As my husband and I cross the threshold of our twenty-fifth wedding anniversary, I thought of the 50-50 odds that we might become an “uncoupled” statistic. Until 1990, nearly half the marriages in America did end in divorce, but, we beat the odds. According to the data, there’s a good chance we will remain married. Nearly 70% percent of marriages that began after the ‘90s in America reached their 15th anniversary, and many may never divorce.
Yet half the couples I know do. They live in the same house, but effectively lead separate lives. Others stay together, but live in different houses or states (or countries). These are the marriages of convenience, for the kid’s sake; either until the kids are in college or a way to keep the employee benefits rolling. There are couples who divorce because of an infidelity. Then there are the rare breed of couples who manage to stay together in spite of it, especially in the United States.
Overlooking the indiscretion is more common in other cultures like Italy, France, or Greece, who appear hardwired to ignore it.This is latter category intrigued me because those societies that tended to accept this behavior as part of the marital bargain, were unflustered by the American moral outrage. While we may not be above desire, we are unable to get past the deception. So I couldn’t help but wonder, why are those cultures less troubled by infidelity than others and why is infidelity a sin for Americans?
Infidelity is on my radar because I’m hooked on watching HBO’s dark soap, “The Affair.” I can indulge vicariously in the drama of an affair without the consequences. It’s a very American perspective of two people who have “cheated” on their spouses. Ruth, “the other woman” is wracked by the “guilt” of her past and the cad, Noah whom he has thrown his family overboard for. Season two unfurls this cautionary tale in the “aftermath” of their affair, strewn with the “wreckage” of their infidelities. The language of the narrative implies destruction and punishment. Our judgement is further beguiled by an innovative interplay two, sometimes four, different perspectives, but they are American. Viewers and creators alike condemn “the affair” because they’re sure they’re on the right side of morality. We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are, so that one man’s sin could be another man’s blessing.
Clues to decoding French attitudes concerning infidelity begin with self-awareness of American national culture. Not evident culture, such as language, food, and dress. If culture was that easy to identify, rest assured there would not be the current clash of civilizations. Evident culture is the tip of the iceberg. Unless you’ve spent a significant length of time abroad, it’s doubtful you can attest to culture’s consequences. The invisible hand of culture drives our behavior in ways you never imagined. By deconstructing the American mindset and comparing it to other cultures, we can steer safely around the unseen and more profound dimensions of hidden culture below the waterline, an avoid simplistic attribution to moral positioning.
For example, the French film “5-7,” (“cinq a sept” is the French expression for the time of day made for visiting lovers and has subsequently been adopted by other cultures as “happy hour”) infidelity is not only acceptable, it’s institutionalized. It shouldn't be a deteerent to love. The Greeks an view that if the gods intended making love strictly for procreation, they’d have made people come in heat like the animals once a year.
Human attraction may be too hard to comprehend, but by connecting seemingly unrelated dots about why people do what they do based on national culture offers an interesting explanation. Culture is the result of a series of historical events that have occurred in a certain place. The result is a set of values, attitudes, and perceptions that explain the world accordingly to a certain group of people. What’s important, especially for Americans who rarely expatriate to understand this point is, people do what they do not because they don’t know any better, it’s culture making that decision for them
It doesn’t matter that we are offended by French views about infidelity no matter how much self-righteous indignation our views. There’s no way to shame them into monogamy because they don’t share our puritanical legacy. Of course, every culture thinks it’s on the right side of an issue, but it’s worthwhile to note that Homer’s Odyssey was the Greek bible for 5,000 years and continues to informed their mindset.
Cultures are dynamic, yet few of us know who are we or why, but the powerful lens of culture helps us understand why behavior like infidelity is or isn’t tolerated. While every culture shares common traits -- how they think and make decisions, how they process information, view time and communicate -- culture explains the differentiating approach. For example, Americans believe people should be INDEPENDENT with the FREE-WILL to decide and form their own opinions. The truth is, we think our opinions are purely our own, but in reality, it’s a decision that was already made for us.
Americans prefer rules over relationships, so crime shows bringing offender to justice appeals to our values. The same show might get lost in translation in Asian or Arab cultures where the witness would look the other way. Most people are born dependent and connected. Americans are the exception to this way of thinking, not the other way around. In their mind, it is as if they were related to the offender, so they cannot betray that relationship. They don’t believe they are complicit, they’re just not going to squeal if it means sending mom to jail. In fact, for the majority of the world’s cultures, not all of the rules apply to everyone all the time. It depends on the situation and context. This is why we have difficulty negotiating with Eastern cultures. Nevertheless, Americans think they’re absolutely right when people from other cultures behave differently. We think they’re being deceptive but actually it’s our linear thinking and expectations that everyone should adhere to the rule of law.
DIRECTNESS is one of the 6 major values of the American national mindset. We need transparency, even at the cost of divorce. We view seduction negatively because it’s an indirect behavior. We’re also uncomfortable with “veiled” cultures because we feel manipulated by it. What’s more, because cultural maturity takes time, America is an “adolescent” culture that’s experienced few significant cultural shifts compared to older one, but when cultures do change, powerful imprints alter our frame of reference and the change is passed on to the next generation.
