France has done a number on my social skills.
Each year, when I migrate back to Seattle around Christmas time, I’m made aware that, by American standards, I have grown more antisocial.
On my last trip, for example, hung over with jet lag and wide awake around 5 a.m. (God bless America that things are open this early), I wandered into a grocery store for some breakfast essentials. Just a handful of people were milling about the aisles, and when I crossed paths with a man also hunting for orange juice, my acquired instinct was to skirt around him unnoticed; his was to lock eyes, smile and say, “Good morning.” Startled, I muttered back a weak “Thanks. You too,” and reminded myself: Gina, you’re in the United States now. You’re allowed to be friendly with complete strangers. Smile, for Pete’s sake. Things that were once automatic became forced.
You see, what is considered customary and polite in one country can be taken the wrong way or even deemed offensive in another. While Americans tend to view conversation as a tool used to exchange information, the French use conversation as a means to establish, maintain or build a relationship.
In the States we speak freely wherever we like, sharing or taking what tidbits benefit the listener, or ourselves, and don’t give much weight to who is on the receiving end or if we see them again. On the contrary, the degree of information that the French exchange is always relative to how profound the connection is. Acquaintances, for example, might make small talk about the weather or this or that product (facts), while close friends are permitted rich dialogue about political interests, religious convictions and so on (feelings). For the same reason, strangers, like the one who I crossed paths with at the grocery store, or the ones that I find myself next to at the bus stop or inside my favorite coffee shops, do not make small talk or even need to acknowledge the other’s existence. Doing so demonstrates a desire to build a relationship beyond the momentary exchange. Even making eye contact and smiling can be confused with flirting.
To complicate things further, the French language has a formal and informal way to address each person, like English’s difference between “thou” and “you.” You need to figure out where you stand with the person that you desire to converse with before you open your mouth, since every verb is conjugated with the formal or informal tense. Employing the wrong form is a way to intentionally or accidentally disrespect another.
“Vous” is used as a sign of respect for someone older than you or in a superior position, like a friend’s grandparents or your professor, and “tu” is the informal pronoun given to people who you are friendly with, like family, friends and, generally, people of the same age group or younger. It’s not always obvious.
Beyond who you can chat with (and how to address them), the French also follow a dissimilar operating manual regarding how to carry on a discussion. Cultural anthropologist Raymonde Carroll likens American dialogue to jazz or a jam session, where everyone shows up with a different instrument, takes turns playing solos of varying lengths, and then packs up when the exchange is satisfied, leaving with no commitment or need to be seen again. Americans are trained to be patient listeners, silent until the other person finishes speaking; we ask questions when our conversation-partner seems to possess information that we would like to acquire, and offer our own expertise. We speak when there is something to be said and are not alarmed if the conversation dies, knowing that it will pick up again when new information arises.
In France, this style of conversing appears boring—tiresome when responses are lengthy, and egotistic if everyone engaged doesn’t have an equal opportunity to talk. For the French, a conversation’s subject is less important than the relationship being maintained. Discussion is executed like a ping-pong match, where talk is the ball, and it is your job to pass it to your partner, who will return it right back to you, and so on. If you hold the ball instead of passing it, the fun is gone, the game is over. An exchange is fragile and like a houseplant needs to be cultivated and cared for, which is often accomplished by interrupting, as it shows your interest in what the speaker is saying and keeps the talk in motion, the ball bouncing back and forth. Americans watching this from the outside are baffled, wondering how anything worthwhile can be said among so many interruptions and subject changes, not realizing that the French, in their own way, are making an effort to be polite, just as we are when we do the opposite.
Now that I have an upcoming trip to the States, I am trying to undo all of the mannerisms that I have picked up over the years. I would rather be considered a weirdo and a flirt in France than thought a jerk at home.