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The Surprising Benefit of Frustrating Cultural Differences

Stefan Loble

Looking up at the Eiffel Tower

When I was in France last summer, I visited a mini-grocery store for items not found at more specialized shops like a patisserie, fromagerie, etc. I was looking for packaged things like cereal and milk.

I ended up visiting the grocery store a few mornings in a row, and each time I did I bumped into the employees stocking the shelves. They had boxes piled on large palette-sized rolling racks. And when the racks were empty, they broke them down, with a loud BAM, BAM, BAM.

I thought, “Wow, this is so disruptive, it would never happen in the U.S.” A few days later in Lyon... same thing. I faced a pile of boxes right in front of the incredible French hazelnuts I was eager to buy.

I thought, “This is kind of a mess,” and “Why is it like this here?”

So I tracked down an American Francophile - my wife - and asked her.

She explained that the French believe in providing a high quality of life for everyone, and that if the workers have to stock the shelves in the middle of the night - as we do in the US - they can’t be at home with their families.

I thought, wow… In the US, we prioritize the experience of the customer. But in France, it’s more important to look after the worker. It’s completely opposite.

I quickly ran down the list of cultures I have the most experience with, contrasting stereotypes of what each is considered to be “good at”, versus “bad.” And what I found is this -

Cultures are good at what they care about.

And what they care about affects how they do everything.

We all know France for its amazing food, love of the arts, and joie de vivre. It turns out, you can’t have that joie de vivre without the grocery store shelves being stocked while you shop. Because the same value system that created the finer things in life is unwilling to sacrifice the needs of the worker so shopping can be more efficient.

Now I apply this perspective everywhere I go. When I’m waiting in a dreadfully slow line in a foreign land, I catch myself thinking, “Why is this so screwed up?” Until I look at it the other way… I think about how much I am enjoying this culture’s pace of life compared to NYC. How people take their time doing things. That they love to dance whenever they can… and the music is so wonderful and… You get the idea.

You can’t have it both ways. Not in one culture. Not at the same time.

Try flipping your perspective. And let me know where you end up.

Stefan Loble 


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