Angela Natividad's Live & Uncensored!

04 January 2013

What It Is to Be American

When I lived in the US I thought I knew what it was to be American. I was comfortable with it; there were things I disdained and things I generally liked, things I rebuked -- like having to drive everywhere -- and things I knew I couldn’t live without -- like how easy it is to get curly fries, anywhere, at any time of day or night.

I once read that the Lost Generation, our fabled and beloved American writers of the ‘20s, were able to write so well about America -- not because they were in Paris, but because their time outside taught them to see home with new eyes. I suppose that was one draw for leaving. I had a vague suspicion that would happen to me, but didn’t really see how it could. I thought, like an adolescent, that I knew who I was and how the world worked.

But I left anyway. January 12th will mark my fourth year in Paris. Some years flew by less quickly than others, and I often feared I’d lose my ties to the US: to friends, work opportunities, my culture and my family. But technology has sprung up around us to bind ties I thought I’d lose.

I changed a great deal. There are things about Paris, and about the French, that I had to embrace in order to do that. I sometimes worried I’d lose myself, then learned that if you open yourself to a place, and to being changed by it, you can’t lose yourself: you are simply transformed, richer in nuance and in depth than if you had fought yourself stagnant. You are more yourself than ever.

I know for certain that in the four years since I arrived in Paris I became a woman, and a very different one from the one I would have become in California or New York. It isn’t just a question of environment; it is also about what the culture passes along to you: how the people, the movies, and the media teach you to become an adult in this society. There were shaky moments: I sometimes wondered, while choosing a scarf or when foregoing rice in the interest of bread, whether I was nullifying some aspect of me that I needed to protect. There were misses: I still don’t get French comedians. And no matter how many movies or YouTube videos I watch, I’ll never fully grasp the nostalgic pop culture or other reverberations of recent past that colour the language, humour and identity of the Parisians of my generation.

And of course there were successes: I was incorporated into families and made friends. People started expecting me places. I was, as the French are so fond of saying, integrated. I learned, again, how to dress myself: what suits me best in the culture, how to integrate what I like with what makes sense here, and where to find that mix. (This is surprisingly one of the toughest nuts to crack when you move somewhere new for a long period of time.) I learned, all over again, how to buy shampoo, take care of my body, eat and sleep. The products are different here; the rhythm is, too. Having to stumble through all this again made me feel like a lost adolescent in the Personal Care aisle. I puzzled over what to take for a headache or a cough, what deodorants were best, and what to put in my hair. Because in this new climate, with its harder water and different kinds of food, everything I thought I knew about my body changed.

I changed inside, too. I noticed different things, began to think in different ways. Language isn’t just about being heard; it’s a framework for thought, with its own rhythm and history. In another language you are forced to think in a different way: the sentence constructions and rules of grammar are different, forcing your brain to perceive things twice: the way an Anglophone would, then the way a Francophone would. The logic behind each approach is different, sometimes diametrically opposed (a good example is how both cultures believe in the separation of church and state, but approach the problem in ways that are opposite in the extreme). Then, as you grow comfortable with manifesting words in your new tongue, you go back to perceiving things just once … and what becomes hard is remembering how you saw them in your native way.

I sometimes forget words, or how to turn a small, niggling phrase in English. Culture author Mark Tungate once told me he goes out of his way to read books in English for this reason. “We do it to protect our craft,” he emphasised. “If we lose our mastery of it, we lose our livelihood.” That’s something I never would have learned at home.

But I think most telling is what I’ve learned about being American. The French relationship to Americans is complicated, distinctly love/hate, and I’ve concluded it’s because we’re much too similar. As a much wiser person once said, “Americans have to win and the French hate to lose.”

Many of our cultural differences resonate in my workdays: the adoption of new technology is more rapid in the US; the French take their time, and I know we can’t always afford that luxury when opportunity arises. What the French are only coming to realise is that markets can no longer remain local, taking the time to grow in their bubbles, particularly online. You’re competing with everyone, catering to everyone, the moment you open your doors. It’s too easy to say Americans understand this intuitively; the truth is, we don’t have to. We speak the world’s business language and have one of the largest, most influential markets in existence: what flies in the US will likely fly globally, simply because we’re fortunate enough to have a culture that’s built to export. We also have a generous investment ecosystem that keeps ideas of merit in business for years before they turn a profit. This simply doesn’t exist in Europe.

As I struggled to keep sight of myself, even as I transformed, the French are struggling to maintain identity in a world that now threatens to leave them behind. Even its prime industries are suffering: luxury, fashion and wine are no longer an exclusively French export, and seldom now do we need a French name on a product in any of those three categories to feel sure about its quality. Simplicity, efficiency, and the importance of tight yet ever-evolving UX design are intuitive to a connected American; it is less so in a country that values deep reflection over immediacy, protectionism over autonomous action and tradition over an uncertain future.