What is the basis for our national values and just how much the world shares them is important message for Americans to learn because most of the world doesn’t. The rest of the world may like Hollywood movies, not because admire American culture so much as a car chase is easy to understand. It’s LOW CONTEXT. Americans miss signals because we don’t know how to look for them. Listening goes beyond words. The Japanese call it reading the air. What’s not being said is significant. So is body language. Voice tone. Timing. Message location. I think of the closeness and implicit understanding relationship I have with my husband; certain references, messages, and ideas are understood without words or explanation. We speak a matrimonial shorthand. Our shared meaning is the backstory. Similarly, this is how other cultures communicate. Imagine trying to do business with high-context communicators and it becomes clear we’ve got a lot to learn.
To understand French acceptance of infidelity, we must begin with the American mind that’s entrenched in INDIVIDUALITY perfectly defined by Robert Day, “American’s have a hard time telling you specifically why this is a good thing; either because it’s something they haven’t thought about, or don’t think it’s worth going over.” Again, thanks to our history, this is a fundamental American value that stems from the early PIONEER and PROTESTANT settlers who were brave RISK-TAKERS; nomads who left everything and everyone they knew to live somewhere else. Having said that, like so much else that’s changing right now in real time, America’s rugged INDIVIDUALISM is becoming uncharacteristically risk-averse, abrogating personal responsibility which is being substituted by rampant litigiousness. Crybabies. He goes on to say “Although Americans may think of themselves as being more unique than they actually are, what’s significant is that they think they are.”
The unintended consequence of expressing personal opinions and feeling so special can feel self-indulgent to the outside world. For example, while Americans believe each person is unique and entitled to a personal opinion, they cannot fathom that other people outside America differ with it, regardless that they represent only five percent of the world’s population.”
Which brings us to their tendency for ASSERTIVENESS, which compels Americans to tell you what they’re thinking. Consequently, these unsolicited opinions can sound self-righteous. However, in their mind, this behavior is not desirable but a deeply help truth based on their certainty and entitlement to the Manifest Destiny; not considering they didn’t come to that conclusion personally. In the end, they are astounded that not all cultures share their views, much less their moral position on infidelity.
While the French are nothing if not articulate, they might even say nothing at all about their feelings, leaving you to “read the air” because the way to disagree may be to say nothing at all. Such silence leaves Americans genuinely bewildered and while they don’t mean to be rude, this direct US communication style is often irreversible in the wrong company. Once you've let it out of the bottle, it’s hard to get it back. For many cultures, saving face is impossible to reverse, and may resort to an error of omission, an outright lie, change answers, or rearrange the question to suit the situation. This appears deceitful to Americans and intolerable. In most other regions of the world, including Asia, Europe, South America, and parts of Africa, this kind of answer is a necessary function of interactions and holds no moral underpinning. For them, the goal is harmony and the end justifies the means to achieve peace over justice.
Brandi Moore underscores this utterly foreign notion, “Nothing like it exists in America or to Americans who never lose face. Being embarrassed is not losing face. Embarrassment is about guilt, which contains a causal nature. Face is about shame and the ripple effect of one’s actions on the group, now and for the future.” Striving for harmony, or “big picture” thinking conflicts with our “bottom line” mentality. She goes on to say “Americans operate in a matchlessly DIRECT culture, where losing face is nearly impossible. The level of separation, homogeneity, and variety in America that focuses on the individual, eliminates the possibility, and therefore why we seem to be so opinionated to others.”
Therefore, something as innocuous as expressing an opinion about infidelity can be perceived by others as self-righteous and the American will not refrain from doing it or become being embarrassed; remember, honor is not at stake. Moore goes on to explain, “Their remarks are born of a direct communication manner that’s essential to the dissimilar nature of Americans. Because virtually everyone originated from somewhere else, no matter how far back, they must understand one another and they must communicate with the utmost explicitness. Meanings relay through a direct route of words, unlike other cultures, and to a lesser degree France, that can feel like an eternal kabuki dance before getting to the point.” She concludes, “Communication consists of shared meaning, encrypted signals, environment, or an elaborate contextual backstory that requires a lot of deciphering. Americans who are not in the habit of hearing these messages and become exasperated with their circuitousness because they haven’t learned how to “listen loudly.”
Clear and clever language from people who never apologize. They are known for being unafraid to share their opinions and argue a position. You’ll find this is embedded in their national motto of Liberte, Fraternite, Egalite and also Edith Piaf’s lyrics that are a battle hymn testament to this sentiment, “Je ne regrette rien” means “I have no regrets” (about straying from the marriage). The message itself, however, may not be expressed directly in the words. Reading between the lines is often necessary to find the full message. The way a message is communicated may be determined by relationship, rank, status, and position. The way someone speaks, dresses and behaves also communicates who that person is. Sitting quietly and not participating may show lack of interest or commitment to the French, so sharing opinions, demonstrating a passionate, well-presented position will earn you their respect. Use of title is the norm until a relationship has developed. New acquaintances address each other with “vous” until it is agreed that they will switch to the familiar “tu.” This is relaxing with Millennials but it’s still pervasive in traditional business or government settings.
