Posts Tagged ‘Ruth Mastron’

Europeans Ask: “Why Don’t Americans Like Intellectuals?”

August 3, 2011

American expats are continually called upon to explain to British and European friends the perplexing trend of anti-intellectualism in America.

The overriding reason why Americans tend not to like intellectuals is that it goes against the grain of the principles our nation was founded on.  Even though we have rich and poor in America, one of the most basic tenants of American society is that great social mobility is available to all who work hard enough to better themselves.

In America, we believe in equality of educational opportunity (even though that doesn’t always happen in practice).  However, we always have many avenues open to further our education and improve our circumstances (jobs and social position both), which are never closed off completely to any individual who applies himself.

In contrast, in Britain, Europe, and many other parts of the world, this is just not so.  Education remains an elitist experience where students are sorted into tracks very early  (by American standards).  Only the “cream of the crop” attend the top educational institutions, which have extremely selective admissions criteria.  If a students do not get in on the first sorting, there is NO chance to get in later.  To Americans, unfortunately, it is not readily apparent why this a problem.

What Americans don’t realize is that in Europe, it’s all about what school someone graduates from.    Those who graduate from top schools have perpetually  higher status in society than those who graduated from a lower tier of schools.   One French graduate from a top engineering school told an American colleague, “Essentially, it means I’m set up for life.” (Asselin and Mastron, Au Contraire!, p. 80)

In France, poor performers at work who graduate from top schools are forever on a higher salary track than those who are stellar performers  who graduated from more ordinary schools.  In France, new hires come in to a company in a particular “band,” and the graduates of the top schools start out in the highest band.  These graduates stay perpetually within the same band which continually rises on a higher level than the other bands.  All bands rise in terms of salary with time; however, it is never possible for someone from a lower band to reach the top levels of the company, no matter how stellar his performance and knowledge.  (Asselin and Mastron, Au Contraire!, p. 83)  Also, there is never any mobility from a lower band to a higher band.

French Salary Bands, Gilles and Mastron, "Au Contraire!", p. 83

In America, it’s less as much about which school you graduated from (except that  a top school improves your chances in finding that first job,and in meeting future useful contacts); it’s more about what you DO and ACCOMPLISH with your degree once you’ve got it.  A few years down the line, employers and people in general are less interested in which school you went to that what you have DONE.

In France, what you have done since you received your degree is of little importance, compared to WHICH SCHOOL YOU WENT TO.

Elitism - The biggest "faux pas" in America

To Americans, these sorts of attitudes smack of elitism, which is the biggest “no-no” in American society.  This is why in America, you sometimes see a boss who arrives early occasionally making the coffee for the staff.  It’s not because this is his job, or that he has nothing better to do.  It’s because, in American society, it’s important for the boss to appear humble, NOT ACTING AS IF HE IS BETTER THAN ANYONE ELSE.

This is the same reason why you see even American presidents acting in humble ways from time-to-time, to demonstrate that they are also “just ordinary folks,”  which earns them the respect of the ordinary voter.  This behavior is very confusing to Europeans, who view such behavior on the part of a president (or company boss) as being completely inappropriate.  What Europeans don’t understand is that anyone who acts in an elitist manner in American society is not respected.

In America, intellectuals are equated with elitists.  Therefore, anyone who is truly an intellectual and who does not want to be despised by others, makes a great effort to be “down-to-earth.”  This phrase, often heard throughout American society, means that an individual is practical, sensible, and without pretense.  It also generally means that the person is a problem-solver, and does not talk in theoretical rhetoric.  Talking in inappropriate depth in a social setting is viewed as showing off, and as elitist behavior.

In America,  one has neither the right to act superior to others, nor to have the law or rules applied differently depending upon who one is, or upon who one knows (which seems to be the de facto way of doing things in much of the rest of the world).  The recent debacle with Dominique Strauss-Kahn is a case-in-point.

Dominique Strauss-Kahn - with a sense of "entitlement"

What most disturbed Americans was that he seemed to think that because of his position and who he was gave him license to act above-the-law.  What Americans read in reports from France indicated to them that this was how he got away with such behavior in France for many years.  It was brushed under the carpet because of his social position.

For anyone interested in reading further on these issues, I highly recommend the book Au Contraire!  Figuring Out the French, by Gilles Asselin and Ruth Mastron.  It is one of the best books available on intercultural issues, and is available  HERE in America, and HERE in Britain.

–Lynne Diligent

%d bloggers like this: