New York v. France: Cultural differences as keys in overcoming crises

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New York RenewalNew York Renewal

There is an advantage in having been away so long from the city in which I grew up and lived nearly 30 years. Its myriad changes leaped out at me and I tuned into its tempo, energy and spirit 5/5.

A seminally rough decade

Between 9/11 and the 2008 Lehman Brothers’ debacle that was the opening act to the continuing global crisis, New York and New Yorkers could have been forgiven for sliding into anxiety and depressive paralysis. A state whose instinctive élan would have been preserving what was left by all means possible not to lose anything more. 

But that’s the antithesis of this city’s values, beliefs and relationship to time.

Future-oriented, a ‘towards’ motivation, a tolerance for risk and the courage to try

That, to me, sums up the essence of New York’s kick-ass, never say die, creative, generous and entrepreneurial spirit and energy. The city’s renewal and residents’ palpable positivism leap out in the 500+ images I took during my trip. I hope you enjoy the slide-show at the end of this post.

Contrast with Paris and France

I’ll admit to feeling frustrated at times with some of my native culture’s fundamental tenets. I’m French, yet growing up in New York has influenced me in many ways. I’m lucky (most of the time) in being able to draw on what I like best from each culture to “make my own soup”. But trying to influence some aspects of French culture or values is like tilting at windmills!

Backward-looking, an ‘away from’ motivation, a certain intolerance for risk and the reluctance to try (as failure is frowned upon here) is how I’d characterize some fundamental principles of French culture.

Ne vous mettez pas la rate au court-bouillon !

Whether the issue is the Grand Paris, modern architecture in cities, any (usually tepid and timid) economic reform, simplification of our incredibly complex labor laws, or – gasp! – the mere hint of questioning special interest social entitlements, the gut reflex is to preserve what we have at all costs.

That incredible fear of loss or of change of any sort sends throngs in the streets to protest until enough nationwide paralysis forces the government to back-pedal. I’m hardly exaggerating. The fundamental reflex is to figure out a way to preserve what we have individually, rather than joining together with courage and creativity to see how we can overcome today’s severe crises for the greater good. Americans favor individualism, French are individualistic – nuance.

Acting rather than reacting

These letters to the Editor of the San Francisco Chronicle really hit home. A retired woman with modest means sent $500 to the Treasury to help with the debt crisis. She remarks:

If we act together to donate, we could change America together. Let’s do it!

Another chap decided he’d help by supporting the US Postal Service:

I am going to hand-write, in my best writing, and send 23 personal letters to 23 friends – that’s only $10. If every taxpayer did this, that would amount to $1.4 billion that would go toward keeping a valuable service open.

These stories, and other example of civic behavior, even made it to the French (independent) press at Rue89. They won’t solve the US debt crisis, but they are illustrative of what a country can accomplish, even during the most arduous times, when citizens share a civic spirit and band together.

My wish

If France could be just a little more forward-looking – which does not mean giving up a shred of its love of history;

If France could be just a little bit more confident, have a vision and inspire citizens to get there;

If France could grasp that struggling to to preserve every shred of our advantages (the world envies us) might just mean we’ll lose more of what makes this country different;

If France could recognize failure can be the best teacher and stop tossing by the wayside as losers those who’ve had the guts to try;

Then maybe we could be in a better position to ride the current storms and come out on the other side united and motivated.

In 5 or 10 years

Both France and the US are in trouble, let’s not playing ostrich. But as I read (and recommend) That Used to Be Us, by Thomas Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum, and no matter the gloomy picture they paint, I feel the US has the ability to take the sharp curve necessary to get back on track. It requires a combination of inspired (and courageous) leadership and civic spirit. Neither country at this time, sadly, has the former. If New York and these two Californians are any indication, at least the US has the latter.

Your crystal ball or instincts?

What’s your take? How have you seen cultural differences affect policy setting and implementation in countries you are very familiar with? Join in!


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