14 May 2009

Something You'll Never See in Paris: A Quick Primer on Dealing with the French

Living in Paris was an amazing experience, but not always an easy one. When people ask me how I felt about it - I often answer that it was "difficult, but really worthwhile". I tend to feel the same way about the French themselves.

The single most salient stereotype that French have of Americans is that of fatness (as in overweight and over-consuming) and that Americans have of French is of rudeness (as in impolite and superior). As with most stereotypes both of these have a good deal of basis both in reality and also in misunderstanding of the other. In fact after many months of having lived in Paris, I have many adjectives - both positive and negative - that I can use to roughly characterize its inhabitants as a group. But rude isn't in there (although of course, like people anywhere else in the world, the French are capable of being rude ;).

So on a whim (and at risk of making enemies) here's a short list of much more fitting adjectives:
warm-when-shown-respect, intolerant of difference, fashionable, proper, inconsistent, appreciative of life, entitled, passionate, pessimistic, generous, passive-aggressive, liberal (e.g., socialist, gay rights), conservative (e.g., keep-the-status-quo, anti-immigrant) and last-but-certainly-not-least, proud.

And it's this last that prompted me to write this post. You see, I've recently returned to New York, which has been a great shock to my system and I've been noticing everything around me all the more (it doesn't hurt that we are having a lovely late-spring in New York right now). So a couple of days ago, I was walking by Morningside park in Manhattan and I saw the following, completely ordinary sign (pictured above), instructing my fellow New Yorkers to clean up after their dogs on penalty of law.

What struck me so strongly about this, is that you'd never see anything remotely like it in Paris. You see the French in general love their dogs. Paris is a city filled with people walking their dogs. But the thing is, almost none of these dog walkers would be willing to clean up after their dog - from what I'm told (often by other French), the idea of cleaning up dog poop is an anathema to proud Frenchman. This was a bit difficult for me to swallow - and for a good many French. After all why should everyone have to get shit on their shoes, and have to pay tax levied on all to clean up, because some think that cleaning up after the mess their pet makes is somehow below them?

But that's the way things are and I can understand how it has come to pass, given how proud I've found the French can be. And the French really are that proud - of their culture, contributions to history, language, dignity, etc. The thing is that they have earned the right to be proud - it's not like they are wrong about how wonderful the things their people and country have done. But often (as a group) they take it a bit far and go from a genuine appreciation of what is so good about themselves, to a tunnel-vision of the world in which the contributions and quality of other places and cultures are marginalized. In this they are actually ironically similar to Americans - in fact from what I could tell from conversations, to other Europeans, the French are the "Americans" of Europe (insofar as "American" connotes domineering, superior, relatively ignorant of others).

To me this proudness was reflected in many facets of French life - from the trivial (dog walking, to the primary/secondary education system which appears to place French poetry and grammatical complexity on par with Science, Math, History, etc.; to international politics where Former President Chirac walked out of a UN session along with the entire French delegation because a French businessman had the temerity to address the session in English (which happened to be the working language of that particular session)!

Which brings me back to my previously unexplained assertion that the French are not, despite the overwhelming stereotype, rude. My feeling is that foreigners mistake the way in which French react to a variety of situation as rude, when the French are for the most part quite proper and polite. You see the French are very proud and can be quick and brittle to react when their pride is injured, which it easily is. Consequently, a small matter or comment that an American or other foreigner likely wouldn't even contemplate having been offensive, can turn out to be a major insult to a Frenchman or woman - with the obvious cross-cultural mal-effects - the response to the insult usually will be nasty, dismissive, or otherwise bad, although often mildly so. Of course the foreigner, not having realized that their action had been interpreted as being insulting in the first place, will mistake this response for unprompted rudeness - which in my observation it rarely is.

So how does one deal with this? Well as regards the dog crap, all you can do is step carefully. And it turns out the same strategy works with the French as well (although a good subset of people living in France aren't actually that touchy at all, it's just that many are ;-).

Below are a couple of helpful rules for engendering productive interactions with the French:
  1. Smile warmly and speak gently
  2. Try to stutter something in French first, even if you can't speak much, before attempting English. At the very least, ask if they speak English es-koo-voo par-lay-le-francay? If you do this, you will find that most of the time, people who might had seemed distant or rude, will engage you warmly and try strenously to communicate with and help you. Under no circumstances should you abruptly start speaking to a Frenchman in English as if you expect to be understood! There are few ways more likely to keep you from getting anything out of the interaction. Most French have a little English and many actually speak quite well. But I've seen many times where a French person I knew could speak English reasonably well, pretended they couldn't understand even basic words like yes, no and tomorrow b/c they weren't treated respectfully (as per their understanding of respect).
  3. Don't rush them (insofar as possible) or get aggressive. The French aren't focused on service or speed. They believe in savoring life and get very aggitated by the brusque manners of foreigners. Be prepared to wait.
  4. Don't talk loudly, try not to cough in public, sneeze or be otherwise improper. Hard to avoid, but many French are very proper and hypersensitive (from my viewpoint) to this.
  5. Remember that it's their country not yours - don't tell them how to be, even if it strikes you as a bit ridiculous. Not worth the fight - you're a visitor, try to treat them how you'd like to be treated (viz-a-vis their own cultural mores and norms).
  6. Finally, avoid putting up any stickers (insofar as possible) on the mailslots or buzzers of an apartment you are renting. Parisians, at least, are irrationally sensitive (from my viewpoint at least) about this. We had a simple sticker listing our names on it placed on our mailbox, so we'd receive the mail. Sounds straightforward? Well it wasn't. First someone began ripping our sticker off periodically (but they didn't remove it cleanly so it looked much more messy than before). Never tried to contact us nor let us know who was doing it so we could discuss it (see what I mean about passive-aggressive?). Our landlady told us to just keep putting up new stickers. Eventually this started to get ridiculous as we were putting up a new sticker every day. Finally around this point, someone put up this note, written in illegible French on used, ripped paper, attached to the middle of the glass front door with scotch tape and a business card stapled to it. I had an idea of what this note might be, so I took a picture and asked a friend to translate. The gist is that 'no one should put stickers on the mailboxes or buzzers, because it is inappropriate and ruins the asthetic quality of our living space. Instead you must have a metal plaque made out with your name, business card attached. Thank you'. Of course it was signed by "Members of the Building Committee" (passive-aggressive again) and someone helpfully added to the corner (top-left) in a messy but legible scrawl "this is just normal, I did it when I moved in" (guess they weren't subletting for just a couple of month). So to summarize: the folks in my building were so aesthetically sensitive that they covered the beautiful glass front door of the building with a scrawled note on ripped, used paper, for two weeks to let me know I needed to buy a metal plaque in order to receive mail (notice any inconsistency here?) - My friend who translated (happens to be a Parisian told me that this apparently is characteristic, but also told me how stupid she thought it was, so did my landlady.
So this should help you get off on the right foot - although I admit the last point is a bit more of a rant than advice. But then again, most places the in world have some particularities that are bound to baffle anyone who wasn't born there (and possibly many who were). So take it with a grain of salt and enjoy - because there really is a lot to enjoy of the French and their country!

No comments:

Post a Comment