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Self-Confidence – our Achilles’ Heel ? (cet article existe aussi en français)

February 9, 2011

Some people are born with innate self-confidence. Even as school leavers their confidence is high and gets better and better. However, self-confidence can also be learned. With time we can all identify ourselves more with our high points and ride the lows with aplomb.

In Britain, self-confidence is viewed as a definite plus, and there’s no doubt that the self-confident have easier lives! They seem effortlessly to get hired, and their professional lives flow more easily. Their easy manner and open style of self-expression take them far. They don’t hesitate to push the limits and achieve new things in their careers, and they take real pride in and ownership of their work.

In France, however, it seems to me that to have self-confidence can be misunderstood or even badly received. Perhaps it’s seen as masking one’s true self by presenting a positive front no matter what happens. Or is it seen as a mask to hide one’s shortcomings? Or armour to protect us or to mask our true feelings?

What do French people really think of those who are openly self-confident? I will define self-confidence as follows (and please, readers, add your thoughts to this) :

The pluses and minuses of self-confidence

The pluses (at least, according to the British) :
– an upright posture
– tendancy to look people directly in the eyes
– to talk fairly loudly
– using direct and precise language
– to be quick to come up with suggestions for improvement for the business or team, especially in meetings
– being confident to stand out from the others, whether regarding the giving of one’s opinion, or one’s manner of dress (within accepted boundaries of course), and most importantly when it comes to exposing a ‘’truth’’ for the good of the team, or exposing a weakness in the system so that the team can act on it and put it right.
– feeling capable of taking action
– daring to try new things or new, more effective ways of working

The downsides of self-confidence (for the British)
– being a little ‘’too strong’’, so that those who are more timid feel drowned and unable to express themselves while the ‘’confident ‘’ person is in the room
– losing the trust of other members of the team when one makes a mistake, having presented oneself as so confident of one’s success
– been seen as impolite or as overstepping the mark for doing or saying things that violate the group’s norms, such as criticising a popular team member or their methods, or suggesting modifications to ways of working that are seen as ‘’tried and tested’’ or ‘’the way things are done around here’’
– being seen as arrogant for being self-confident at a young or early stage, rather than waiting to be accorded the right to do so, for instance by awaiting the endorsement of a senior or well-respected and/or established member of the team

Self-confidence – is it systematically destroyed by the French education system?

I’ve noticed, knowing both the British and French education systems, that, comparatively speaking, the British nurture self-confidence from the beginning, just as much as they encourage, say, a healthy lifestyle. One could even say that they nourish self-confidence at the expense of true academic achievement, believing, rightly or wrongly, that self-confidence is more important than exam results or certificates when it comes to real life later on. It is certainly true in some fields – more so in commercial occupations than in academia, for example (where exam results certainly count).

In France, however, academic success, and only that, counts. To the British who send their children to French schools, it seems that the school system crushes their spirits. There is no freedom of expression, in the school room no value is accorded to the arts, it’s only exam results that count. I must mention at this point that many British families have fled the British school system due to its lack of attention paid to academic results, but they are looking for a balance, not a retreat to the other extreme! My question is: do French people feel crushed and robbed of a self-confidence that would have served them well in their careers?

So, for those who move to France, what does it take for them to succeed ?

For those who come from abroad, things are difficult from the word go. Firstly they must demonstrate that their qualifications are valid in France, and then also their experience is as valuable as if it had been gained in France.

Then, to my important question: how to present oneself in France? Even if the French don’t like to see someone display open self-confidence (I’m not saying this is the case, please let me know what you think!!!!), but if it’s true, one must present oneself in a positive manner. For this, at least according to my life experience so far, a certain level of self-confidence is required. Does one need a strong inner self-confidence that one never expresses externally, for instance? How that’s achievable, that’s a big question, it is difficult to be confident without letting it show.

I’m not saying for one moment that anything I say here is true, I want to start a debate, and I’m particularly keen to have the views of French people (and particularly on what they think of the British people who have come to work in France.)

I would be particularly interested in the views of the colleagues, managers and HR managers of British people who have made the crossing over to France, and how their behaviours and ways of working are received by their French colleagues. Do they fit into the system?

