By Debra Ollivier
When the American self-help mega bestseller He’s Just Not That Into You was published in France last year, co-author Liz Tuccillo made a shocking discovery: French Women Just Weren’t That Into Her Book. France was the last Western country to buy the rights to her book, and when it was published in French, few seemed to care about a book that had become colloquial shorthand in America for the tribulations of single life.
“It really pissed me off,” Tuccillo said in a webisode that explores single life around the world. “It seemed like France was just too cool to buy my book. Who were these French people anyway, and why did they think they were too good for my book?” Tuccillo took to the streets of Paris to interview French women in a quest to find out.
Watching her webisode, I had an urge to jump into the screen and shout out the answer. Full disclosure here: I lived in France for over ten years, and have written two books about French women. They both fall into a sort of a hybrid sub-genre. Culture-meets-sociology-meets-operating instructions for life from afar.
My first book, Entre Nous: A Woman’s Guide to Finding her Inner French Girl, examined the French woman’s lifestyle in broad brushstrokes. My new book, What French Women Know: About Love, Sex and Other Matters of the Heart and Mind (Putnam, USA), goes deeper, exploring the cultural mindset behind the oo-la-la stereotypes we often recycle about French women, and contrasting them with the cultural baggage we tote around in our own heads. (The book, I might add, was also the result of a certain annoyance: During the many years I lived in France, I met countless women who defied the stereotypes — including French women who do get fat.)
Though I don’t consider my books to be self-help, they’re often marketed in that genre. So when they were published I accepted the label with a sigh of resignation, well aware of an irony at play, which is this: Most French women reject self-help advice, particularly when it comes to relationships.
They don’t like rules or dos-and-don’ts that impinge on their sense of personal liberty. They don’t believe in a “right” or “wrong” way to be with men. They have no word or concept for “date.” They learn common sense from their mothers. And they generally reject the American-style culture of constant self-improvement, predicated as it on the notion that there is Something Very Wrong With You -– or at least that something about you, your life, or your relationships, needs to be fixed.
This is not to say that the French don’t have their share self-help books. A small number of them (many translated from English) do find their way into French bookstores. But for the most part self-help tends to wallow on the shelves like an old slice of Brie, and the French go about their business uninterested in what others might have to say about the Twelve Steps, Ten Rules, Eight Keys or Five Tools to Change Their Lives.
This cultural reality eventually dawned on Tuccillo as she tried to explain her book to a group of French women gathered around a table in Paris. “If he doesn’t call you,” she says, “he’s just not that into you. If he doesn’t want to have sex with you, he’s just not that into you. It was brilliant. And women bought it all over the place. Oprah was so excited. It was so fabulous. And clearly, when I say it, it seems to be, to the French woman, perhaps maybe a little obvious.”
The French women looked at Tuccillo, a bit incredulous, then broke into peals of laughter. Bien sûr, it’s obvious.
The fact that French women might find Tuccillo’s advice so evident underscores yet another delicious irony: though French women generally rebuff self-help advice, they tend to live out a core value that’s advocated in nearly every self-help book on the market — a value that’s simultaneously so simple but so painfully difficult for us Americans that we continue to consume countless self-help books in an effort to figure it out. To wit, the success of books such as French Women Don’t Get Fat, or The Rules. It comes to Tuccillo by way of a casually chic young French woman who manages the Hotel l’Amour in Paris.
“So would you like to give specific advice to American women?” Tuccillo asks her.
The woman pauses for a moment, searching for a central idea, then leans forward and replies: “You have to love yourself. You have to know yourself.”
This may be why Tuccillo went from China to Brazil in her effort to find out how other cultures manage single life, but confessed at the end of her webisode: “If I could, I would have an operation to become a French woman.”
MORE: By Debra Ollivier, including links to buy What French Women Know
WATCH: Tuccillo’s “How to be Single (Around the World)” webisodes.
75 BLOGS: Dedicated to France, French women and…French men:
Debra Ollivier has written about culture and parenting from both sides of the U.S./France divide. She got her degree in French from U.C.L.A., studied at the Sorbonne and eventually settled in Paris, where she became a dual citizen, had two kids, and studied the local flora and fauna up close for over ten years. She was a regular contributor to Salon and has been published in Harpers, Playboy, Le Monde and Les Inrockuptibles, among others. In addition to the books mentioned in this article, her work also appears in the best-selling anthology Mothers Who Think and Because I Said So.