Friday, September 11, 2009

A rather brilliant blog-friend of mine recently wrote this:

If, as my Japanese Japanese-language instructor was fond of saying, "In English, the purpose of communication is to exchange information. In Japanese, the purpose of communication is to not hurt anyone's feelings." Then, in French, the purpose of communication is argumentation.

I don't know Japanese and I've never been to Japan, so I can't speak to the truth on that matter. But as someone who is up close and personal with the French language and French culture, all I can say is: It's SO true!

Of course, French isn't all about the argument.
Oh no.
It's also about hiding information.

English is (certain scientific papers and purposely abstruse novels aside) all about clarity, brevity and giving 'just the facts, ma'm'. It can be a playful language, but in general, it doesn't jerk you around.

French, in contrast, is excellent for talking endless circles around a point and never getting there. And I'm convinced that this is so because French people don't want you to know anything.
Kind of.

Over the years, with the full agreement of my very French husband, I have come to the conclusion that French culture is, at some deep level, an insiders' culture. The basic information that you need in order to get around, work and live is not easily available. Even if you peruse all the booklets, read all the road signs and just ask right out, point blank, you ( the sad outsider not lucky enough to be born and raised in France) will find it very, very hard to find out the basic things you must know to get by.

Whereas US culture often seems like it's aimed at a population that has no common sense (hence we find the plastic coffee cups that read Caution: Hot beverages are hot! and the packages of peanuts that say Warning: May contain nuts), French culture and the resulting societal infrastructure assume that if you don't already have certain information, you probably don't really need, deserve or have any right to it, anyway.
So, why should they make it easy for you?

Just driving on French roads is a trial for someone used to the well-marked highways in the USA. JP and I made lots of roadtrips in the States, back in the day before GPS and GoogleMaps, so I can attest to the fact that you can actually use roadsigns to find your way around the US.
In France, not so much. The indicators tend to be sporadic and disappear at crucial junctions. This is particularly true on the 'departement' roads, where one minute you're driving to Tours and the next you're at a roundabout that indicates four different towns, none of them Tours.
If you don't already know where you're going, you're never going to get there.
And, sadly, this is true in most other areas of French life.

This year, our daughters started at collège (see previous posts for details). The school sent reams of paper, chock- full of information. We were informed of the many classes there were, shown the floor plan of the school and told that the principal was hoping the children would have a good rentrée. We were NOT however, given any info about things like how to use the cafeteria or take the bus.

When JP went to the "information" evening at the school, they spent 2 hours reading outloud all the information off the papers they'd previously sent to the parents. Any word about buses or lunches or any other pressing matter not covered by the papers?
The "information night", it turns out, was more of a social event than an actual tool for giving out useful facts. French people are nothing if not very social. They like that sort of thing. They'd much rather sit around chatting with each other in a classroom than sit all alone at home reading a silly old bit of paper.
And the details of school life? They know it all already. Nearly all of the parents went to the school when they were kids. It's obvious how the cafeteria works and the sports association and the bus service. Perfectly obvious. If you were born here.
If you weren't, your only dependable source for info will be other parents.
The trick is, of course, getting them to talk to you. It's a problem because French people deeply dislike talking to people they don't already know. In fact, most of them don't even like talking to people who aren't in their own family.

While the average US citizen can handle being addressed by a stranger in the street and, in fact, is usually pleased to be able to show how much they know about the neighborhood, local restaurants, buses, etc, the average French person is taken aback and, though he might possibly answer your question, no elaborations will be offered. You'll get the strict minimum.

Confused American: "Excuse me. Is this the stop for the bus to Annemasse?"
French person also standing at the bus stop: "Yes." *moves to stand as far away as possible*

In contrast:
Confused French person: "Excuse me. Is this the stop for the bus to Omaha?"
American person also waiting: "Why yes, it is. But you have to be careful. You want the number 32, not the number 23. That one also stops here, but it will take you to Red Cloud. I'm going to Omaha, though, so you just get on when I do, Ok? And you have correct change for the fare, right? You have to have correct change. Good. So, where are you from? Would you like a piece of gum?"

We see in this sample conversation (which I completely and totally made up, but which manages to convey the underlying structure of many, many exchanges I have seen or been in) that the French person is not sharing what he knows. In fact, the French person in the first exchange knows that the day is a public holiday and no buses are running at all. He is not waiting for a bus, but is actually waiting for his cousin to pick him up. But he wasn't asked for details and sure as heck isn't going to volunteer any to a complete stranger! Quelle horreur!