Many thanks

9 Comments leave one →
  1. jo thick permalink
    February 9, 2011 10:41 am

    being british i certainly wish i was more self confident but im lucky that in my job my grooming skills are more important then that. im also lucky that i have had the oppertunity and still do to become more self confident as time goes on.
    my accident in 2007 taught me to be more confident which is why i am now doing expert witness stuff for work as well as doing a grooming demo at crufts this year for work!!!

    confidence in britain is certainly a good thing to have, you can certainly use it to get a job even if you dont have the qualifications!

    • February 9, 2011 11:04 am

      Thanks, Jo. It’s certainly true that sometimes the worst life events end up being a catalyst for positive change, and that in the uk self-confidence counts for a lot. It’s good to be reminded, though, that “real” skills are also truly valued in the UK!!!

  2. Harry Jones permalink
    February 9, 2011 2:52 pm

    After reading your article, it sounds to me as if you are mixing self confidence with arrogance. I am a retired man, have served in the RAF, startd up , and ran a business ( Grain Merchant ) for a number of years until cancer of the larynx stopped me, if you can call it fortunate, I was about retiring age when it happened, decided to close my business down, buy a “white van”, and hire me and my services out.

    After my wife and I retired, we moved here to France, ignoring all the “good advice” about learning the language, getting help ,etc etc. Four years later, here we are still in “love” with where we are with NO intention of returning to the U.K..

    I mention all this because I have always considerd myself a confident person, although I listen to advice etc, the final decision is always made by myself. I am certainly not loud in vocal ways, nor am I “pushy”, I have no wish to be a “leader of the pack”. I have , in the past, been involved in “team events”, which, to an extent I agree, it is usually the ‘loud mouth” that wants to take control, usually, in my experience, to the dtrement of fellow team mates, That is ARROGANCE, not as some would say, self confidence.

    My self confidence has taught me to express my “method” — ” plan of action” — in a calm and controlled voice, I have the confidence to stand my ground, and be counted on to explain and diagnose my methods.

    The French have always been considered by us on the “island” as arrogant, and I would , in the main, strongly disagree, from my impressions they are very family oriented, which tends to lead lead to protectionism over their “brood”, this in turn spills out into everyday life. The way they govern their country, the way it’s FRENCH first and the rest can follow. They are, in many ways ALOOF, again , thought by the Brits as arrogant, I would suggest this is more a shyness of nature, than that of arrogance.

    We English, for was it not the English that set out to rape and control the world, yes indeed many another Jock –Taff — Paddy came along for the ride, but most were led, or controlled, in the main by the English, perhaps this is why the French have regarded us with such disdain as they were not quick enough off the mark to grab more than we did.

    To say French esteem has been murdered by the education programme, is nothing short of stupid, the French have control over their classes, not a lot of unruly behavior there, the teachers are allowed to discipline those that set out to destroy, they are not hampered by Political correctness — nor the rights of the individual, well, they are really, but pay scant regard to E.U. dictums, unless of course its suits THEIR purpose to do so.

    Being a retired person, I don’t have to hold the mantle of succes above head —or do I ?????, for haven’t I. from a standing start, at the age of sixty six learned to speak a new language, admittedly not fluent, but certainly well enough to get by, learned how to deal with another culture, learned to respect the ways of the people who’s country I have moved to, yes, on second thoughts I would say my level of success is pretty damn good.

    Finally —– to have to ask how one presents themselves to another, whether they be home spun —foriegn — or whatever is a definate sign of lack of self confidence, — self esteem, and any other self you can think of.

    You are you, if that doesn’t fit, tough, only you know the standards you set yourself in life, only you can evaluate whether you are good enough, don’t worry, if you aren’t very good, SOMEONE will let you know. We are all entitled to be what, and who we are, no matter where in the world you are, and if some of those that are indigenous to the country you are in don’t think you are worthy, don’t worry ‘ there are perhaps, a lot that think you are OK.

    P.S. If you are miserable here in France, complaining no-one speaks –says hello — offers help—etc etc etc ——- just ask yourself ——— IS IT ME !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!.

    • February 9, 2011 3:43 pm


      Thanks for your comments. You answer many questions that I hadn’t thought to ask, and give a magnificent account of your own success.

      No, I have experienced no problems with French people being stand-offish, people are usually very friendly. Well done you, managing to get on here despite your thoughts on our rivalry during colonial times and goodness, for someone who doesn’t really speak French and still refers to “Paddy” you are doing jolly well, mastering being an ex-pat.