When it comes to American INFORMALITY, our kids seem authorized to treat elders as equals. As adults, bosses are handled the same level as subordinates without much distinction. This kind of cultural tendency is famously depicted by Hollywood in the “California minute” in which two complete strangers can meet for the first time and yet immediately reveal intimate personal details without regard. Again, Americans hold no recourse in stating opinions publicly as mentioned before because as Moore concludes, “honor is not at stake. Everything must be said, and (it’s presumed) everyone is open to hearing it.”
Lewis points to the French education system, “From childhood, places a premium on articulateness and eloquence of expression. Unlike Japanese, Finnish or British children, French children are rarely discouraged from being talkative. In the French culture, loquacity is equated with intelligence and silence does not have a particularly golden sheen. Lycée, university and École normale supérieure education reinforces the emphasis on good speaking, purity of grammar and mastery of the French idiom.” The French language, unquestionably, is the chief weapon wielded by authority and less articulate French show no resentment. Masterful use of language and logic implies, in their understanding, masterful power.
While both the French and the Americans share the space of DIRECTNESS, it’s express differently. Americans are perplexed when they’re labeled rude and inappropriate, but they would be genuinely surprised to learn that eighty-five percent of the world views the American values of INDIVIDUALITY and ASSERTIVENESS not without reservation. To put their opinion of infidelity in sharp focus, the English Broadway actor, Allen Cummings aptly remarked, “America was established by Puritans who left England because it wasn't puritanical enough.” Yet, they hold these beliefs because they are “self-evident” or because they choose them, when in fact they were chosen for them by history.
If the underpinnings of the French communication style is of the mind and they revere history and AUTHORITY, the American mind has an honest aversion to it. With a past rooted the in both the PIONEER and ANTI-INTELLECTUALISM that prevents Americans from exploring profound concepts deeply, this may well be their tragic flaw; tainting the entire American education system. It seems as though American history categorically precludes itself from producing many more great thinkers, philosophers, or theorists given a COWBOY QUICK sense of urgency, pragmatism and self-reliance to survive. Diane Johnson observed this and an increasing “religious fervor comes and goes like seasonal flu, and each time leaves it weakened for the next attack.”
While they prize the fine Cartesian mind: “I think, therefore I am,” PROCESS counts enormously. The revealing, enjoying, ritualizing, codifying, and tantalizing pursuit about the idea of an affair counts more than the affair. For Americans to characterize France as an immoral culture is the result of their unconscious PURITAN legacy the French were untouched by. A culture of taking mistresses was inherited by the French kings, beginning with Henry II during the Middle Ages, serving a practical purpose. It unambiguously established a kind of psychological national security with a demonstrable virility, signifying longevity and preservation of the throne through succession according to French historians. France created a culture of love by his wife, Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine single handedly. Marriage had little to do with love and sex was vulgar. The rules of love codified by Andreas Capellanus, were idealized in poetry during the Crusades, enacted by Chivalrous knights, who declared Courtly love only to a married woman.
While they make a good case for taking a lover by elevating the behavior through poetic words, razor sharp intellect, and codifying love, not even the French have a vaccine to prevent the pain of infidelity, but the rules of love mitigate the possibility of exposure. Central to that is discretion and never to confess: “Rule #13. Public revelation of love is deadly to love in most instances.” Ines De La Fressange observed, “After all, why forsake the natural and inevitable pleasures of the long seductive run up to the affair, simply for the cause of loyalty?” Despite the long and winding history and process of these centuries old French attitudes about love, not even they are inured to the consequences. The real reason for the rules are to preserve the FAMILY because family preserves the order of society. The rules keep the HARMONY. Parents stay together; children are spared emotional trauma; property stays in the family; and voila, financial security is retained. In stark contrast, while Americans can’t tolerate dishonesty, we’d be just as inclined to take on a lover, but it seems the French handle it more pragmatically because does the American disclosure-confession solution really solve anything with the destruction of the family? The rules of love established the thought of a great epoch and explain this much-maligned propensity for adultery. They are French to the core; didactic, mocking, and lighthearted, preserving the attitudes and practices of a medieval tradition about love’s alternatives.
These attitudes persist through the 19th century, when love, marriage and infidelity are treated lightly in the popular comic "boulevard theaters". The plots were centered on a love triangle--a husband and wife and a lover who hides in beds and cupboards or jumps out of windows to avoid being discovered. For over the last hundred years, the cocu (cuckold) has been a source and symbol of amusement, characterizing adultery as less tragic and more of a laughing matter, explaining, at least in part, why their attitude seems blasé.
In 2001, Lynn Smith wrote in the Los Angeles Times that Americans won’t admit the nature of lust, forgive it, and create a separate compartment for it that doesn't affect our feeling for somebody. The French resembles the Dutch, who prefer transparency when it comes to pot and prostitution because they know people do it, so it might as well be regulated to minimize health risks. She goes on to say, “We insist our natural impulses must be managed and contained for the sake of the family or because adultery is a sin and violates marital vows. In reality, French and American couples behave about the same and they both want the same thing: to preserve the family. It’s just that we go about it differently.”
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