On the other hand, in the second scenario, the English-speaker offers lots of other relevant information ( as well as a confectionary treat!). She assumes that if you asked about the bus, that means you probably want to get on it and go somewhere. And she is pleased that she can help you with this is some small way.

With the French, everything is assumed, and nothing. They'll assume that you have plenty of friends and family and have no need of any friendship from them. They'll assume that you have all the information that you need for your life to function smoothly. Doing otherwise would be, for them, tantamount to assuming that you are an idiot- which isn't very nice, right?
So, they don't mean it in a bad way, really...
On the other hand they wouldn't dare assume that just because you ask about a bus, you might want to actually ride on it. Or just because your kids are enrolled in a school, they might need to eat lunch there. That would be so presumptuous!

Actually, I'd have to say that they mostly just plain don't like outsiders. And helping outsiders become insiders is not the French idea idea of fun.
Being a foreigner in France requires becoming a skilled player of Twenty Questions. You ask and ask and ask some more. You persist until you are pretty sure you have the subject narrowed down to its smallest elements. And even then, there's probably stuff nobody's going to tell you.
And don't think you're going to use the internet to help out. There's lots of vital stuff in France that has no web-presence. For example, my kids' schools (both big schools-one private and one public) don't even have websites.
There's too much stuff they just don't want you to know.
It was Sir Francis Bacon who wrote that "knowledge is power". (He was British, but don't think that the French don't believe this with every fiber of their being.) It's power and not something to be freely given to just anybody, especially if that anybody is not exactly from around here.


La Framéricaine said...

Fantastic post!

Clear, concise, and extremely informative at a very nuanced level--most people, who are not on the inside of a culture--if not only French culture--of course, don't know what they don't know. But since they don't know it, they can't gird their loins, or even know they need to gird them, in order to go out and find out what they don't know they don't know.

Having said that, and I love your concrete example of the new school for the girls and all the "unknowns" that you don't even know you don't know, one of the reasons that I think that intercultural blogging (for lack of a better name to call it) is important is because it facilitates an extra-cultural exchange of information that can help MANY people who don't know what they don't know at the very same time. I, for one, want to use my blog subversively to empower others and help anyone and everyone to surmount and surpass those invisible walls and glass ceilings of "not knowing."

For example, when I landed in France this time, I was hosted for two evenings at the home of my very French nephew-in-law (no reflected glory on me, but his grandfather is/was The Claude Sautet of cinema fame--so his French cred speaks for itself) and during the course of our conversations, he mentioned the new changes in French work law that allow one to become a "micro or auto-entrepreneur." A week later, he sent me a link that he felt was good regarding that new status:

I haven't had a chance to read it yet but who knows, maybe we all just learned something we didn't know and can now share it since work is a big need for newbies.

Even as French culture has, does, and will change us, we too change it, whether it likes it or not and I love nothing better than to leave entire bloody loaves of bread behind on the path to lead passersby out of the woods!

Beth said...

Hey- My rather brilliant friend!! I have just been scrambling around trying to find your email! It's a long story, but the upshot is this: I accidentally published this before it was done and before i had a chance to ask you about using a quote from you... Sorry about that!!

And thanks so much for the thoughtful comment. It's such a ranty diatriibe, I was wondering if I'd gone too far with it. Thanks for the confirmation/affirmation!

Teacher Mommy said...

Oh, too funny and too, too true...I remember my parents' stories from their time in France doing language study. I was only a baby, and then later when we vacationed there I was still a child, so I don't remember this side of things. But your portrayal of the American garrulity and helpfulness is spot-on. Well, in most places. I hear they aren't so nice over in New York City...

oreneta said...


*wiping tears of laughter away*

I AM that second person....completely. *giggle*

Catalan, I haven't quite got so pegged, it is hard to separate out village life and language/culture....

I have a TON of acquaintances, and friend here. After three years. Let me tell you, I can make friends who I will keep in touch with all my life in an afternoon, and do...but here.....some of it is that their lives are full, full of friends and full of family. Part is the village. There are people who have been here all their lives, and their families have been here for thousands. Friendly salt of the earth, associate with their own. Then there are the folks who use it essentially as a bedroom community, and I basically never see them, their lives are in BCN, they just sleep here.

