The Power of French Food Culture…Even for Selling Men’s Underwear!

underwear omeletteAnother guest blog by the wonderful Joe Lurie—I will say that I’m about ready to get on a plane and enroll in Joe’s next class!

As a follow-up to my blog posts, Bicycling in the Yogurt — the French Food Fixation and Ads as Catalysts for Intercultural Conversations, I’d like to share this French ad for men’s underwear, shared with me by a French student:

The ad shocked my Chinese students — underwear in the kitchen? References to a man’s genitals in a TV ad? Not only does it reflect in an amusing and extraordinary way the seduction of food in French culture, it also reveals a theme of sensuality commonly accepted in the French public square.

While there’s plenty of pornography in North America, a French marketing professional explained to me recently that using a bare breasted mermaid to sell an ordinary product in the United States simply did not work. And so, one understands why many visitors to France are shocked by bare breasted women on public beaches. Everything, in every culture, has its own culturally accepted place.

While discussing the French underwear ad, some of the French students noted that to break one’s eggs would often suggest breaking one’s balls — being a real pain. This occasioned a vigorous, animated debate, some French students insisting that breaking one’s eggs does mean breaking one’s balls, others countering with equal force that this was generally not true, rather at best a gross exaggeration. And so in that conversation emerged other common French values and related behaviors, emerging nearly verbatim as they appear in the Cultural Detective French Values Lens — the importance of debate, of challenging ideas, of being rational, of not exaggerating, of being precise. Listen to French conversation and you will hear, over and over again, the words preciser, “to be precise,” and il faut pas exaggerer— “one must not exaggerate!”

Joe Lurie is Executive Director Emeritus at University of California Berkeley’s International House, a cross-cultural communications trainer, consultant, university lecturer, and certified Cultural Detective facilitator. He is a frequent guest contributor to this blog.

Linked to the My Global Life Link-Up at SmallPlanetStudio.

Does Cultural Detective “Work” in a University Setting?

Simons-ESPEME

Click on the image to view a full-size version of this letter.

We are very proud to say that Cultural Detective has been an essential ingredient of the International Business Management Program in the ESPEME-EDHEC Business School in France over the past six-years. Dr. George Simons and colleagues have designed and delivered leading-edge courseware in fully simulated environments, spiraling around a Cultural Detective backbone. The results they have achieved have been remarkable. George has, over the years, most generously shared his experiences, his students’ projects (Blended Culture identity, comparative culture differences, movies, artwork, papers), and his designs with us.

I am thus quite eager to share with you this letter from Elizabeth Dickson, Head of the International Business Management Program at EDHEC Nice and Lille. I’m confident you’ll join me in congratulating George as well as his colleagues for the fine work they continue to do. I believe you will find it interesting to read Elizabeth’s letter, and to view what one head of a major educational institution feels have been the components of a successful international business course.

And, to answer the question in this post’s title, “Yes, by all means. There are quite a few universities on several continents using Cultural Detective to great effect.” It’s not just for business anymore.

There are quite a few other use cases that might prove interesting to you on our website.

Catalysts For Intercultural Conversations and Insights: Advertisements

Lipton tea Chinese flowersThis guest blog post is written by Joe Lurie, Executive Director Emeritus, University of California Berkeley’s International House.

Recently, I taught a course attended by Chinese and French students on the intercultural challenges of marketing across cultures. Midway through the course I asked students to select a print, web or YouTube ad describing how the following items reflected cultural preoccupations, values and behaviors in their cultures:

  • the product being promoted
  • the selection of words in the headers
  • the images and colors being used to reinforce the message

After analyzing the ad as a reflection of one’s culture, the student was to ask a fellow classmate from another culture why the ad would or would not work in their culture. In one example, a Chinese student demonstrated how Lipton tea is marketed in China. He noted that no tea bag was explicitly shown, as tea bags do not speak to the traditional way of preparing tea in China, and so not the best way to convince people to drink the Lipton product in China. Rather, the image was of green tea flowing from a cup on its side, producing green images in the style of Chinese paintings of mountains, fish and flowers, each with a particular symbolic value in Chinese culture. Lipton tea Chinese mountains The French student who was interviewed had no exposure to traditional Chinese painting and saw not lovely images, but rather incomprehensible splotches! He added that the ad would not work in France as tea drinkers are generally accustomed to black or brown teas.

