Cultural Differences: When an American Intern Interviews His French Boss
Growing up in France, there were a lot of clichés around the American culture.
Some people praise the U.S. and the American dream. It is seen as the land where anything is possible, and all those promises are attractive for someone who was born in a small town on the countryside of France.
As a kid, most TV channels would broadcast reruns of old american shows dubbed in French, like Little House on The Prairie. Going to McDonald’s was like a field trip to the other side of the world. I was already a big basketball and NBA fan, so collecting the sport cards from my Happy Meal was special, even though I realized later on they weren’t worth anything.
Beyond sports, the U.S. entertainment industry also has a global impact. Watching movies and TV shows gave me a glimpse of what it would be like to live there, and helped me improve my English. When the internet got faster, it became easy to get shows like Prison Break with French subtitles the day after its original air date!
On the other hand, some people would think of the U.S. as filled with fat people eating fast food everyday while using their guns. It’s obviously a big shortcut, but being exposed to those various clichés is what motivated me to move to the U.S. to form my own opinion.
Six years later, I’m now working in an american organization, and one of my interns recently asked me some questions about cultural differences.
If you’re in the process of moving from another country to the U.S., I hope you’ll learn a few things. The “rapid fire questions” section has a few points that might unveil stuff you haven’t thought about.
I left my intern’s paper as written. Some ideas expressed aren’t exactly what I meant.
Cultural Differences: The Paper
Romu Gaboriau is a French native currently living here in America. He was born in Cholet, but was raised in Le Puy-Saint-Bonnet nearby. Currently aged 31, he is spending his sixth year in the United States, having come here as an exchange student in 2010.
Romu comes from a rural area, growing up in a small town atmosphere even more extreme than our own here in Carroll County. In his own words, “There were about 2,000 people, and about 3,000 cows.” In terms of business, France and America were both specifically mentioned in lectures for their different ways of handling day-to-day activities in the office.
With France being much less focused on times and deadlines, acclimating to business in America can be difficult, and this is something Romu has no doubt faced directly.
General interactivity was the first thing mentioned when we broached the topic of culture differences. “It’s harder to make friends in France, but they’re friends for life,” Romu tells me. In America, one has more acquaintances, but it’s difficult to find someone you can truly rely on. Everything is bigger here, and trends all seem to start here, he says.
Speaking of the South, people are much friendlier here than in France. “People on campus would stop me to say ‘Hello, how are you doing?’ and I had to figure out if I knew them.” It turned out he usually didn’t; they were just being friendly. He compares the atmosphere in France more to that of New York, where people pay less attention to one-another. We joked a bit about Southern hospitality, and he confirmed that it is definitely a real thing. If nothing else, the behavior of this area stands out in contrast to others.
Romu came to America six years ago for an exchange program at Kennesaw State University, to get a master’s degree in Marketing and Professional Business.
He didn’t know anyone in this country, so he didn’t have anyone to pick him up at the airport. One of his professors to-be obliged in the end, a man described as “overweight and southern.” He tried to make conversation with Romu on the ride, and this was Romu’s first taste of real America. “I couldn’t understand a single word the man was saying,” he tells me.
Like many foreigners, Romu wasn’t aware that there was a Southern dialect in America completely different from the formal version taught in schools. “I scored first on my English test back home, so I was a bit cocky when I came here. It didn’t help me at all.”
English is a language which, like French, relies on context to some degree. Neither is as extreme as what is found in oriental countries, but both cultures can be difficult for an outsider who doesn’t understand the flow of the conversation or the cultural references being made. In my talks with Romu, I’ve gathered that English might even be more context-based than French, but what’s certain is that the contexts of the two are completely different. Even once he had grown accustomed to the Southern dialect, reading the room was a challenge for quite a while to come.
The goal in coming to the United States was to experience American culture and improve his English. Romu had heard many things good and bad about America, but he wanted to see it all first-hand, and wanted to do so while still in college. The plan was to complete the exchange program, see how America really worked, and then return home—but that ended up not happening.
Most things seemed to be different from how he was expecting them to be, the exchange program among them. It was a much bigger program than he thought he would find, and it exposed him to individuals from Colombia, Brazil, Russia, Belgium, Mexico, and a handful of other countries other than just America and France.
He settled into his first job with a French company, and decided to stay in America for a while longer. Working with this company was a good foundation, and it helped Romu acclimate; they even flew him out to France twice a year to see his family. The one issue was that he was surrounded by French people speaking the French language. Rather than experiencing America, he had stumbled into a small bubble of French culture. “The people there weren’t even trying to speak English properly,” he said, and so he was learning little of the language or culture he came to see.
This company is a good first-hand view of globalization,, though, and shows that Georgia’s focus on FDI is blooming. A French company filled with French expatriates operating in an American state shows that this corner of the country is globalizing quite effectively.
Realizing that he wasn’t getting the experience he came for, Romu moved on, and eventually came to settle in a job at Southwire Company, where I work with him now. He is my manager, so we interact daily, and rarely have hiccups in communication. He won’t pass as an American once he opens his mouth, but he’s easy to understand and communicate with, and I feel he has acclimated to our culture excellently. With his unique travel and job history, working with Romu is an eye-opening peek into both the globalized and multi-domestic facets of business.
Cultural Differences: Rapid Fire Questions
What things did you wish you had taken care of before you left? During the Visa process, there was one paper that needed to come from France. He thought it was just confirmation, and he didn’t bring it, and he was definitely supposed to.
He also notes that he would bring more food if he were repeating the process today.
Did you have to get any additional vaccinations or health-related things done in order to come? He had to have vaccinations checked, but being in the EU he already had what he needed.
Did you bring any pets? No.
Did you have things delivered here, or did you just live out of your bag? He pretty much just lived out of the bag. Shipping is way too much of a hassle, and way too expensive. It’s way cheaper to receive than to send, so it wasn’t worth it.
What documentation/process gave you the most trouble? Visa, definitely. There were so many ins and outs involved in the process, it was more of a hassle than expected.
What about the first year was the most difficult? Learning the Southern dialect
How did you get around before you were able to get your American driver’s license? He got an international driving license – just a piece of gray cardboard paper which has to be jealously protected. It’s covered in a ton of languages, so it is extremely long, and the whole thing is extremely flimsy.
Was there any paperwork back in France you still had to manage after leaving? He still had French bank accounts. His father helped with it, but it was still trouble. Social security still had to be dealt with – if you don’t work for a certain amount of time, they give you problems. Since he thought he would come back and did not, he eventually lost it, and had to go work for a few months to get it back. Insurance also had to be managed from afar.
What is something you didn’t expect to give you trouble, but it did? Speaking was a lot rougher than expected. Communication was nearly impossible during the first few weeks.
What is something you thought would be difficult, but it wasn’t? Driving – having never been on a highway where there are eight lanes on either side, the thought was daunting, but it wasn’t as awful as expected. Driving wasn’t that different. “You just need to know when to honk.”
Do you ever consider going back? Yes, but the real question is “when?” He is building a life now, which could make the decision much more difficult, but the main focus in his career is going to be getting more flexible in work so he can stay in France for a few months without it disrupting things.