Entrance of the Ecole des Mines in Paris: Theory versus Practice, photo Pelletier
Analyses, Articles in English, Communication, Education, Japon

The French and the demon of theory: 3 stories

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(English version of Les Français et le démon de la théorie)

Perhaps you know the joke that amuses Americans? It is said that an invention is presented to an international committee. While the audience is impressed by the efficiency of the new process, the French representative sinks into his chair and says:

– Obviously it works from a practical point of view…

A silence. Everyone wonders where his perplexed look comes from. Then the Frenchman adds:

– … but will it work in theory?

* * *

1st story – Back to the roots: the center of gravity

With an experience of cross-cultural training that grows richer every year, it seems increasingly important to me to return to the principles that govern our behavior, modes of action and relationships with others: the way we think, argue and convince.

This depends heavily on the educational system in which we were immersed for many years, at a time in life when we were most susceptible to influence (see on the blog Education systems, essential keys to understanding cultural differences). It is always extremely instructive to ask foreign partners about their educational system. On the one hand, we are aware that the French system is not universal; on the other hand, we understand that many misunderstandings become clearer in the light of educational peculiarities, even if the people concerned have studied the same discipline and now have the same professional culture.

For example, last year I had the opportunity to spend three months in residence at the Foundation Les Treilles. Every other week, it hosts seminars for researchers and academics, especially scientists, from different countries. I had the opportunity to meet, among others, biologists and geneticists. While I learned a lot (and forgot…) about Drosophila DNA and meiotic recombination, I also took the opportunity to ask them if they had noticed that in the way they presented their work, argued, and discussed, they had noticed differences between them. The answer was a unanimous yes.

It’s a matter of center of gravity: some put more emphasis on theoretical demonstration, others on factual adherence, some rely on oral skills, others are very picky about written production, some don’t ask questions during a presentation, others interrupt it regularly. This center of gravity stems partly from character and partly from habits acquired over a long period of time, certainly at school since early childhood, linked to a very specific social and educational context.

Before questioning the approach of others, everyone should ask themselves where their center of gravity lies in their way of thinking and communicating, and what may well have produced it. This is a difficult but salutary exercise, prior to an investigation into the center of gravity of foreign colleagues. This exercise is all the more difficult when one comes from a context where being right takes precedence over understanding different points of view.

2nd story – The demonstration by the water bottle

Yes, the French tend to value the ability to put forward the theoretical approach, then to indicate how to apply it in practice, to discuss the principles of action before tackling the question of means, to go from the abstract to the concrete, to seek to convince more by the force of ideas than by the force of examples. If they are not convinced on the conceptual aspect, they do not commit themselves to practical application, and even worse: they do not take seriously those who commit themselves to implementation without the prior rationalization process.

This is not universal. I’ve never been to Japan, but I’ve had the chance to meet Japanese people on several occasions. In particular, I remember a training course for a French company where there were about fifteen participants, including two French, a dozen Europeans and a Japanese. This team worked together daily but at a distance, and of course in English.

Sometimes we all use the same word in English, but its definition and associated practices are very different depending on the individual. This was the case with this team, especially with the word « quality ». Everyone tried to give his or her own definition of quality, a very conceptual attempt on the part of the French.

The Japanese participant simply grabbed a bottle of water from the table and showed it to everyone:

– Look at this bottle. You see? The label around isn’t perfectly stuck on it: there is a gap of half a millimeter between the two edges.

So what? Asked the other participants (and I asked myself).

– Well, no one in Japan would drink the water from it.

Why not? Because don’t trust the content if the packaging is not perfect.

That was his definition of quality the Japanese way. By the strength of example, he had gotten the message across. Of course, many French people can use analogies to support an explanation, but this is a much less common reflex in our cultural context where we value much more the strength of ideas.

This case reminds me of Carlos Ghosn’s testimony in his book Citoyen du monde where he looks back on his journey to the Renault-Nissan alliance. The pages devoted to his experience as Nissan boss in Japan are particularly interesting. He explains that he observed that the Japanese had a very different approach from the French:

The Japanese are not champions of theory. Their strength is to start from a pragmatic, simple observation and then to try to build a solution. I haven’t seen very theoretical trials in Japan.

3rd story – Endless definitions

Without going as far as in Japan, it should be noted that the approach that consists in valuing the logical link and the distinction between theory and practice outside the scientific or philosophical field is not found everywhere. See for example this interesting feedback related to the Italian school and academic system:

The experimental approach with problems and hypotheses is reserved for scientific discourse and is not really used in secondary education.

The joke quoted in the introduction points to a stereotype about the French that has a part of truth. While there is no question of questioning the theoretical power of the French, one should question its excesses when it extends its hold to the caricature.

A few years ago, for a French company, I led a session bringing together teams from different countries including, in addition to French, Americans, Japanese, Indians and Chinese. After several workshops, the participants drew up a list of cooperation and communication issues, and for each of them a series of very concrete actions to be implemented as quickly as possible.

A meeting was then held to decide which actions were priorities and which were secondary. It was very satisfying to see this team on the verge of initiating useful changes to the way they operate. The first action concerned the clarification of each partner’s tasks when launching a project. It was then that a Frenchman took the floor:

– I don’t think we should talk about « task » but about « responsibility ».

And he began to explain the difference in definition between the two notions. Another Frenchman then interrupted him to indicate his disagreement and his preference for the term « responsibility ». He argued by tilting the conceptual balance towards his point of view. The first one interrupted him in turn, and an intellectual debate took place between them as if the other twelve people attending the meeting no longer existed.

Gilbert Garcin, L’oubli, 1999

In short, the purpose of the meeting was to decide on the actions to be implemented. In this type of situation, it is important to intervene with authority as quickly as possible, to force us to move away from the question of « why » to bring the discussion back to « how? « Who? », « When? ». All the more so since the Japanese had begun to take a nap, while the Americans would certainly have pulled the trigger if a weapon had been at their disposal.

Yet what some perceive as a healthy debate aimed at precise definitions without which no further action can be taken, will simply be seen by others at best as a waste of time, at worst as arrogance. The challenge here is to understand where the respective tendencies of the participants come from.

To this end, I can only encourage the collection of as much information as possible on the different educational systems. Ask, for example, how a lecture was conducted (lecture or debate?), which intellectual faculties were most mobilized (memorization or conceptualization?), whether it was possible to ask questions during the lecture, what was the place of written and oral work and the proportion of group work, what were the tests, homework, exams, what were good and bad grades, etc. Expand your database with more recent testimonials from students from the same country, exchange with professors. This will give you valuable keys to better understand the complexity of behaviors and interactions.

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