I think that by this point, I was supposed to have had some sort of cultural collision, some major conflict with the French way of thinking that capsizes my world and evades my comprehension, stretching my tolerance quota to its outermost limits. But that hasn’t really happened. Sure, I’ve remarked on some differences. The value the French place on good food and sit-down meals, for example, means that nobody – nobody! – carries coffee with them in the city and schoolchildren have at least 90 minutes for lunch so they can return home for a hot meal. (The whole concept of 10 minutes for a juice box and PB&J sandwich in the school cafeteria is unthinkable for them.) I’ve also discovered that the French like demonstrations. And good bread. And adding “Enh?” to the end of sentences. (So that’s where the Canadians get it from!) None of this is particularly shocking.
However, the one cultural difference that has left me with eyes wide and jaw dropped on multiple occasions is the French affinity for being frank. Political correctness is far from a priority here. It’s not even a value (as it seems to be in the United States). My grammar professor explained to my class last week that the French are suspicious of the American way of dancing around a subject in order to avoid offending anyone.
“We often have the impression that people don’t say what they’re really thinking,” she said. Which is true. For those of us who like to be polite. Then again, the very idea of what is polite, or at least that politeness is more important than being direct, is liable to change from culture to culture, and insincere compliments may can be less desirable than a straightforward opinion delivered with compassion. Nevertheless, “la franchise Française” (French frankness) is not something I’m accustomed to hearing.
A few weeks ago, my host mother’s cousin – a young woman of about 25 – came over for the Sunday afternoon meal. After touching on a few other topics (the connection between which I failed to understand), the conversation turned to the subject of weight. My 17-year-old host brother had gained 4 kilos during a recent two-week trip to New York. “I don’t think Mathieu needs any dessert today,” his mother said half-jokingly. The conversation continued on the same subject, and before long, Mathieu asked the young cousin how much she weighed. I was shocked; didn’t he know never to ask a woman for her weight? More shocking still was that once Manon (the cousin) had offered up the number, Mathieu exclaimed, “That’s a lot! That’s almost more than I weigh!” I looked from Manon to Mathieu, from Mathieu to Manon. She was unhappy, but not offended. Was Mathieu really allowed to say things like that? I continued staring until Mathieu, laughing, finally noticed my look of incredulity. “What?” he asked, defensive of his brotherly right to pick on a sister figure. “You can say that?” I finally articulated. “Because in the United States…” I mimed a slap in the face to indicate what would happen to him if he were to make a similar remark to an American. “You don’t say things like that.”
Judging from Manon’s reaction to the conversation and the lack of response from my host parents, apparently it’s different in France. You can say things like that. You can also, when your new American student tells you that her self-furnished lunches during her first week in France have consisted of little more than bread and Nutella, remark on the fact that so much Nutella is not good for the figure. “But that’s okay,” my 11-year-old host sister remarked when this happened to me. “You’re like this,” and she held up her pinky finger to indicate her interpretation of my size. Um, thank you? I really haven’t had any trouble with my French acquaintances being offensively direct with me. It’s not something that comes up multiple times a day, but perhaps this makes the isolated occurrences all the more striking. It may not be true for everybody all the time, but I think I’m going to come away from this semester thinking that “to be perfectly French” is “to be perfectly frank.”