The French are SO arrogant!

Les Américains sont arrogants !

We've heard it over and over as fingers point across the Atlantic: THEY are so arrogant! When the topic comes up in intercultural trainings, people from other countries usually laugh and say: Both French and Americans are arrogant! What's there to talk about?

Beyond a fun but ultimately sterile debate over who is the most arrogant, perceptions of arrogance can be a window into the different ways we interpret behavior through the Lens of our cultural values. In the newly updated Cultural Detective France, these reciprocal perceptions emerge in the critical incident, Lunch with James. James, a US American software distributor, goes to lunch with his French client, and has a communication breakdown with a French waiter.

The debrief is based on research done by Natalie Lutz for her Master's thesis, Aspects of French and American Unconscious Cultures: Perceptions of Arrogance in the Other. Ironically, the findings indicate that French perceptions of arrogance stem from US American informal behavior, while American interpretations of arrogance stem from French formal behavior. So while each culture is putting its best foot forward to give a good impression, the opposite occurs as the behavior is filtered through a different cultural Lens.

Indeed! French people tend to favor formal behavior when meeting someone for the first time. Such "deference politeness" shows that one respects the other and is not "arriving on conquered territory." One French woman described what she saw as arrogant US American behavior in an interview: I once met an arrogant American. He was so at ease. First of all, he took up a lot of space! He sat opposite me and leaned on the chair in a very relaxed way. As we talked, he was so at ease! He seemed to have no doubt that building relationships with others is easy. He was so confident and so comfortable! That's what made him come across as arrogant.

In France, the opposite behavior is expected when meeting someone for the first time. Reserve and formality show that one is "bien élevé" (well brought up), discreet, and ultimately modest. This modesty is equated with a form of humility. Formal behavior is expected in the public sphere. Informal behavior, on the other hand, is associated with the private sphere of family and friends. The private and public spheres in France are more clearly defined as separated, which means that by expressing formality and respecting protocol, you stay within the expected public sphere and show that you don't assume you have earned the right to be in the private one.

Informal behavior with those one does not know is also traditionally associated in France with unequal relationships such as between the upper bourgeoisie and their servants, or adults with children. Although there are other factors involved making assumptions around formality and informality highly contextual, an equal relationship is one where both parties do not assume that the other is their friend and it is therefore important to maintain a respectful distance in the early stages.

In the US, expectations around meeting people for the first time are quite different. Informality is often appreciated and helps create a relaxed and friendly atmosphere that shows we are accessible and transparent. US Americans' behavior when meeting someone new might be characterized as "solidarity politeness," as opposed to French "deference politeness." What's more, a casual air of confidence can put others at ease and show one is trustworthy. Confidence, in the form of such things as taking stock of one's achievements, encouraging sports chants of "we're the best," and showing one's leadership qualities, is rewarded throughout childhood and adulthood in the US, and all of these are usually seen as positive. But from the perspective of French core values, we see how Americans can be perceived as arrogant, particularly around the French value of discretion and expressing reserve to show one's modesty.

Expressing modesty in the US, while seemingly contradictory to expressing confidence, is in fact focused around topics such as sophistication and intellectual acumen, which are more easily associated with elitism and snobbery. The French--for whom a core value is refinement and savoir-vivre--are on the contrary rewarded when they express such attributes. When looking through the US American Value Lens, then, we see how the French can be viewed as arrogant, particularly if they express formal reserve.

A US American described French arrogant behavior by saying: The French are sometimes seen as arrogant because they are seen as feeling superior, snobbish with respect to history, fine wine, their intellectual tradition, that the US lacks. I suspect they see Americans as the "nouveaux riches," unrefined and uncultivated. Probably is based on fears of Americans traveling to France. Fear that if they don't speak French at all or less than perfectly, they will be laughed at.

A French person then, can appear arrogant to an American because initially the French have a tendency to express distance or reserve rather than try to create a relaxed, friendly atmosphere but also because this formal behavior is sometimes perceived by an American as the French person looking down his or her nose at the American with respect to the Americans' "lack of sophistication."

With perceptions of arrogance from both US Americans and French, we can see how opposing behavior (formality from the French and informality from the US Americans) can be viewed by the other cultural perspective as arrogance. We can easily see how behavior is associated with core values. Ultimately we see that both cultures value humility, but in order to be perceived as modest by the other, it is essential to understand the cultural Lens through which our behavior is perceived, as well as the Lens through which the behavior is intended.