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The French Have No Mind for Business

The French middle-class mentality just doesn’t work in the United States. You’d better be aware of that simple fact before you take the values of your French family for a spin in the real world.

statue_defense_parisI won’t delve in the details of “why” because this is not my style nor the objective of this excellent and straightforward guide to making you rich. If you are interested in reading a full – probably approximate and boring anyway – account of the origins of French mentalities toward wealth, just go waste your time at the library or put your money in an blotted opus drawing from the ever convoluted field of intercultural studies.

The truth remains, though, that most middle class French families regard wealth as vulgar, trade as a foreign and petty occupation, success and fame as suspicious, obnoxious, almost reprehensible happenings. Yes. Happenings. Self-promotion is a sin, so is selling a product to a customer or selling self to a position. To say it bluntly, the average French perceive just about any ingredient of the recipe for success as obscene and impure. No French would mind getting rich and famous, but getting there for us is like trying to make a delicious meal out of foods we can’t even bother touching.

When I say that success is considered shameful and downgrading, I am not talking about the views of the ancient and well-to-do French aristocracy, I am indeed talking about the belief system of mid-level managers and simple employees toiling in the darkness of cubicles. They struggle to make ends meet since the beginning of times, promotions and pay raises might happen twice in a “career”, a change in their fortune is downright impossible: their fate is a lifetime at being a modest employee, and this remained true, and will remain true for the generations before them and the generations after them. Nevertheless, or because of that, they will still regard the making of actual money as something essentially dirty.

It goes basically like that: we value inspiration, the Americans value hard work. We love reflection, they love action. We value the lone and obscure genius, they value the connected businessman, we value the original, the quirky and the unique, they value standards.

Your mental habits are exactly what you need to change if you want to make it here. With that, you can start applying my 12 advice for the French in the American workplace.

Excerpts from chapter 8 – Work (Don’t Panic!) in How to Make it Big in the USA, Jean-Pierre Ledauphin, 2012. Translation by Wallace B. Thompson

7 thoughts on “The French Have No Mind for Business

  1. Great points here, and they surely apply to most of the French attitude towards money, success and fame. I guess an old aristocratic mentality is hard to get rid of.

    I also see a lof this mentality among some Americans, the way people criticize others for having the “nerve” to ask for money in their blogs.

    You are right it’s a mentality.

  2. This argument in fascinating. I’ve had a few French expat friends who have found success (in terms of business) in the U.S. But you’re right; it called for an overhaul and a retooling of their old mentality. So interesting.

  3. Thank you for this confirmation of a trait I keep spotting among the French. A common argument to explain this difference in mentalities between French and Anglo-Saxons was presented by Max Weber in “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism”. In his views, old Catholic nations such as France are hard-wired against wealth. In those nations, poverty is sanctified. In their call for a Reform, the Protestants have interpreted the scriptures in a way that transforms the attitudes towards wealth: for them, earthly possessions are a sign of election. A flourishing business becomes an indication that you are well on your way to Heaven. This old explanation probably oversimplifies the matter. Still worths a consideration.
    More importantly, it would be interesting to know how your French friends eventually managed to retool their old mentality. Kudos to them.

    • I always connected the French anti-capitalism mentality to the Revolution: “l’esprit du peuple” vs. that of a King, “the man,” big business, etc. I never considered the connection to the religious roots; but of course it must have played into the culture’s relationship with wealth. Thanks for the heads up about Weber.

      And the retooling did not come without its fair share of reservations and anxiety about the change. I can say at least one of them still regularly considers that the actions he took to ensure financial success compromised his sense of self to a great degree. Thus, I believe it is one of those situations where you start pretending you are the person you want to be, and before you know it, you’ve become that person (regardless of whether that new self reflects the learned traits and values of your home society).

      • “Liberté, Egalité, fraternité” You are absolutely right.
        And thank you for the insight on your friend’s journey. Because you are thinking on theatre, I can’t help mentionning “Lorenzaccio” by Alfred de Musset, on pretending you are someone else and discovering you have eventually become that person. Something’s got to give.

  4. Pingback: NYT: Au Revoir, Entrepreneurs | Being French

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