Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Individualism, French and American Style

Jean-Daniel Tordjman, the special ambassador for France's competitive clusters, was in town last week making pitches to local think tanks. A self-described Americanophile who lived and studied in this country, he said to admire Americans' focus on teamwork, which he contrasted with the French individualistic approach. The French have a critical mind, he said, which may boost creativity and innovation at individual level, but misses out on group synergies. Hence the competitive cluster initiative.

Tordjman's remarks highlight interesting contrasts in what individualism means in France and in the U.S., as well as contradictions within each country.

In general, the French are critical and individualistic in the way they think, but they have a holistic approach to solidarity, and to living in society (dubbed as "socialism.")

In contrast, the Americans have a more individualistic, "libertarian" approach to their place in society, but they privilege group behavior over individual initiative. Debates, if any, often degenerate into shouting matches, with everyone reinforced in their positions, whereas in France, criticism is part of daily life, with everyone accepting that others may have a different opinion.

America is a kaleidoscopic nation of immigrants, pioneers and entrepreneurs, but its groupthink mentality makes it easier to govern than France (even De Gaulle acknowledged,
"How can you govern a country which has 246 varieties of cheese?") As mentioned previously, it would be interesting to see what would happen if both nations' characteristics were put in a blender. Maybe that's the secret "competitive cluster" combination Tordjman is looking for?

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