Saturday, September 22, 2012

American Civility vs. French Lack-thereof.

From looking at the presidential political campaign outside the United States one might be under the impression not only that the country is highly divided and even that it is almost on the verge of community breakdown. Then if you add the news-clips showing gun violence, religious extremism and offensive rhetoric, you may have a pretty negative picture of American society today possibly re-inforced by the magnifying effect of the the Internet and short Youtube videos that go viral.

This, however, is very far from the reality of day-to-day life of ordinary Americans.

One common reaction of many French people when they first visit the United States is how incredibly kind, smily and courteous Americans are towards them. It is so unusual to the French that they may even find it a little suspicious and wonder if there must be some ulterior motives (and they sometimes point to service jobs where people's smile may be proportionate to the expected tip, or to the abuse of the term "friend" for someone you just met).
They may be some hypocrites of course - there always are - but it is true that essentially Americans are a very generous and helpful people.

In this week's Economist, Lexington also found that civility in the United States endures:
To a visitor, America remains a strikingly courteous place, where strangers may expect to be helped and asked for help, and good manners are prized. Neighbourhoods remain neighbourly. 
This is right. Even in the midst of political tensions between France and the U.S. governments over the war in Iraq in 2003, I, as a French person, have always felt as welcome as ever and was never treated differently - I never saw "freedom fries" outside the House of Representatives cafeteria.

Statistics (see here) also seem to indicate that Americans have on of the highest levels of pro-social behaviors of all OECD countries, almost twice as much as the French (who are below OECD average). Here pro-social behavior is measured by whether the respondent has volunteered time, donated money to a charity and helped a stranger in the last month. It is hard to drawn any definite conclusion from these statistics as to why there is a such a gap between the French and the Americans, but one can make hypotheses:

In France people are more likely to rely on the government when it comes to helping the needy, which in turn makes it more acceptable to pay higher taxes, whereas in the United States, charity is more the job of private individuals. (And by the way, the major role of the State in France has nothing to do with socialism, as it is often misunderstood by Americans. It dates back way before socialism was even an idea - to at least the 17th century and Louis XIV notably when the French State unified the country around certain cultural and linguistic norms, which became the model eventually followed by the French  Republic.)

As far as helping strangers, the Economist had another suggestion for American civility:
In a big and mobile country, being a stranger is common: feeling able to trust other strangers is an economic and civic boon.
This could not be more different from the French may be the least mobile people in Europe. France is the only country that never had massive waves of emigration to North America, not even to Canada, which was founded by a relative small amount of people. This may be because the French culture grew out of rural communities whose basic unit was traditionally held by the family.

It may also be that Americans can differentiate politics from the people they meet but also that Americans tend to be less political than the French who always love a good heated debate. In my experience Americans like to keep their political views more private than the French. Moerover, a  lot of Americans may be more immune to political differences because they have tended to cluster in communities of sameness, with people with similar political beliefs (see for instance, The Big Sort, by Bill Bishop).

Whatever the explanation, it remains that social relations in America are extremely pleasant and relaxed, and one can only wish for a little more civility in the rest of the world, and particularly in France. In the end, this may be the main reason why I always need to recharge my batteries and come to the U.S. after a few months in France.