French Thinking

One of the benefits of spending time in a country not your own is the realization that not everyone thinks they way you do. Of course, you immediately say to yourself, not everyone speaks the way I do. They speak, in this case, French.

But to get day-in, day-out exposure to a completely different way of thinking is a constant eye-opener (and often a brain-squeeze).

I’ll mention a few examples, and please forgive me if I’ve mentioned these before. Some things just stick in my mind and constantly surprise me. (I know: typical American.)

First, the French don’t seem to care what anyone thinks, including other French people. Legalities and economic realities notwithstanding, they do pretty much what they please without a second thought. They smoke like chimneys, drink like fish, and dress like nobody–or everybody–is watching. This doesn’t mean they aren’t polite. Most are. It’s just that the idea of ‘peer pressure’ seems foreign to them.

Second, they are circumspect. They consider all factors in an equation, whether it be philosophical, social, political or moral. They listen to contradictory and opposing points of view, acknowledge the virtues and shortcomings of each. The maddening part about this is that it may take forever to reach a clear-cut opinion or consensus, formulate a course of action, and execute it.  They don’t jump to conclusions, but sometimes they never reach a conclusion. This makes doing business difficult, and watching some of their films frustrating (could we get a beginning, middle, and an end, please?)

Third, money is not the be-all, end-all to most of them. Of course, they like luxury, freedom, and spending as much as the next person, but I’ve heard more than one express an ambivalent attitude toward wealth. One very affluent Frenchman told me flat out that he wasn’t going to leave his children a single euro. He was afraid it would spoil them. (Too late, I wanted to reply.) Another expressed his love-hate relationship with money, and worked at a job only when it was absolutely necessary. (He’s an artist.) Most express their priorities in terms of quality of life, with economic and social mobility coming in second or not at all. Of course, there are many ambitious, materialistic Parisians, but the apathetic attitude toward the acquisition of cash is still very present.

Finally, I don’t find as much of the ‘linear thinking’ about life here as I did in the US. The question in the US is, “Where do you see yourself in the next five years?” Here in Paris, you might want to rephrase that and ask, “Where do you see yourself in the next five minutes?” Parisians I’ve met seem to view life, not as a straightforward journey toward a firmly established goal. It often appears more to be an episodic, free-form, random ramble through different phases of life that have a sequence or logic only by coincidence, not intention or design.

All these attitudes and tendencies make for bewildering conversations. They also make for the creation of breathtaking art, fashion, and architecture, just to name three. They defy pre-conceived notions, which offers their adherents a daily, fresh take on the world–its possibilities and its problems. And finally, they allow room for a decision making process that is not warped by the preoccupation with economic gain. Parisians often do things just for the sake of doing them, whether it’s producing a film or decorating a cake.

The results? A city where philosophy is alive and well even if its practice is, well, here and there. A city where luxury is abundant in all things, large and small. Where service itself is an art form. And a city whose pride lies not in being an economic powerhouse, but in being a creative greenhouse. Not just for writers, artists, and thinkers long dead, but for those of us linear thinkers who still haunt the cafes and streets today.

  • BGT

16 thoughts on “French Thinking


  2. You have really hit on the contrast and the reasons for it. Oftentimes, the American way of thinking about careers, moving up the ladder with promotions, and moving through life with so many goals, seems fear-based. Will I sound impressive? Will I have enough money at retirement age? Will I be able to live in a low crime neighborhood with good schools? Will be career be replaced by robots?

    I imagine the discussions are better than a lot of what passes for conversation here. Many people I know do not pay attention to what happens in the world beyond their front yard. Not that being a news junkie is desirable, but there are always items and stories that are interesting to discuss or be amused by. I don’t think being ignorant about events outside your children’s baseball games is a badge of honor.

    That takes me to your description of French films. To me, they seem made for the purpose of featuring interesting ideas and characters in aesthetically-pleasing scenes!

  3. “It often appears more to be an episodic, free-form, random ramble through different phases of life…” Delicious phrasing, Byron. Thank you for yet another insightful post.

  4. If you ask a French person ‘ Is this right, or is this wrong ? ‘ the answer is likely to be ‘ Well, not exactly ! ‘.

    It’s is what you get when an academic high school diploma includes philosophy as a subject, where, when other western countries first people into a crisis-zone are diplomats and soldiers and the French send in a philosopher. Pilots have told me that even the engineering ‘philosophy’ of an Airbus and a Boeing are very different.

    It’s not for nothing that they are what they are, and do what they do.

  5. Looks like french hasn’t changed a lot when Stefan Zweig wroth about it in his semi-biography ‘the world of yesterday’

    If you haven’t read it, definitely consider it! He has a beautiful view (as an Austrian) on Paris.

    1. Thanks for the question, Little Red. I think it might be a result of the strong social safety net, and a bad history with income inequality (the aristocracy). In America, we’ve been ‘pioneers’, engrained with the idea that we’ll do better than our parents, that we’ll conquer and tame the wilderness, that we’ll create and expand. The French, while creative and innovative in many ways, don’t always share this ‘go get it’ attitude. A lot of it is a mystery, still. – BGT

  6. “sometimes they never reach a conclusion”

    While most people would ask “it works in theory, but will it work in practice?”, the French sometimes turn this around: “it works in practice, but will it also work in theory?”.

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