French journalist Pascal Lechevallier of ZDNet.fr recently gave me a simplified description of the difference between Americans and the French. “In America you talk with ease about technology because it’s part of your education; in France we talk with ease about wine because it is part of our education. You can be French and talk about technology, and you can be American and talk about wine … but you will never be fluent.”

I don’t know yet if that’s true; I think it’s too early to be sure. I think the primary takeaway is that what we find is self-evident really comes down to the education our culture imparted to us. But I remain optimistic that, however painful this transition is, and however long it takes, France will change. It must, even if it makes terrible mistakes first. Here I demonstrate two distinctly American qualities that I love and deeply value: optimism and openness to failure.

Failure is instructive. It isn’t in my nature to face failure with relish, just as it isn’t in my nature to be gregarious and extroverted. These are things I learned were important, despite myself, because I grew up in the Bay Area. I don’t particularly care about the last two; France gave me a gift in showing me it isn’t wrong to be reserved, inside myself and slow to warm to others. (I often felt it was in the States.) But I do recognise that some qualities, however natural, are best tempered: I make an effort to be open to failure, because I have had to fail so much to get here. Early on, failure felt like condemnation; it is only recently that I’ve learned it’s just another wave in a wide ocean, and the trick is less to take waves personally than it is to learn to read them.

In Paris I’ve met creatives who believe in the industry and want to move their clients forward and embrace new technology, even though many large European clients still wave social media away. They call it trendy. Or, too often, they’ll give social media a cursory nod -- start a Facebook page, say -- but remind their agencies not to get too “crazy”: they don’t want to deal with users, they don’t want to change their products.

I’ve met startup founders here that know the European VC space is conservative and tight-fisted, that the market isn’t open to change right away, and that the French government is generally hostile to the entrepreneurial spirit -- maybe, as Gerard Depardieu and Maurice Levy believe, hostile to success in general.

The dreamers are nonetheless here, ready to take risks and compress the fear that comes with fighting a tide so much larger than any I fought, having grown up near Silicon Valley -- where societal condemnation comes not from being ambitious but from lacking the ambition to create something for yourself. That’s pressure I recognise. But it doesn’t compare to having to step outside your comfort zone and try dragging your country, kicking and screaming, into the new world order. Their jobs aren’t easy, and few can blame them when they throw their hands up and leave France.

I’m often asked, “Why are you here when you could go back to where change happens so easily?”

It’s true I didn’t make life easy for myself by moving to France, and it certainly wasn’t the career move of the century (although it’s changing every day, and for the better). Things are easier, smoother and faster in the US, particularly if you’re young, hungry and talented. And I often miss the competence and certainty I felt at home, the optimism in the air, the positivity that radiates from Americans because, in the end, "complainers don’t win".

But I stay because of the things that make me American. I’ve mentioned optimism, and having to face the fear of failure head-on. We’re also good at sharing, unafraid of losing what we put out into the open: our culture, even our language, is open-source. We want to impart our learnings, and we believe that the ecosystems we live and work in are better for it.

We try to stay positive, even against terrible opposition. As a small example, I’m often teased for calling a concert, a movie or a bloody web mockup “fantastic” or “awesome”.

“Sorry,” my friends -- sometimes even my clients! -- will say to unacquainted companions. “She’s American.” In France you critique first and ask questions later. It’s easier to say something is not that great than it is to be wrong -- or worse, in bad taste.

We seek friends in strangers. We tell the stories of our lives openly, trying earnestly to expand our positive connections in the world. I’m often told I ask too many personal questions or share too much. But I wouldn’t exchange discretion for the life’s wisdom I’ve accrued on plane rides, in cabs, from waiters or old women at the bus stop. They have given me life experience I didn’t have to sweat for -- an immeasurable gift -- and I am always trying to pay that back.

We try new things. Maybe a little too readily. Christophe Asselin, a native Frenchman who now leads ad:tech London, laughingly told me that the difference between the US and Europe lies in their attitudes toward the new. “Americans are always so quick to adopt. They rush into things, they make all the mistakes. We watch, we wait.” We may make all the mistakes, but that’s gold: those are where the best practices lie. You can make lots of money remaining just behind the cutting edge, but we crave the cutting edge itself. Like infants experiencing a world of new senses, we simply want to try.

We like solutions. One of the toughest things I had to do in France was adjust to how everyone complains all the time. It is literally the world’s most pessimistic country. They complain about the weather, about the upholstery, about the service … they complain to make conversation. “If you’re not complaining,” a colleague once told me, “you’re not alive.”