Color in many other ads revealed the power and status implications of yellow in China, yet something to beware of in France where it often suggests infidelity. Below from a French student are two different ways that Volkswagon is promoted in China and France, reflecting a powerful individualistic/collectivistic contrast, and a terrific way for students to engage in a conversation of cultural discovery: Below you will find an ad for a cleaning sponge selected by a French student, revealing what the student felt is a preoccupation with sex—reflected in explicit and other seductive ways in many other ads for other products in France. Sexual suggestions, so graphically portrayed, would not, according to the Chinese students in my class, be acceptable in Chinese product promotions. And in a French ad for BMW, a man is  shown making love to the body of a woman whose face is in fact a BMW!

BaijuuA Chinese ad for a very strong 38% alcohol rice beverage portrayed a bottle whose shape was interpreted by the French as a perfume bottle, and so it would not be a convincing way of promoting an alcoholic beverage there.

The bold red color signifying affluence and status for the Chinese was seen as over the top by the French students, who noted a preference in the French aesthetic for far more nuanced, muted colors. This prompted a spirited conversation between the Chinese and French in which it was revealed that ads with very high alcoholic content are discouraged or banned in France, but visual ads for condoms were common there, though not generally acceptable in China. That conversation ended with a comparison of toasting custom—the French “drink and sip” vs the Chinese GAMBAY or “bottoms up”—ALL at ONCE!

Should readers of this blog try this approach in their intercultural classes and training sessions, I hope you will consider sharing the fun and insights here….

—Joe Lurie
Executive Director Emeritus at the University of California’s International House, Joe is currently a cross-cultural communications consultant, university instructor and Cultural Detective certified facilitator. Contact Joe via email or LinkedIn.

Two Values Lens Stories

©Cultural Detective, from Cultural Detective Self Discovery

©Cultural Detective, from Cultural Detective Self Discovery

The beauty of Cultural Detective Values Lenses?

A colleague was just telling me this morning that he had a class of students from France and Italy, and one Thai woman. The students had worked with Cultural Detective Self Discovery; they had reflected on their personal values and history, and created personal Values Lenses.

Next my colleague had walked through the French Values Lens with the class, and asked them to compare their personal Lenses with the national Lens, the country in which all of the students were residing and studying. The French students perceived a lot of resonance with their national culture, and the foreign students identified their experience in France as well.

Next my friend walked through the Italian Values Lens, and got the same reaction.

Finally, when he went to the Thai Values Lens, he realized he knew next to nothing about Thais, and that he couldn’t even pronounce the words on the Lens. Thus, he elected to ask the Thai student, blindsiding her or putting her on the spot if you will — he asked her to come up and introduce the class to the Thai Values Lens, which she had only just seen in that moment!

This Thai participant led the other students, and the professor, on a journey into Thai culture that took their breath away! She shared examples of Thai behavior and their meaning that built the other students’, and the teacher’s, respect for who she is and where she comes from.

Such can be the power of a Values Lens. It is not a stereotype. It captures the central tendency, the norm, of a group of people, in terms people can identify with. Thus, it is usually quite easy for a representative of the culture to introduce the values in a Values Lens, using stories from everyday life in that culture.

Second example, much shorter:

So many people nowadays tell us they are global nomads, TCKs, Blended Culture people. And they are. And, this does not mean that they don’t have a culture; it means they have more cultural strands woven into their identity than perhaps the average person!

The second story involves one young woman, who insisted she was nothing like her national culture. She was an individual, a global citizen: culture-less, in a way. In looking at her national culture Values Lens, she exclaimed out loud during class, “Oh my God! I AM Slovak!”

The goal of Cultural Detective Values Lenses as tools is to facilitate dialogue and understanding, both understanding of self and others, and thus enable collaboration that brings out the best of each of us. Please help us make that happen, by sharing your tips, techniques, and designs, and by encouraging best practice.

Bicycling in the Yogurt: the French Food Fixation

Communicating in the Language of Food, by Joe Lurie

Dear readers, I am very pleased to share with you another guest blog post by the talented Joe Lurie (though Joe, I’d prefer to “swim in the chocolate” rather than “bicycle in the yogurt”). You’ll remember that Joe previously shared with us the very popular article, “Language Under the Gun.”

