La Chaleur de la France Posted on January 30th, 2012 by

“Thank you for taking our son in as a guest,” my dad said over skype.

“For us he is not a guest,” responded my host parents, “he is part of the family.”

My host parents (in French, actually, welcome parents) are incredibly warm and welcoming, and have done a wonderful job of orienting me, making me feel at home in another country, and guiding me through faults as I communicate in French.  Yet, this kind of warmth stands in opposition to the American stereotype of France.  Back home, we are made to believe that the French are cold, unhelpful, and uniformly dislike Americans.  Even among those who study French, one does not usually talk about the welcoming nature of France, but rather the fact that the French make friendships less easily, and do not follow the American custom of smiling at everyone on the street with a pulse.

But time and again I have been a bit surprised by encounters with incredibly nice Nantais, and have started to wonder if I’ve found the Minnesota of France.  I assumed my host parents would be welcoming, and they have not disappointed, but there have been a few incidents with strangers that surprised me.

Once, a group of us from IES were trying to locate something in Nantes.  One of us approached a woman who happened to be passing by, and asked her for directions.  She wasn’t randomly smiling at strangers on the street, but once we asked, she gave us a kind smile, and began explaining the directions to us carefully.

Better yet were the couple of college students we bumped into while looking for a Creperie in central Nantes.  They pointed us in the right direction, but it was closed.  As we wondered around looking for somewhere else, we bumped into them again.  They gave us a recommendation of their own, and then lead us there, chatting convivially the whole way!  I have had numerous other very warm experiences with the French both individually, and in groups.

It would be easy to take these experiences and establish a new generalization about France, or at least Nantes.  Perhaps this is the Minnesota of France, and explaining how could give a new paradigm through which to view the Nantais.  But I think the real lesson here is not about how to establish better generalizations, but about the place of those generalizations.  I was surprised by the kindness of people on the street because I was expecting to encounter stereotypes instead of people.

I study a social science.  Social sciences believe that differences between people can be established, generalized, and applied.  They believe it is valid to collect information about some people, and use it to understand others.  Yet, abuse of generalizations can be alienating, inappropriate, and lead to stereotypes that obscure the people we are trying to get to know.  Because of this, there are many who would completely reject statistics and generalizations.  But it is not their existence which hides individual identity; only their misuse.

I stand behind the validity of good social science research, based on random samples which generate data to be used in political science.  But, when I ask someone for directions on the street, I’m not conducing social science, I am interacting with individual people with a face and a name.

By their nature, generalizations work in general situations (surprise!).  But their predictive power only exists through the magic of statistics at great distances from individual actors.  We might be able to establish the overall birth rate in St. Peter, but that does not, and cannot tell us who in St. Peter will be having kids.

In the same way, observations about general attitudes in France can be completely real.  It is a different country with a unique culture and language, after all.  But, when I am surprised because someone contradicts a generalization, I have failed to understand the nature of generalizations.




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