It wore me out in the first year, and with time I figured out why: Americans are taught, first not to complain, and secondly to find solutions. My brain was constantly at work, proposing solutions to problems that had none, because nobody wanted any. Once I understood this, it was easier to bear the barrage of complaints and to take them in good humour. But even today, when someone approaches me with a complex problem, I still relish in the work of gathering the variables, looking at all sides of it, trying to find the key.

Finally, we mean well. A favourite critique of Americans is that we barge into situations, disputes, societies, whole countries that aren’t our own, then start throwing money around and trying to “fix” things without first gathering sufficient information. There are often terrible consequences to this; I’ll be the first to make that concession. I have always been a fan of “information as artillery”. But I also know we do it out of some fundamental conviction that we can help lift a burden, or out of hope that we can provide an unexpected, never-before-considered solution. Even if I would change the approach, I wouldn’t change the spirit of the gesture: we like to be helpful.

If I remain here it isn’t because I love my home country less -- although, as in the case of the Lost Generation, I do see it with more critical eyes, which I nonetheless associate with love. I’m here because I feel there’s still work to do connecting our two cultures, and because I still want to do it. It’s the challenge I accepted, and I’ll either succeed or fail. I’m here because I believe that my American perspective is useful to clients making baby steps in social engagement (we made the mistakes already!), and because I believe France will meet the changing world halfway. It has no choice. But it does need people who want to help carry the load.

I’m here because I’m American, and I want to give France what it gave me: openness to change, and the sense that if we surrender ourselves to the process, we’ll come out fuller, not less rich. If that sounds naive or arrogant, I’m okay with that: those, too, are American qualities.

10 comments:

Howie G said...

You are ao astute and brilliant Angela. I value you as a friend i havent met in person...yet!

David Gianatasio said...

You should come up with a 400-word version of this piece and pitch it to NPR. You could read it on the radio and get a nice check.

Anonymous said...

and they say French people are arrogant... You just proved that generally speaking Americans tend to to have too good an opinion of themselves and do not hesitate to fully embrace the most condescending attitude when considering other peoples and cultures. This is meant without any hostility but it is quite an American trait indeed to have such a clearcut view of the world and think that you only are living in the future while others remain in the past. Or that you are the ones endowed with such qualities that you have to spread them amongst those who were not so lucky as to have been born in the US. It is not only naive, it also reveals a pure lack of understanding. And sounds to me like a proper pile of bollocks if you pardon my english.

M_C_B said...

Nailed it!!! Merci pour ce très insightful post, qui met le doigt sur beaucoup de choses que j'observais ici sans avoir réussi à tout à fait mettre mon doigt dessus jusqu'ici. You rock.

Anonymous said...

I wouldnt say a nation with 40% of its inhabitants believing in creationism and an illogical clinging onto outdated church principles, racist agendas, criminal parts of a constitution and a backward, outdated view on foreign policy was particularly cutting edge of open to embracing change.

I would say it is wantonly conservative.

Jimmy Little said...

Ah, a nice, thoughtful, really readable piece of reflection -- thanks! I know where you're coming from, in several different ways...

But as someone who's immigrated four times in his life, and spent most of his life in places where his culture, thinking, accent, dialect, and / or language was not the local one (and whose boss's boss's boss's boss's boss (or something like that) is Maurice Levy), I think the first thing I learned about America is it's almost impossible to generalise about it. You're really writing about your getting self-knowledge of what it means to be a Bay Area startup / media denizen, not an American -- the America out there in the square states, for instance, isn't much like that back here in NorCal. I.e. It's not so much your being American that's important here, as your being an educated Bay Arean. Or something like that.

I think it's very American to think that certain types of exceptionalism are very American...

Angela Natividad said...

Hey, Jimmy! It is nice to see you're still around. :)

I agree with you; in the end the country is vast and I can only speak from where I came from. But the real reason why I wanted to write this is because it's so easy for us, and for others, to focus on the aspects of the US worth condemning (there are many). I think that particularly when you make the choice to live outside of the US you have to make peace with what you've inherited and find a way to help others, too, remember that there are positive qualities we generally share.

Jimmy Little said...

Yeah, I'm still around -- plodding away at all the usual stuff :-).

Anyway, I'm glad you wrote the piece -- it's strong and insightful (for me, anyway), even though I picked a nit or two. Being away from where you grow up is essential for really understanding and appreciating that place -- and I always admired you for leaving it all behind and moving to Paris (a place I worked in briefly many years ago).

Oh, and when people ask me how I (as a lefty UnAmerican) can live in America, I just reply that I don't really live in America, I live in the Bay Area... does anyone live in "America"?

Angela Natividad said...

Maybe, like "being an adult", it doesn't really exist. ;)

Jimmy Little said...

Exactement! And I'm not sure I'm any sort of "adult", but I'm definitely no "grownup" :-).