Noting that  French President Francois Hollande has been referred to by his political opponents as a fragile strawberry, a wobbly flan , a marshmallow, and “gauche caviar,” with the charisma  of a smelly sausage, I was reminded of how a culture’s preoccupations shape the way language is used.

I was first introduced to the pleasures of French cuisine and its influence on the French language as a university student hitchhiking through Normandy, sampling butter, cream and apple brandy-suffused dishes.

Struggling to express myself in village bistros, I realized the truth behind Mark Twain’s observation that Intermediate French is not spoken in France. A friendly waiter, noting my frustration, reassured me saying, I know, it’s not pie, “Je sais, c’est pas de la tarte,” which means it’s difficult. He went on to add, but it’s not the end of the string beans, “mais c’est pas la fin des haricots” – a strikingly French way of saying, it’s not the end of the world.

A decade later, my French was much improved. While directing a US American study abroad program in Toulouse, my understanding of food’s influence on the language deepened. Before taking a French cooking class with my 20 students, we stopped at an open-air market. Because the line to buy cheese was not moving, our impatient guide complained: “on ne veut pas faire le poireau,” we don’t want to be like a leek. Later, we learned the translation: to wait like a motionless leek in the ground. Now late for cooking class, our guide urged the van driver to press on the mushroom!appuyez sur le champignon!” – meaning step on the gas! Keeping a chef waiting simply would not do.

The students and I were struck by how carefully the chef conducted the lesson – artfully presenting and discussing the ingredients. The meal is serious business, not to be treated like a joke or, as the French say, like custardc’était pas du flan ce cours de cuisine! As  we prepared a fruit salad, the chef mumbled “oh purée!” mashed potatoes! – or damn it! and disdainfully discarded a blemished peach to preserve an aesthetically pleasing fruit plate.

During almost four years living in Strasbourg, Toulouse and the island of Corsica, I saw how the French passion for eating and discussing food flavored the language in tasty and unusual ways, though some expressions are unique to different regions or generations.

It began to make sense that endearing French metaphors are often rooted in the pleasures of taste. “What a nice person” is served up in French as “c’est une crème!” – what cream, while “la crème de la crème,” the cream of creams is the best of all. And “you are so energetic” takes on a carb boost in French: you have the French fry (tu as la frite). To be in high spirits also can come from the fruit family, as in you have the peach (tu as la pêche), while having a banana (avoir  la banane) is to have a big smile. And, of course, there’s the affectionate “mon petit chou,my little cabbage.

Allusions to food also season the language of love. A broken-hearted UC Berkeley student of mine from Marseille described her flirtatious boyfriend as a Don Juan with the heart of an artichoke, quelqu’un qui a un cœur d’artichaut,” offering each of his lovers a leaf from his heart. He was skilled at making romantic advances or as my student put it: serving up a dish, “faire du plat à quelqu’un,” a prelude to going off to the strawberries, aller aux fraises,” to enjoy an erotic interlude.

Even insults and put-downs easily spring from the tongue as if from a farmers’ market. An idiot or jerk, for example, can be described in French as what a pickle! (quel cornichon!); an utter squash (une vraie courge); such a noodle! (quelle nouille!); or as having a green pea in the brain! (avoir un petit pois à la place du cerveau!). When struggling to drive in France, I’ve heard irate, gesturing French men speed past, yelling “espèce d’andouille!” piece of sausage! or, you imbecile!

I remember a heated debate in a Paris café about a Gerard Depardieu film. A friend dismissed it as a turnip, “un navet,” a startling vegetable metaphor for a trashy film. When he called the actor a horrible drunk, an indignant Depardieu fan interrupted with: shut your smelly Camembert mouth!ferme ta  boîte à Camembert!”

Just as food evokes passion in France, its metaphorical expressions enliven debate. Butting in on a conversation is to bring your strawberry, ramener ta  fraise. Being overly inquisitive about someone’s private life could provoke an acerbic “occupe-toi de tes oignons!” mind your own onions! the French version of mind your own business. But perhaps the classic French way of ending an argument is go cook yourself an egg, “va te faire cuire un œuf,” or go to hell.

