Anyone who has travelled or lived in a foreign country , or even moved around in their own country will be well aware of the differences in culture that exist and impact on our lives when we are away from ‘home’.

We often talk about culture as being as distinct as a border, something that distinguishes one set of people from another, but the idea of a discrete culture is also alive and kicking in business settings too.

There are many interpretations of the word « culture » which can provide grey areas and subtilities that are almost impossible to define in any clear way. Some talk of customs and tradition, others of language, art, rules and regulations.

Geert Van Hofstede talks about hidden and synthetic cultures in his writings, but we will be taking a down-to-earth look at culture from personal experience and observations.

Suffice it to say that a culture includes all of these and a lot more, but we need to draw the line somewhere.

Wilkelman (1994) identified four distinct stages of cultural adaptation, which most of us, living in a foreign country will be able to acknowledge :

 

1. Honeymoon Phase, where the excitement and fascination with the new culture will easily cover the cracks of minor problems and irritations and where the constant learning stage helps us forget the things that we are not altogether happy with.

 

2. Culture Shock, Winkleman calls this the « Crisi period » and is the stage where the initial excitement turn to disappointment and where differences start to manifest in a slightly more negative way. This is the period of fighting back against the host culture.

 

3. Adjustment Phase, at this point we start learning more about the host culture and where the previous negative attitude is replaced by a more positive outlook.

 

4. Acceptance and Adaptation Phase, at this phase we start feeling more at home in the host culture and start to get involved with activities that could include the customs and tradition of the host culture.

 

There is a further stage which is, Reentry Shock, which is experienced by those that return to their home country after spending time away, and is, in some ways, similar to the first two stages of cultural integration ; Honyemoon Phase and Culture Shock.

The initial euphoria of returning home is replaced by a feeling of rejection and not altogether fiiting in.

 

In my work, I meet a lot of people who are very frustrated with their inability to integrate into the host culture, this being France, and who tend to move in circles either within their own nationality or with other displaced souls who have a comparable experience with French culture.

Having written the previous sentence, I feel there is a need to specify certain aspects in order to steer clear of ambiguity in a phrase.

The problem, without getting too pedantic, is the phrase « French cluture », as if the notion exists. The problem is that there is no « French Culture », as distinct as there being French Nationality.

There are many French cultures, that in-turn throw up their own complexities.

Take a Parisian, a person from Lille in the north, a Marseillais, a Toulousain or a Lyonnais – they are so different in the way they act and live and although they may share many cultural similarities and traits, thay also differ in so many ways.

Here we have spoken about the big cities, get onto a macro level and look at the countryside now, people from the countryside differ even more.

Take the concept of time, for example – there is a huge gulf between a Parisian and someone who lives in a village in the Ariège.

Differences exist too in the way they welcome (or not) people from outide their social group.

People can blend into the scenery in big towns and cities and often find social activities easily accessible and sufficiently varied to be able to create an almost hermetic life within a culture – almost a culture within a culture.

People who live in the countryside in France have a much bigger challenge ahead of them.

In my village there is a man they call the Marseillais – he is 80 years old, very jolly and friendly and has lived in the same village, in the same house for 79 years – however, he was born in Marseille, so he is not a true « villageois ».

This is, perhaps an extreme example, but it gives an idea of how difficult it can be for outsiders to break down the barriers and be fully accepted in a foreign culture.

 

How can you govern a country that produces 365 kinds of cheese ? – Charles de Gaulle

 

The truth of the matter is that we cannot fully understand how individuals act without understanding the meaning that they put to their environment, their communication and their relationships.

In a workshop session, I often hear people stating that, « The French are difficult » – the question that we need to ask is « difficult for whom ?» or « in what way are they difficult ? » these types of statements are neither objective nor helpful.

It is strange to try to solve problems by finding as many as possible from the outset before any attempt at resolving them is explored. The famous quote regarding culture « we don’t see the world as it is, but we see it as we are » rings pretty true here.

 

Now let’s have a look at the fours stages described by Winkleman in a practical setting.

 

The Honeymoon Phase

Imagine that you have come across from the UK in August, left the UK and the

eponymous summer with temperatures hiiting the mid-teens with a sprinkling of rain.

You are here to relax and to have a great holiday – restaurants serving good food and wine at affordable prices, the weather is warm, there is so much to see and do and everyone is relaxed and chilled in France (or so it seems) that you start thinking about looking in on an estate agent’s office just to see how much these robust houses go for.

Oh, and another thing, the houses have land too – bags of it !

You can live like an aristocrat in France with your own land, farmhouse, lake, woods etc. Have animals to crop the grass and chickens to provide eggs.

The next day you gaze longingly at the properties for sale in the estate agent’s window, falling in love with each poperty as your eye flits from advert to advert – the houses are made of stone, not breeze blocks and Shredded Wheat like back home – imagine 4,000 square meters of your own land, instead of the pokey 100 meters that you have back home.