Then there are folks like us, who are neither betwixt nor between....

That said, the enthusiasm of my neighbours for the fact that we are buying the house on the same street is heartening, and may indicate that they were viewing us as transients (after three years!!! There's village thinking for you) and now that we are seeming more permanent....

It will be interesting to see how it all pans out.

Loved your post.

Would you like some gum? You could come over and we'll give you dinner?

Beth said...

TM- It's true that interactions even within the US can vary widely. In writing this I had to generalise like crazy...which was a bit unfair, but awfully fun!

Rocky- Thanks for the supporting evidence from your corner of Europe and the kind words of praise for my post. (Sugar-free gum? Sure! Thanks! And as for dinner, next time I'm in Barcelona I'm SO showing up at your new house at suppertime!)

Heidi said...

Seattle is like France.

Which maybe means I should not move to France, ever.

I remember during my own collège days, during that scary, exciting, transcendent six months in France, that there were two kids a few years younger than myself who were themselves Franco-Americans spending some time in France with their French mother and American father. One of their cousins, who lived nearby, told me that on her first visit to America, they had visited a restaurant and the waitress had been remarkably chatty with her parents. As the waitress left, the girl said, laughing, that she'd asked her parents if they *knew* the waitress, because she had been so very friendly!

They were good people...but after that six months, I had made several friends, all of whom were fellow international students and none of whom were actually French.

Beth said...

Heidi- How about you move to France, but right next door to me?
I am, since 1996, a French citizen. I could be your kindly "French" friend and tell you important stuff you need to know. Not that I know much...I thought that when I got my passport, all the many secrets of French life would be revealed. No such luck.

But at least we could go to the movies together and drink tea...

babzee said...

My midwestern darling, you tell such wonderful stories! But truly you cannot capture all of the US with such kindly and sweeping generalities. When I read your representation of the French person, I see my neighbors in the southern United States, who will tell you *whatever* positive statement they think you want to hear, with NO regard for the facts. This often leads to a "Yes" answer for questions like "Do you repair German cars?" "Can you come and fix my plumbing tomorrow?" or "Is this roof going to be back on before tornado season?" The answer in the REAL WORLD, however, was NEVER "yes", and subsequent phone calls will not be returned.

Beth said...

Ah- but the French NEVER tell you what they think you want to hear. That's completely against everything they stand for. They only feed you the bitterest truth -and that in tiny, painful, incomplete fragments.

Maryon said...

Loved the blog and had to smile wryly at the comments which seemed to resonate with everyone. It seems that it is the same where ever you live as a foreigner in another country . I can remember how it was when, as a bemused Child of Africa, I tried to make sense of the culture I found myself ..and we supposedly speak the same language and have the same forebears!
I have lived in the same house in the same street for 25 years and only recently am I regarded as sort of "local" but with strange habits and a funny accent! And I dare not support a British sports team/figure - I have been pulled up numerous times for not being British! I also dare not mention my Irish passport! That would really put the cat amongst the pigeons.

Joy said...

It's been interesting reading this, and very timely, as well! This is not really a surprise for us (forewarned is forarmed, perhaps) but it completely resonated with me regarding our move to our current home town in Saskatchewan. We moved to the small town that is now home-ish eleven years ago. The town is very small, and people there belong to two groups - very transient or multi-generational. There is not much in the way of middle ground for introverts like my husband and me to fit in with. We now have very good friends, but most of them are from 'away', as well.

As for our our stay in the Tarn, our landlady is a wonderful wealth of information, as is her husband, but neither one are originally from this region. They are both French, though. It will also be interesting to see how long it takes our very close neighbours to talk to us...

Pardon My French said...

I met a Japanese person here who said her husband was often confused at meetings since nothing was ever decided. Instead of trying to find common points of agreement, people tended to do the opposite (which was a nice way of saying it's all about the argument).

In total agreement about the fact that you have to know where you're going in order for road signs to be any help. But oddly enough, once I resigned myself to this fact and accepted the need for serious advance planning to the utmost degree, it does become kind of fun to try to conquer traveling by myself. And there is some satisfaction to be achieved when you do manage to figure out the right questions and force some fonctionnaire into actually telling you something. Who needs a computer game when you can get these kinds of real-life obstacles at the drop of a hat?