Figuring Out the French

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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

this field.

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."

SoCoCo Intercultural Inc. Box 746, Princeton Junction

08550-0746. Gilles Asselin, president. 609-631-0382; fax,

609-631-0383. Home page:

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Figuring Out the French

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

slightest resemblance."

"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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