Sunday, June 07, 2009

Obama, Sarkozy, and the meaning of "friendship" in France and the U.S.

What is interesting when you see Obama abroad is the reaction of world leaders who he visits.
Obama is actually the cool guy on the block that everybody wants to be friend with and seen with because it makes them cool and popular.
It is to the extent that there is a competition as to who is the best friend of the cool guy. And no one in Europe has been more eager to compete for Obama than French president Sarkozy - as boyish if not childish as he is. Of course, the French media have played along, spending hours of live coverage of every move of Obama during his visit for the D Day commemoration. (Sadly,the European elections today don't seem to get the same attention!)

There has also been a lot of speculation in the French and German media as to why the U.S. president was spending so little time in Europe, the French press making ironic comments about how Sarkozy's ambitions was thwarted by the White House.

But finally, Sarkozy got his much anticipated "Obama moment" when the two presidents gave a joined press conference yesterday-.

Very important things were said about Europe, Turkey and North Korea but that's all in the news media. I'd like to focus on something that President Obama said, which I find culturally interesting -

Asked about the alleged snub of President Sarkozy, he said this:

The United States is a critical friend and ally of France and vice versa. I personally consider Nicholas Sarkozy a friend. I think he feels the same way. And so since I know I can always pick up the phone and talk to him, that it's not necessary for me to spend huge amounts of time other than just getting business done when I'm here. (Fox)
What is interesting in this short quote is that it defines very well how American see friendship, which is very different from the way the French see it, even though the term has apparent very similar meaning in both cultures.

Americans tend to emphasize reciprocity and balance ("vice-versa") as well as a strong sense of independence. Distance between friends is not a problem ("no need to spend huge amounts of time") and in fact, it may be guarantee of good friendship which needs not to be proven by constant reminders of its existence. On the contrary, depence is perceived as a problem which could become "co-dependence", a term that simply does not translate into French and means that the relationship is unhealthy and should be terminated.

The French have a very different view of friendship. For one thing, the term "friend" is not as lossely used as in American English. (as an example, a lot of French people find the use of "friends" on Facebook a bit... excessive). Contrary to the U.S., you don't call someone you hardly know a "friend". The reason is that friendship in French culture implies more intimacy to the point that it may even be ok to burden your friends with your problems without expecting reciprocity. In fact, the French tend to think that true friendship should weather just about anything including the feeling of invasion, being teased, discussions bordering disputes, etc... - things that would be unbearable to most Americans.

Raymonde Caroll - a French anthropologist who wrote about French-American cultural misunderstandings - argues that American friendship is similar to love: your friend are there to support you, approve of you, give back to you a confirmation of yourself", while French friendship is based on family relationships, and resembles a family circle - the only difference is that it is freely chosen. In fact, friends in French culture can be seen as a substitute for family ties which I think, is very telling about the central role of family life in France, even today.

This difference partly explains some problems in international relations and why so many Americans find French criticism at odds with their sense of friendship, while the French think that only criticizes people precisely because they're your friends (which you would not do with strangers).

Raymonde Caroll also makes another observation which, in my experience rings ver true :

A French person without friends would be [considered] asocial, an American without friend would be [considered] anti-social.

This whole topic may seem trivial to you but I believe if world leaders took intercultural crash courses before they meet, the world might run slightly more smoothly. Personally, as it turns out, if I had been told about some of those differences, I might have avoided a lot of unpleasant moments of embarrassment and misunderstandings - if not downright conflicts - with a number of "friends" on the other side of the Atlantic, the trick being precisely that appearance of commonality can be all the more deceiving that our cultures seem similar enough, only the same words sometimes carry totally different connotations and meanings.