You are there, already in the back garden in a deckchair next to your swimming pool, sipping red wine and lapping up the sun. Let’s do it !

The excitement takes over, so much to do, so little time – papers signed, removals sorted – France here we come.

All moved in now, everything is good, trips to the supermarket and the local shops and market are veritable voyages of culinary discovery.

People take the time to chat and to live, there is not all the rushing about and pushing and shoving that is a mark of « back home » – this altogether much more pleasant.

All the neighbours nod and we can utter a few words of school French interspersed with the odd English word but nobody seems to mind – life is great in our new world.

Friends back home jealosly  imagine us fully integrated into the local community, learning the language at a lightning pace – after all, it’s the best way to learn, being there in place, surrounded by France … isn’t it ?

It is difficult ti gauge the length of time that the honeymoon phase lasts – it can be relatively short to quite long but is inevitably followed by the Culture Shock.

 

The Culture Shock, and here we start to realise why Winkleman named this The Crisis Period.

At this point we start to see differences as threats or at least as things that start to get us down, but often our comparison references are slightly displaced by nostagia, and, as we know there is never bad nostalgia.

What are the things that bring about culture shock ?

Basically, culture shock is all to to with disequilibriated comparison and starts with phrases such as « It isnt like this back home » or « They don’t do it like this at home » or such other observations and often starts when we start embracing the minefield which is the French administration – identity cards, visas, registering a car, healthcare, insurance, banking or schooling for children.

The truth is, that it is very familiar back home, perhaps with subtle differences, but the main difference is that we have complete mastery over the language and can understand the system from A to Z.

Just when you have time to get your car checked at the garage it is closed on Monday and for two hours during lunchtime.

You cannot get  x document before you have document y – there are queues everywhere and people seem contented to stand in queues and then speak at length to the bank teller or baker while you are waiting for your turn.

Conversely, this irritation was something that you liked during the Honeymoon Phase, where people took the time to chat and not rush everywhere as they did back home, now it just makes you impatient.

Thankfully you have English television and radio in order to connect to the real world.

 

The Adjustment Phase is where you start to see the good and bad in the new culture in a more balanced way and start accepting things, perhaps at first through resignation, but later through real acceptance as « that’s the way things happen around here – no point in trying to change it ».

So we have to wait 10 minutes to be served in the bakery, I’ll just leave enough time to cater for this – after all, the bread is pretty fantastic and just out of the oven. This phase requires a change in attitude that occurs almost involuntarily and automatically as a means of adjusting to the host culture.

 

The Acceptation Phase

If I need to  get something done that involves the famous administration, then I’ll just have to be patient – it all turns out well in the end anyway so there’s no point in rushing things.

So the garage is closed on Monday and for two hours at lunchtime – but it’s open on Saturday’s and later at night than back home.

If I’m ever going to learn this language I need to mix with the locals and start doing some activities to get me speaking – it will be hard, but learning a language is never going to be an easy ride.

This point starts to awaken natural curiosity and the fostering of ‘going that bit further’, when language skills start to improve, more doors become open and more contacts which become deeper start to form and we start feeling more comfortable with the culture and with ourselves and our place within that culture.

I know of a village in the Haute Vienne department of France which was taken over by English people over the last 5 years.

The original inhabitants were mainly made up of agricutural workers and smallhoders, who passed their houses on to their children.

The children then saw an opportunity of selling the houses at incredible prices for the area to English buyers as they had no intention of staying in a fairly remote area where work was thin on the ground.

The English moved in and subsequently moved on – in the meantime they kept other English people in work with house repairs, satellite installations etc. thus creating another culture within a culture.

I know this region very well, most of the original inhabitants speak patois on a day to day basis, not French.

On a recent visit I noticed that the local supermarket was filled to 75% with English registered cars – about 10% with right-hand drive cars that had French registration and that the noticeboard displaying things for sale was full of adverts written in English.

I spoke with some of the English families in the village, who were quite disenchanted with their efforts to integrate into French life, mainly because of poor or non-existant language skills.

The result of which, was that they moved in almost uniquely anglophone circles, with Englsih television and radio, English speaking friends and tradespeople who serviced their needs – which is understandable from certain viewpoints.

They felt rejected and not part of the local community, which was clearly the case.

Although these people have been living for at least three years in France, they were still clearly in the Culture Shock Phase with no immediate prospects of getting out of it.

The final phase, well not really, this is when people leave the host culture to go ‘back home’, and is what is known as Reentry Shock, perhaps some will go through this, that or they will create a colony, much like the one created in the department of La Dordogne, called jokingly by the French, Little England or Dordogneshire.

The creation of such a ‘colony’ actually defeats the object of integration, which was probably the original aim of people coming to France, although it is always pleasant to have a chat with one’s compatriots from time to time, it is also nice to be part of the local community.

Active Consultants runs workshops on French language skills and cross-cultural integration for businesses and individual groups in Toulouse – don’t hesitate to contactHERE

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Cultural Integration in France
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