreme ends of parenting and their approach to praise. But what I’m trying to say is that, again, a mix of the two would work best. When children earn praise for doing something well and putting in the effort, they’ll start appreciating the true sense of accomplishment, which in turn, motivates them to learn more and excel even higher.
I don’t know if I actually answered my own question on why the French approach can be so different from the Anglophone, but I do see hybrid of both emerge more and more each day. After all, we’re living in a fabulous mixing pot of cultures these days. All I can say for certainty is, when a French person does give you praise, it’s intended and it’s sincere. In a way, you could say it carries more weight than the praise that’s given away too easily.
By Stefanie Selen
Stefanie is the author of “The Tough Cookie Philosophy” and creator of the self-development brand “Life’s Recipe Book’.A former psychologist who went from private practice, to professional training & development; she now spends her time writing, training and coaching executives. As well as a successful health professional, she is a mother of two, wife of one, and veteran expatriate. Stefanie significant time living abroad has opened her world to new experiences and interesting people, and has given her a head start in developing a kick-ass growth mindset . Her wit and sense of humor often trickles through her writing (where appropriate). With real life truths, and a no-nonsense attitude, she seeks out to help people be more, do more and experience more in life. Visit her website on stefanieselen.com
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