Uncommon Ground

What happened at the United Nations didn’t surprise me. After years of living and working as an American in Paris and Vienna, I’ve learned that we have less in common with Europe than we’d like to believe.

Sure, many Europeans speak English. They like our movies and our music. The kids even wear their baseball caps backwards.

But they’re not us.

Enter their homes, learn their languages, sit in their classrooms, and you’ll discover that their assumptions about the world are quite different from ours.

It has a lot to do with our differing concepts of culture. For Europeans, culture is historical, nationalistic and exclusive, rooted in language and tradition. You can’t acquire it; you’re born into it. (Whenever I would make a mistake in his mother tongue, a Parisian colleague loved to remind me that I’d “never become French.”) Americans, on the other hand, see culture as ahistorical, universalist and inclusive. Rather than being grounded in the past, culture is what’s happening now. And it’s available and comprehensible to everyone, everywhere.

During the boom years, our ads celebrated this. Campaigns like IBM’s “Solutions for a small planet” and Cisco’s “Are you ready?” brought us charming, cartoonlike characters from around the globe (remember all those Buddhist monks and Masai tribesmen?) who were willing to jettison their colorful yet trivial historical identities and bathe in the beatific glow of the Internet, where there is “no time and no place.”

I, for one, believe that vision, however flawed, is essentially noble. Yet to many Europeans, it’s condescending and arrogant, for it assumes that everyone is fundamentally the same—and, more specifically, that everyone is fundamentally, or let’s say inevitably, American. In Europe, that is seen as a naive and threatening misunderstanding of who they are.

Not that Europeans fare much better in understanding us. We may indeed know them too little. But in the face of ubiquitous American culture, they may know us too much. And this breeds its own brand of ignorant condescension.

Again and again during my time abroad, people I worked with felt obliged to educate me about America. With great and solemn authority, they sought to teach me that Americans are materialistic (oh, really?), that we are shallow (a deep insight if there ever was one) and, the favorite along the Champs Elysee, that we are puritanical (I see their point, but why did it excite them so?). And if I raised any concerns about strategic or creative decisions in my advertising work, the near-universal response was: “You must understand, this isn’t America.” (I guess that settles it.)

None of this was ever supported by any deep, informed or thoughtful analysis. This was received wisdom, the party line.

Now, I wouldn’t describe these attitudes as anti-American. They are “counter-American.” It’s as if, despite all the talk about the uniqueness of their culture, Europeans have lost confidence in their own identities and can understand themselves only in contradistinction to Americans. Which would be an acceptable position if they actually made the effort to learn anything about us.

It’s funny. Of my eight years in Europe, I spent more than three in Paris. In that entire time, few of my colleagues showed any genuine interest in how we think about advertising in America. Our advertising was assumed to be inferior or, at least, irrelevant. There was nothing of value to be learned. The French knew everything there was to know. I had come there to be enlightened.

I have been back in the U.S. for close to seven years now. During that time, few of my colleagues have shown any genuine interest in how the French think about advertising. Their work is assumed to be inferior or, at least, irrelevant. There is nothing of value to be learned. We know everything there is to know. I had returned in order to be enlightened.

Maybe we have more in common than I thought.