Monday, February 13, 2012


The French close their shutters every night so no one can see into their homes.  They don't talk about money, they don't talk to people on the metro, they don't give out their names, and it doesn't matter what they do for a living.  But they'll invite you in to their dining room, feed you, have a conversation with you about their children, their house in the country, and give you a jar of fig jam if you show interest.  This is the gist of the chapter I read today.  And I love it.

It's privacy.  It's a different notion of what is private, and what isn't private.  The home, the family, personal decisions--those are all private, to the extent that 'scandals' aren't really scandals at all but simply not your business.  And yet arguing, disagreeing, eating are not private matters, but in fact more public than we as Americans would think.

Hospitality is expected on many accounts, but only if you do it the right way--the French way.  Saying bonjour and au revoir as you enter and leave a shop, for example, will get you good service.  What has this to do with privacy?  Well, you're coming into someone else's private domain, and in doing so, it is only polite to greet and give farewells to the person whose home or business you enter.  However, asking someone outright what their name is will create immediate barriers.  Why?  Because whether they want to be contacted by you again should be their decision--not yours.

Also, it seems to me, the French are not worried about finding and keeping people they like to share company with, or converse with, because they figure that those people will find and gravitate toward each other.  And they seem less worried about wasting time with the wrong sort of people, because I don't think there's a worry about wasting time, or a worry about "wrong people."

Nadeau and Barlow point out one interesting difference I really enjoy: that is, the conversation between couples.  "They typical American couple seeks to display harmony. . . . The French expect exactly the opposite: . . . a relationship should be strong enough to withstand differences" (43-44).  It's not that American relationships aren't strong enough to withstand differences, because in fact they withstand all sorts of differences all the time, but that arguments in public seem distasteful to them.  And thus the French seem to value idea-oriented discussion rather than relationship-oriented discussion.  Meaning, they attack ideas, not the person.  And in doing so, a little arguing is hardly anything to bat an eye over.

This is an interesting cultural difference to me and it reveals how to go about talking to people in different ways.  Knowing and remembering someone's name in our culture is not only a sign of respect, but engenders trust.  Not so in France, where asking for someone's name is a breach of privacy.  Eating in our culture is our business, we eat what we want when we want it.  Not in France.  Eating is important, and therefore is something you do a particular way, something you allot time for, something you do communally with others.  I don't think either is inherently wrong or right, but different for explainable reasons.  So I better master bonjour and au revoir if I want to make people in France happy, which I do.

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