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This article by Michele Alperin was prepared for the July 14, 2004
issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Voila! The French, Vive la Difference
The president of SoCoCo Intercultural Inc., Gilles Asselin, used to be
a CPA in France, but he didn’t much like his job. Thinking back on a
three-year experience in Africa, as a civil servant in the Cameroon
and an auditor in the Congo, he realized that he was accustomed to
living abroad in different cultures and decided to change his life by
going abroad to study something new. He saw his options as England or
the United States, but, he says, "The United States appeared to me as
more challenging – an unknown land, with lots of opportunities and so
many things that can happen."
That was 15 years ago. He moved to Oshkosh, Wisconsin, and studied for
masters degrees in industrial ecology and business at the University
of Wisconsin. Then, 10 years ago, he was invited to do a two-day
seminar on French cultural awareness in Princeton for Rhone-Poulenc.
This got him thinking about establishing a consulting business in
At a professional conference in San Diego he met Ruth Mastron, who was
looking for a partner to collaborate on just such a business. They
founded SoCoCo in 1995 with offices in Princeton and in San Diego,
where she lives. Asselin says that Mastron, who had lived in France
for five years and was bicultural and bilingual "was a good complement
for me. I am French in the U.S. – she was an American in France. I
lived in Paris, she in the French provinces." And he could have added
that she lives on one coast, he on the other. They have two more
permanent employees and they hire consultants on a per project basis.
SoCoCo’s focus is intercultural training and consulting between the
United States and France, helping French and Americans to work
together and understand each other. He and his partner wrote a book
together, "Au Contraire: Figuring Out the French," which provides
advice on French-American intercultural relations, exploring the
assumptions, attitudes, beliefs, values and patterns of thought of
both cultures that lie behind what we see.
Asselin describes his customers mostly as middle managers: "For
example, a U.S. company with a subsidiary in France may have teams of
managers and developers in both countries, with limited face-to-face
interaction. We might do a one or two-day seminar explaining about the
ways French people are likely to react, to perceive external
counterparts, and to deal with relationships. If French and Americans
are in the same room, the approach is a little different; then we use
scenarios, role plays, and simulations."
One important business area where cultural expectations differ is the
business meeting. "In France," says Asselin, "sometimes there is an
agenda and sometimes not. In France, meetings are more flexible,
whereas in the U.S. they are more structured. In France, a meeting is
more like inviting someone to a discussion." As a result, he explains,
it is important to define the purpose of a meeting beforehand –
whether it is to make decisions or get feedback from members of the
Another potentially divisive area is that "the French people have a
lot of side conversations, which may or may not be related to the
meeting. This can be very annoying to Americans, who think of it as a
lack of respect; but it is part of the culture in France."
Princeton is a good area, he says, because "this type of work is
popular among pharmaceutical companies. The stakes are high when
developing drugs, so they care about cross-cultural issues."
08550-0746. Gilles Asselin, president. 609-631-0382; fax,
609-631-0383. Home page: www.SoCoCo.com
If the bald eagle is the symbolic bird for the United States, the
rooster is the symbol of France, writes Gilles Asselin of SoCoCo
Intercultural Inc., an intercultural training and consulting in
Princeton Junction. With his business partner, Ruth Mastron, he wrote
"Au Contraire! Figuring Out the French" (Intercultural Press, 2001,
"A rooster does not fly high in the sky," the authors write, using the
bird to describe the differences between the French and the American
psyches, "and it does not soar to discover new horizons. Rather, a
rooster wakes up the entire village at dawn, attracts attention from
others, and never retreats from his defiant and domineering attitude
toward the rest of the coop."
Asselin’s book covers the waterfront on how to do business with the
French, everything from guidelines for Americans managers in France
(and vice versa) to how the French date, rear their children, go to
school, and go to church. Asselin and Mastron are brutally frank about
the vagaries of both nationalities, and they are often amusing.
Contrasts abound. "Deeply conservative yet avant-garde,
dispassionately rational yet given to wildly dramatic outbursts of
anger or affection, reserved with strangers yet passionate romantics:
the French take in rationalism and logic with their mother’s milk, and
yet France presents paradox upon paradox. Quite simply, the French
defy classification – even their own."
The country is shaped like a hexagon, and this geometric shape
actually shapes French culture. "The French think of themselves as
supremely rational beings – logical and intellectual. The vision of
their country as a geometric structure – neat, tidy, organized, and
clear – confirms for the French their prowess and pride of the mind,
Cartesians to their fingertips. Cartesianism, or Cartesian thinking,
refers to the typically French way of reasoning or working through a
"The French easily distinguish between what is true in theory and what
is true in practice. The two may be identical or may not bear the
"Telling the French that something is not allowed is a direct
challenge to their ability to do it gracefully, finding an elegant way
of bypassing the rules, and not getting caught.
"Many Americans are struck by how well the French dress themselves and
their children. The French are willing to put up with a considerable
physical discomfort to maintain their appearance. A Frenchwoman, for
example, would sooner die than change into a pair of comfortable
athletic shoes for the long metro ride home."
"The artworks of a culture express its values. It is no accident that
one of the great masterpieces of American art is Grant Wood’s
‘American Gothic,’ showing a stern-faced farmer and his daughter in
front of their farmhouse. These people clearly have work to do and are
serious about it."
‘It is no accident either that one of the great French masterpieces is
Rodin’s ‘The Thinker,’ a statue of a man sitting and thinking. French
society values thought and ideas for their own sake. They may or may
not have a practical application and either way is fine."
The authors summarize a section on the potential conflicts between the
two national personalities: "The thinking versus doing orientation is
often the source of friction between the French and Americans, but it
is rarely recognized, particularly in business, where the pragmatic
American approach clashes with the slower-paced intellectual French
The authors highlight these contrasting approaches in a study of the
merger of the American pharmaceutical company, Rorer, with
Rhone-Poulenc, which had its North American headquarters in Cranbury.
(Later this pharmaceutical division merged with Hoechst to become
Aventis.) One important factor in the merger’s success was the way
the leaders were chosen.
"A lot of atypically rational Americans were brought together with a
lot of unusually empiricist French, which led to a nice cultural
blend, enabling people to move rapidly into action. This wasn’t merely
luck or coincidence. Rhone-Poulenc Rorer (RPR) deliberately searched
internally or recruited people who showed an open mind and a
willingness to cross cultural boundaries. All these people
demonstrated what a French expat called teamwork skills. The potential
of both entities was harnessed while creating a hybrid structure.
"In short, RPR backed up its commitment in concrete actions. It
envisaged intercultural synergy as a mindset and a long-term effort,
and it fostered intercultural interactions throughout all levels and
areas of the company."
French influence may have waned since the days that the rooster became
the unofficial mascot. "Still, some French roosters like to remind
everyone that France has awakened the entire world to the beauty and
grace of its civilization, culture, and language."
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