Waving goodbye to the previous year while ushering in the New Year is a bittersweet occasion in which people all over the world take part. On a global scale, the purpose is to be thankful of the prosperity of last year. In the common case that the year did not go as planned, it’s always acceptable to kick that year right through the door, loud slam and all. In either case, we welcome the New Year in hopes of further prosperity and good health, or the beginning to the end of a difficult time in our lives. There is no better way of accomplishing this than to celebrate.
The champagne corks start to fly, often taking our better judgment along with them. We let go of the rules, shoving our faces greedily with every little delicious canapé that comes our way. Did someone mention pizza? Well how rude would it be to refuse pizza on such an occasion; Just one slice, I promise! The night winds down to an end, as everyone clusters together counting down to the final moments of a part of their lives they will never regain, as time is not one to grant a do-over to anyone. After everyone kisses and wishes one another good luck in the New Year, the only thing left to do is contemplate those unrealistic promises you try to force yourself to keep every year. Well, you’re not alone. Whereas the French have a few essential customs different from American traditions to bring in the New Year, they too set out to be well-behaved robots.
Having fun is a big part of celebrating the New Year in many countries, but New Year’s resolutions play a large role as well. During my time in France, I discovered that these infamous resolutions can also be informative. Every resolution says something about the individual, as well as his culture. I sought out to find out what is being said about Americans and the French based on an average list of resolutions unique to each country. The lists indicate where each culture is similar and different. The differences point to the core values of each country, explaining what drives these nations to live and behave the way that they do.
During the first week of the New Year, French people share one another’s New Year’s resolutions as they meet. Deeply personal resolutions are not shared, just the standards—such as the promise to be healthier, be a better person, lose weight, make money and so on. I have noticed though, that the lists of my French acquaintances are generally shorter, and more realistic than those of my American friends and family. I’m not innocent here though, my New Year’s resolutions list for 2013 was 113 items long. I won’t say how many were actually accomplished, but I will say I am feeling a little ashamed looking back at it now. My French friends and family however, display little shame concerning their failed resolutions, even though their lists usually do not exceed ten items.
The contrast between the average American’s resolutions and that of an average Frenchman lies in what is listed, and the chosen diction. The average American list of resolutions literally reads like a series of demands, suggesting that the promise be fulfilled completely, or not at all. The average French list of resolutions on the other hand generally reads as friendly suggestions, which is why there is little stress when not accomplished. Rather than swearing to “get fit” the French “try to lose some weight, at least a little bit.” The latter is more realistic, for those who have ever tried to “get fit” in a year, know that this is a difficult task. Losing a little bit of weight within the year however, is achievable. The French not only keep their expectations within their individual capabilities, they are pragmatic about each resolution.
Those who ritually make New Year’s Resolutions lists know that it consists of more than just scribbling down every flaw you want to change in your life; there is a hierarchy. Well, the French are the same, and when they decide to make changes, they list the most important to least important. The different items and their order of priority say a lot about the distinctions between the U.S. and France. Here is a list of the top thirteen New Year’s resolutions made by Americans, courtesy of usa.gov. Following this list is that of the average top ten French New Year’s resolutions, from francetvinfo.fr.
Resolutions made by Americans
1. Drink less alcohol
2. Eat healthy food
3. Get a better education
4. Get a better job
5. Get fit
6. Lose weight
7. Manage debt
8. Manage stress
9. Quit smoking
10. Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle
11. Save money
12. Take a trip
13. Volunteer to help others
Resolutions made by the French
1. Be better organized
2. Help others
3. Learn something new
4. Erase all debt
5. Stop drinking alcohol
6. Get more out of life
7. Stop smoking
8. Lose weight (at least a little)
9. Work out more
10. Spend more time with friends and family
Comparing these two lists, one can see right away what is lacking is both societies and what the average priorities are in each country. Americans and the French want to stop drinking alcohol, stop smoking, get fit/work out more, help others, and resolve debt. The key difference lies in the order. Americans are more aware of bad habits that relate to bad health and weight gain, which is why physical and mental health goals are more important. The French list, however, gives the impression that the French are aware that the excessive drinking of alcohol is bad, and that a trim waist is desirable according to Hollywood, but that is not their focus. Enjoying life with those they care about seems to be the underlining goal for the French, and along the way, if they have time, they will try to be healthier and more organized.
The two lists portray what each country is lacking as a whole. In the US, education is more competitive, and much more expensive than higher education in France. Americans feel the need to list this as a goal, because it requires hard work, whereas in France, students in public universities earn degrees in less time, and they pay close to nothing for that education. On the other hand, the French list shows that people in France feel the need to help others more. This is because it is not imbedded in French culture to volunteer, or help strangers. Proactive French people might choose one association and make consistent donations, but that is all. Americans need affordable and accessible higher education, the French need a volunteer system, and they both need to eat better and lose weight.
Delving further into the contrasts, it becomes evident that the lists reveal some of the fundamental differences that define the Americans and the French. The American list is demanding, which stems from the American need to be efficient, take initiative, and be the best. Americans are encouraged to be competitive in order to bring out the best and most productive qualities within each person. In order to be competitive, though, Americans are forced to compare themselves with those superior to them, and this explains the high expectations in the list of resolutions. In the American system, volunteering is an unsaid obligation. Most Americans have volunteered for hundreds of hours or more before they even graduate from high school, which is why volunteering is not at the top of the American list. We are naturally more generous with time and money when it comes to helping strangers. This is evident in friendly behavior displayed by many Americans such as smiling at each other, moving for others, or asking if someone who has just fallen on the sidewalk needs help. These behaviors are not a part of general French society. If you fall in Paris, nine out of ten times, you’re on your own.
When setting aside the expected resolutions on the French list, such as “stop drinking alcohol,” it becomes clear what is at the core of French values. The French list is more relaxed and flexible, which is a principal trait of many French people. They have goals, but they will not deny an invitation to talk with a friend, or volunteer at the Red Cross instead of visiting family in order to meet those goals. La joie de vivre is the most important aspect in any typical French person’s life—sorry, homeless people, you’ll just have to wait. The amount of flexibility left in a French person’s schedule often allows them to stop by unannounced, invite themselves to dinner (your treat, of course), and ignore deadlines, appointments and the clock in general. These behavioral traits are not practiced by every French person, just every one I’ve ever met. All of this acceptable idleness is due to the emphasis the French put on enjoying life and spending more time with friends and family. The puzzling aspect is that the French already spend every free moment they have with either friends or family.
The French list of resolutions indicates that they can be a little contradictive as well. They want to erase debt, but the list does not indicate that the French are willing to work more, or find better jobs in order to obtain that goal. The American list is more interconnected, they know that they have a better chance at finding a better job if they acquire a better education, which will lead to better debt management. The common factor is that both peoples have the desire to better themselves, which is always better than settling.
The New Year consists of various celebrations in the U.S. and France. These customs bring with them lists, which at first seem individualized, but when looked at closer, really reveal the core values of a country. The French are laid back and relatively easy on themselves, while Americans tend to be more schedule-oriented, and set high expectations. A good lesson can be learned from the combination of both lists: be realistic, but also tenacious at the same time. I think this is a fair middle ground upon which to enter the New Year.
Jacqueline Perrier-Gillette is currently a resident of Paris, France, where she lives with her husband. Together the two of them operate their small translation company, giving Jacqueline the opportunity to observe the French and their culture up close. She is an avid reader, writer, and student of foreign languages.
By Jacqueline Perrier-Gillette