Learning is Culture Dependent


A couple of weeks ago the CIPD’s People Management magazine featured an interesting article about how we think the French are lazy (but they’re actually not). Aside from the truths about cultural perceptions, generalisations and misinterpretations from what sounds like a fascinating role, I thought the article title (no doubt intended to provoke), misleading. I’ve never met anyone who’s labelled the French as lazy. Rude, perhaps, but never lazy (as an aside this stereotype is confirmed by the new series of Mr.Men, in which Mr.Rude speaks with a French accent).

Conversely I think in the UK we’re too close to France to realistically think they’re lazy. And if we do we’re probably more than a little jealous of their sedate lifestyles, taking long lunches and enjoying a cheeky glass of vin. Of course I’m feeling more than qualified to write this post, having just returned from a holiday in Brittany.

Joking aside, my insider knowledge comes from my Dad, who spends half his time across the Channel. He told us in no uncertain terms that we must speak French to the French. It’s very offensive to not even try. The suggestion filled me with dread. I don’t think there’s any other country frequented by “the English” where there’s such a high expectation to speak the native tongue during vacation. Everyone speaks English right?

Realistically, I can understand their affront. But I feel it’s not our fault that we’re on such an uneven keel. The French start school at a much earlier age and put in more hours than many other European countries. Their English studies aren’t confined to learning how to ask for a hotel room with a shower or where the library is, like my French classes. Lazy? I think not.

The French are a warm-hearted welcoming people, who just happen to look down on idiocy (as judged by their own standards). What comes across to us as rudeness is surely just their judgement of our lack of cultural sensitivity (and/or education). Far from perceiving the French as lazy, I think we have much to gain from their approach to learning. Investing the time and immersing ourselves in the required skills is surely what is required to ensure we are prepared for the challenges placed on us by the increasingly international operating environment. Please no more just speaking loud English, or worse, English with “a foreign accent” in an attempt to get people to understand us. Expect to be met with much obvious eye rolling. How embarrassant.

I think we could also learn a lot from their characteristic disdain for ignorance. In the UK we bemoan that we don’t have, and can’t measure, learning and development return on investment. Are we surprised when we send an employee on a course and then simply ask them to tell us how happy they were with it? We run the risk of just bolstering an employee’s CV coupled with a complete absence of workplace impact.

So perhaps we think the French are lazy…the reverse is probably equally as viable. Filling in a traditional happy sheet is not tangible proof that learning has occurred. We want something real – an impact, a change, an innovation – that shows the investment has been worthwhile. Trouble is this comes way (if at all) after the questionnaires have been entered into the spreadsheet, filed and reported. The French example demonstrates that the real learning doesn’t take place in the classroom, in a mock up or role play situation. It occurs on the streets, out in the field, where there are tests in which that new knowledge must be applied.

True, this could be taking place anyway, but we don’t know it. We can’t prove it. However, quantitative measures just don’t work and can actually be counter-intuitive. Or should I say, they will only work when the strong foundation of a learning culture is already in place. A culture where speaking the wrong language is unacceptable. Because if we’re lazy, we’ll never learn.

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