Traveling through the Pyrénées with a French couple, my wife and I enjoyed great food and spirited conversations, especially about politics. When the husband praised Sarkozy, his wife sneered that the former President is overly dramatic – making a big cheese out of nothing, “il fait tout un fromage de rien du tout.”  She added, you can’t tell if he’s talking about pork fat or pork meat, “on ne sait pas si c’est du lard ou du cochon,” you can’t tell if he’s lying or telling the truth. And she believed Sarkozy had casseroles hanging on his butt – “des casseroles au cul” – a scandalous past.

While serving as Dean of Students at an international college in Strasbourg, I was struck by how much my French colleagues valued using words precisely, reflected in the pervasive use of the verb “préciser.” I chuckled when I heard some professors describe student papers that lacked clarity. They complained that these students were lost, bicycling in the sauerkraut, pédalant dans la choucroute. In other regions, one might say bicycling in the yogurt or couscous. And then there’s swimming in chocolate, nageant dans le chocolat, or skating in the mayonnaise, patinant  dans la mayonnaise – getting nowhere. Outside the college, I heard other vivid ways of describing confusion such as being in the soup, the pate or the cabbages (être dans le potage, le pâté or les choux).

Recently, I saw an exasperated French TV commentator despair over the French economy by throwing up his hands exclaiming what a salad!quelle salade!” what a mess! And then he finished with the carrots are cooked! “les  carottes sont cuites!” meaning it’s all over.

If one is unemployed and grouchy or as the French say, “pas dans son assiette,” not on your plate, landing a job would help to put butter on the spinachmettre du beurre dans les épinards,” to make things better. And then it’s time to put your hand in the dough, “mettre la main a la pate” – get down to business. After all, you’ve got to defend your steak, “défendre ton bifteck,” as in look out for your interests.

Speaking of steak, making a living is gagner son bifteck, to earn one’s steak; while making a profit is to prepare one’s butter, faire son beurre. And to have a pancake avoir de la galette, is to be rich. Assuming pancakes are your goal, you’ll have to go all out, put on the sauce, mettre la sauce, and be prepared to make a strong sales pitch, vendre ta salade, by selling your salad.

A UC Berkeley graduate student in computer science from Tours told me he was building a start-up company – “une jeune pousse,” a young sprout and didn’t know what to expect or what sauce he would eat, “ne pas savoir à quelle sauce on va être mangé.”  He knew he had bread on the board, avoir du pain sur la planche, a lot of work to do, but realized that while dealing with potential investors he had to avoid being rolled in the flour, être roulé dans la farine – duped. Otherwise, he risked eating the frog, manger la grenouille – going bankrupt. He didn’t want to end up without a radish, ne plus avoir un radis, or as we would say, without a cent. All his dreams for nothing – “pour des prunes.” Still, if he becomes successful like a Bill Gates, he’s apt to be called a large vegetable, une grosse légume, and be among the grated cheese, le gratin – the elite.

The versatility of the cheese metaphor in a country with hundreds of cheeses is not surprising. “A dessert without a cheese is like a beautiful woman with only one eye,” observed Jean Brillat-Savarin in his Physiology of Taste. His famous 19th century book, exploring the nuances of cuisine – still is sold in France. And no wonder, with a line like: “He who invents a new dish will have rendered humanity a greater service than the scientist who discovers a planet.”

Today, as French supermarkets and fast food restaurants continue to proliferate, gourmands refuse to compromise or cut the pear in two, couper la poire en deux, in defending their culinary heritage. For more than twenty years, during “La semaine du goût,” Taste Week, thousands of chefs visit schools across the country. They teach children to appreciate fine food; make a baguette, a mousse au chocolat; appreciate a bouillabaisse; and learn the anatomy of the tongue. Restaurants with Michelin stars develop special meals for young children. And chefs are invited to daycare centers to prepare gourmet menus.

Will this unique early training insure the survival of the refined French palate and the nourishment of its language? A master chef is likely to respond, of course, “mais oui, c’est du tout cuit” – it’s completely cooked – it’s in the bag.

Joe Lurie is Executive Director Emeritus at University of California Berkeley’s International House, a cross-cultural communications trainer, consultant, university lecturer, and certified Cultural Detective facilitator. Another terrific article he wrote for Cultural Detective, also full of metaphor, was called “Language Under the Gun.”