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The difference between American and Parisian values

On monetary oriented over culturally rich experience, and which values can lead to a more well-rounded life.

Article contribution by Byron Tully

Photo: (L) Wolf of Wall Street, (R) Sasha Leboeuf © Getty

I recently read a short, interesting book by Yanis Varoufakis. He is a former finance minister of Greece and was an all-round thorn in the EU’s side during Greece’s financial collapse a few years ago.

The book, Talking to My Daughter About the Economy – A Brief History of Capitalism, is worthwhile. The history behind how market economies have developed is enlightening. The solutions for income inequality, protecting the environment, and providing for a stable, increasingly global, society, are less concrete, and a little more elusive…and not just to the author. I know a lot of people who’d like to have this Rubik’s Cube twisted and turned so all the colors matched.

One of the most interesting concepts he explores is the difference in the ‘exchange value’ of something and the ‘experiential value’ of something. He explains that the exchange value of something is the money or equivalent goods you can get for it. For example, 2 euros will get you a cup of coffee. The experiential value of sitting in a Parisian cafe (as we’ve discussed) is less tangible, and derives its value from the experience of doing it. You can’t exchange it for a week in Hawaii.

This helped me make sense of something that is very confusing for Americans living in Paris. Generally, Americans are wired to accomplish things in order to accumulate money and assets that have exchange value. After we’ve done that, we’ll take a two week vacation (sometimes) and go do something that has experiential value. Like visit Paris.

Parisians, on the other hand, tend to prioritize or at least place equal importance on things that have experiential value. They are not motivated in large part by profit. In restaurants, owners and waiters don’t try to ‘turn tables’ at a certain rate every hour. You can have a meal and sit all afternoon. They couldn’t care less. It’s your table. It’s your experience. That’s what’s important.

Photo: French actor and model Alain Delon © GJ

I now recognize this difference in past conversations:

1. With the Parisian who said he thought it would be vulgar if he died and left a lot of money in the bank, and thought it best to earn just enough money to ‘live his life’, whatever that means;

2. With the Parisian who said his plan was to live several lifetimes in one lifetime, so he was a tennis pro in his twenties, a photographer in his thirties, and now, in his forties, he has finally applied his education and is a scientist.

3. With the Parisian who lived and worked on a friend’s farm for ten years, then went to work as a journalist in another country before returning to Paris, where she is now behind the counter at a bakery.

This experiential life choice is non-linear, not driven by focused ambition, and, for the American, has several substantial drawbacks. First, it makes people unreliable. They are not motivated by the desire to make money, so, they may show up to clean your apartment on the agreed upon date, or they may not. They may call you to reschedule it, or they may not call you at all. Or ever. Again.

In business, they may want to talk about a movie deal, but after a lengthy conversation in which we all seem to be ‘on the same page’, and ready to move forward, they lose interest and, again, disappear.

After a couple of years of these vaporous, sometimes abrupt interactions, I’ve learned not to take it personally. It’s just the way they are. They’re French.

One glorious exception to this is the service you get in Paris, at all different price levels of hotels, cafes, boutiques, restaurants, farmers markets, pharmacies. These people are on it. They are not engrossed in their cell phones or exasperated because you’ve asked a question about a service or a product instead of just buying it.

They are attentive, responsive, professional, and polite. They not only perform the task at hand; they have anticipated needs you haven’t even thought of. That part I love. The world class service. Quality goods. And, yes, a great experience.

When I return to America and can’t even get a ‘Good morning’ back from the cashier at wherever, I’m ready to get on the Air France plane back to Paris, because from the moment I step up to the ticket counter, people are smiling, happy, and on the ball. But I digress…

Make no mistake, this free, almost libertine attitude toward life and (sometimes) work here in Paris has its charms. It provides fertile soil for a creativity that needs the absence of boundaries, formulas, schedules, or preconceived notions. It makes for great art, some great fashion, and some great philosophy. I sometimes wish I could be that way, hang that loose. I know I don’t take the time to smell the roses often enough. I want to get things done, even in Paris, a veritable dawdler’s paradise.

I watch Parisians–and they’re always Parisians–who have paused a moment, or for 15 minutes–to simply lean on the Pont Sully and look down the Seine. They’re not talking to anyone. They’re not really thinking about anything. They’re not really doing anything at all. I used to think to myself, what are they looking at? Or, are they lost? Or, have they wandered away from their caretaker? None of the above. They’re just Parisians, experiencing the moment. Usually with a cigarette in hand.

Obviously, I’m not the first person to notice this. Victor Hugo, a Frenchman but not a Parisian, was known to have said: To err is human. To loaf is Parisian. But it’s not loafing I’m really talking about, in all honesty. It’s prioritizing the acquisition of experiences over the acquisition of (maybe) things and (probably) money.

It makes this place very different from the UK, especially London, and the US, especially New York and L.A. It makes me weight the exchange value of something against the experiential value of something else.

It might lead to a more thoughtful, well-rounded existence, if I didn’t have so many things to do.

About Byron Tully (right)

Grandson of a newspaper publisher and son of an oil industry executive, Byron Tully is an author who also writes for the entertainment industry. His nonfiction debut, "The Old Money Book," was published in April of 2013 to excellent reviews and enjoys consistently strong sales worldwide. His other works include "The Old Money Guide To Marriage", "Old Money, New Woman: How To Manage Your Money and Your Life", and "Old Money Style - The Gentleman's Edition".

Byron regularly contributes to its blog, www.theoldmoneybook.com, which has been visited by over 1 million readers since 2014.

In February of 2020, "Old Money Style - The Gentleman's Edition" was published by Acorn Street Press. This fourth book in the Old Money series reveals the fundamentals of dressing well in a classic and timeless style. In November of 2020, Byron published a 2nd Edition of "The Old Money Book", which expands on his original classic. This 2nd Edition includes vital information and insights for readers as they navigate a very different, post-pandemic world.

Byron speaks frequently about the culture and values of Old Money. He has been interviewed by KABC New York's Financial Quarterback Show, The Huffington Post, and The Simple Dollar, among others.

He lives in Paris and is happily married to an Old Money Gal from Boston.

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