The other day I was walking up my street when a particularly agitated French woman came charging out of a little cheese shop. She was PISSED. When I got close enough to hear what she was griping about, she uttered the phrase:
"C'était tout à fait médiocre." It was completely mediocre.
She was talking about the cheese, or maybe the entire shop. Whatever it was, it had greatly offended her, and she uttered the word "mediocre" as if it were the most vitriolic insult she could possibly conjure up. Mediocrity—the ultimate shame.
This incident is indicative of a larger theme that pervades French culture, particularly when it comes to food. In the United States, bigger is better at all levels of society, ranging from who has the biggest T-bone to who has the fastest private jet.
Conversely, France is a country that values quality and moderation over quantity and excess. If it's not good, vendors do not sell it, people do not buy it, one does not eat it… or wear it… or tolerate it.
I have drawn a little chart to help illustrate relative tolerance levels:
Notice the difference in the size of the "Acceptable" zones on these spectra. Notice the American “Go For It!” attitude, in comparison with the French commitment to “Only If It’s Worth It.”
Maybe that's why French people are so svelte. The quest for excellence breeds thinness. They would rather starve with dignity than survive on canned cheese.
Of course, this is not true across the board. Crappy products are available and in-demand in all economies of the world. But in general, French people are more discerning. Now that I’m in Paris, I try to be too. Although sometimes I still get an urge to shove my face into a vat of peanut-butter. Artisanal peanut-butter, obviously.