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 filter of our cultural values. Therefore, it can help solve a few problems managers meet in the corporate world.
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 preference.
Indeed! French managers 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 business woman described what she saw as arrogant US American behavior in an interview: 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 seemed to have no doubt that building relationships with others is easy. He was so confident and so comfortable!
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), discrete, and ultimately modest. 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 very 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 (yet) to be in the private one.
In most American companies, 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, transparent and not infatuated by our hierarchical position. When meeting a new colleague, 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 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 is in fact focused around topics such as sophistication and intellectual acumen, which are more easily associated with elitism and snobbery.
A US American described French arrogant behavior by saying: 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.
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. Making a first good impression is not always that easy if you are not aware of these differences. A few minor adaptations in one’s behaviors can really change a whole lot. The managers involved can gain months of efficiency because common trust can build much more quickly.
Natalie Lutz, Akteos consultant
This article was based on the book by the same author: French and American Perceptions of Arrogance