  3. Sophie permalink
    February 13, 2011 12:41 am

    Hi … French people are no different from English … self confidence is viewed as a “plus”. I would even say that it is easier to “stand your ground” in France than in England where a too straight forward approach is usually seen as “bad education or … arrogance”.

    As to the English system “boosting” children’s self confidence … well … I agree the children in England are very free to to express themselves but in my opinion, too much “freedom” is given to children in England and this freedom can lead to lack of respect. I am amazed by what is tolerated in English schools and feel that teachers are sometimes loosing control on their classes. I am a strong supporter of the British school system for Primary schools. Very good balance in term of homework / school hours … good education system. The French should learn from it as too much pressure is put on younger French children. However I am far from impressed by secondary schools in England and feel that the system would need to focus more on academic results and discipline.

    What I can say is that having studied in France, I have always been encouraged to be confident and to express myself. When I moved to England I had to learn not to be as “direct” as I used to be as my direct style was considered too aggressive in England.

    It takes time to adapt to a different culture. The first years abroad can be challenging. Just remain yourself … adjust your style if needed and above all … don’t loose your self confidence !

  4. February 14, 2011 1:23 pm

    Hi Sophie

    Thanks v much for your comments. I think I have a skewed view of things in France caused by several things. My main (and for a time, my only) source of information on “how things work” when it comes to careers, was my husband, who is a high-achieving surgeon with quite a “germanic” view of life, Also, I have never had particularly high self-confidence, and you’re right, this has been dented further by all the knock-backs I’ve received here, both inside and outside the home!!!

    So I’m glad to have your comments, as another french person. It’s reassuring to know that someone who presents themselves in a confident way can also be seen, in France, as someone who is polite and trustworthy. Though I suspect that I will still have to tread carefully all the same as I will always be something of an outsider.

    Having known you at work, I would be astounded if anyone would have a problem with your being direct! For my part, I can take criticism very easily from those who are usually polite and from those for whom I have professional or personal respect. For these reasons, I would have gladly accepted any feedback from you, Sophie!

    I’m now about to do the Bilan de Compétences – not that offered by the Pôle Emploi, but one I’ll have to pay good money for – I hope this will also help me to fill in the blanks on how to fit in in France. I will write about it on this blog!

    Thanks again

  5. Julie permalink
    March 4, 2011 10:49 pm

    I would say that the French approach to education whilst appearing staid and strict is better than the UK and one of the major reasons for us moving here. With friends who teach in the English system and having one who would now be in secondary school and another just starting primary, I breathe a sigh of relief that my children are in the French system and not the English state system or the horribly overpriced and not much better private system.

    There is far too much control (hmm lack of) given over to the children, who run riot and have no respect for teachers or much else. I know that all French children are not angels by any means, but in my opinion they do learn and achieve more. I suppose it depends on your children, but ‘most’ children need firm guidelines, and any sense that boundaries can be moved by a tantrum or any other means will be taken, and therefore school work not done.

    I like the fact that I know if my child was late to class or didn;t turn up. Where they are in respect of the rest of class, what the class average is. I am not a pushy mum by any means, but I know that my daughter in particular wouldn’t bother to do anything if she can get away with it, whilst she is perfectly capable. So seeing her grades going up and down is beneficial to us (No I don’t feel the need to compare her grades to her friends or my friends children in England – I left England to avoid the Jones’ and keeping up with them)

    Previous poster is correct there is a difference between self-confidence and arrogance. One is welcomed, one you can keep.


  6. March 5, 2011 1:03 pm

    I agree about the standard in schools being so much better – and as for the Joneses, I’m so glad I left them behind, too! (Except that I’ve traded them for a husband who’s always telling me how excellent his own daughter is compared to mine) – that said, if I went back to the UK to live, I think the greatest culture shock would definitely be those Joneses!!!

  7. July 15, 2011 10:22 am

    Hi Emily….self-confidence will make life easier in every walk of life. One needs it to assist in just about everything. There is a fine line between it and arrogance or conceit, as one of your correspondents has noted above, but sometimes a touch of those two are needed too – have you ever noticed how the people who get on in The Apprentice (not a programme I watch, but one reads enough about it in the papers) are always high up there in the arrogance and conceit stakes, as well as self-confidence? One has to back one’s self, otherwise no-one else is going to back you.

    It’s a pity, because these traits are not attractive, but they appear to be required in most fields and profesisons. Also I guess for some people getting to the top of the pile is more important than being liked…

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