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On social and personal communication

by ValentinD Thu Oct 30th, 2008 at 08:51:29 PM EST

In what follows, excerpts from a recent exchange on issues turning around personal debating styles, and social communication in general that, I dare say, deserve a bit more than only being part of a private conversation.

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One of the issues I personally had with living in France, from the very beginning, was not the fact in itself, but the extent to which certain people took care to protect others' sensibilities - sometimes so much so that one did not know where one stood anymore. I happened to find myself at work chasing for a sign of some kind, a  movement of a brow, a look, something to give an indication as to the reality behind the over-friendliness (in part, no doubt, due to being a foreigner). Frustrated of so much "protection", I soon started acting the opposite - of course, to no avail: shoulders were raising and looks were going up and around. I've been assured everything's just fine. Everybody very happy. No problemo!
Then a word was slipping now and then, hinting to some issue - nothing serious, but still. Nevertheless, it has been a titanesque (for me, as a newcomer) work to evaluate and interpret behavioral deltas - in ways and to extents I had neither expected, nor imagined, ever.

I commented on the matter on a blog once, about one or two years ago, to the surprise of a sudden reaction from a German girl who had lived in France for some time, who further told about her own exasperating experiences with overly nice, friendly and protective (no pun intended) French employers.
"You never know where you stand," she said; "it's not even about them; you cannot improve yourself, since everything is ok .
Right now I feel like adding: we should have asked for more money - then we would have certainly had the truth! :)


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Related to the above, is the idea that being civil, polite, protecting one's feelings should not, IMHO, stop us from expressing our opinion on a matter of principle.

For instance, I can refer to a deadly car accident as a crime, without passing a judgement on the author (who might have had personal reasons for, say, going beyond speed limit and being careless - like a medical emergency). Calling the accident a crime does not make him a criminal, and does not mean I called him that either.

The same way, someone from the morally conservative American rightwing might refer to abortion, in general, as a horrifying, even inhumane act, without that meaning necessarily that he just passed a judgement on women who had abortions. In short, I believe we can make judgements of principle, of an action, without automatically making personal ones.

On the particular topic of abortions, the Catholic church has exactly the same point: condemn the act, help the person having passed through that.

L : "From what I've seen - at different churches, and especially the Catholic church, this often looks different in practice. Simple example: If the act of divorce is judged - why does a Catholic thereafter have no possibility to participate in the Communion anymore"

That is not so much judgement but application of dogma. The person is not judged in the sense that she is not -- "accablée" and even received back upon certain condition, I think.

It's much like, when I would issue some kind of brutal, plain statement :), and no one would tell me it was so; not one criticism, or comment; (I shouldn't be judged or, worse, antagonised).
I would just notice, after a little while, that everybody is little by little getting busy elsewhere, until I am mainly left facing a forest of backs - a bizarre coincidence, to be sure! :)
Of course, I would gladly complain that I am judged without being given a chance to explain that there is a grain of truth. But there's no one to complain to, all backs and closed ears.
What I mean is that I prefer brutal statements (at least they're clear, honest and can be replied to) to endless precautions to not antagonize / to not appear as judging, or 2nd degree talk that is often more insulting than the insensitive plain talk.

And then I'm quite appalled at myself when the author of the aforementioned statements happens to be me...

Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last! (Martin Luther King)

by ValentinD (walentijn arobase free spot franša) on Thu Oct 30th, 2008 at 09:13:41 PM EST
L:
My mother-in-law can judge my artistic taste - I will always know that this is just a subjective question of taste and would not accept her judgement as universally true...
- When we discuss "life", words weigh so much more than in the area of any other matter of opinion.

Me:
It remains that the person having done that needs to do a lot of work on herself, her motives, her principles, the future, and so settle things up within herself. If this is done, she won't have reasons to feel hurt or judged anymore, or take opinions personally.
It's true that the words weigh, but a person who is honest with herself will make the difference and take her own responsibility too, instead of feeling hurt.

L:
The "problem" simply is that this is still going to hurt other people's feelings because abortion as an action is linked to the person mysteriously as life itself. It's no outward/external crime. So, there is no way to really separate judgement of the person from judgement of the action - in this particular case.

It takes a lot of strength to be this honest with oneself - especially when it is dawning on the person that he/she has done something really bad. We're all VERY vulnerable (self-important?) when it comes to criticism of our person...

Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last! (Martin Luther King)

by ValentinD (walentijn arobase free spot franša) on Thu Oct 30th, 2008 at 09:28:31 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Brainstorming on the French way to protect ones own feelings and those of others

Work/School

I have never WORKED in France. So what I observe from my own experience is slightly different because I talk of people who I don't depend upon, who aren't my supervisors or colleagues.

My school experience has been similar to your work-related experience in that teachers always seek harmony with parents but tend to lack transparency about the child's situation. So, when they decide to approach you with a problem, it means that there really IS a problem. When I as a parent go and ask, they seem to be a little uneasy to begin with - and then seek harmony - claim everything is fine - because it is THEIR responsibility to make sure everything is fine (= the French attitude; in Germany teachers and parents continually blame one another). So, it can happen, that you ask about your child - and everything seems fine - and three weeks later his end-of-trimester grades will reveal that, well, things aren't as good as you thought. ...

Homeschooling - I expected (feared) to be questioned and receive criticism by other parents. This village school is very small after all... - But there hasn't been anything like that. In a way I'm relieved. On the other hand, I can only guess that others may discuss our case amongst themselves. Maybe they don't. What I also see is some kind of indifference. I would be curious and interested... - So, I'm a little disappointed about this lack of interest, too.

Women

I'm always amazed at how much they are in control of their families/husbands. I know no exception. This is very different in Germany, and I guess in Anglo-Saxon countries generally, too.

I believe it is a "Latin" phenomenon. Catholicism wants women `subdued' but somehow they aren't.

* Women have a heightened self-awareness (which is good and bad) whereas there is more of a `serving' attitude - traditionally and stereotypically - in protestant countries. I wonder whether it's correct what I'm postulating here. There has been very much emancipation in A/S countries but women have always been less centred on themselves (comparatively) or more tolerant (not meant in a 68ard permissive sense of the word) towards their partner.  

   * They may even be the `serving' `type' but they won't allow their husbands to go on that business retreat or spend 5 days with a friend to go horseback riding - freedoms that Nordic women are very tolerant about. I for one want to TRUST my husband and am not interested in making major efforts to CONTROL him.

   * We mirror ourselves in others

I believe that we need to be mirrored in others to get to know ourselves better. It is important to get feedback, to receive praise and criticism. We may feel good about what we hear or be hurt. We can feel confirmed in who we are/want to be or see reason for change. If others always put the protection of feelings first, there is less potential for growth.

I believe some of this attitude may be due to Catholicism (again). You withdraw when you have to fear - not only mild criticism - but judgement and condemnation.  

It is interesting that this attitude is difficult for you. You are Greek Orthodox which I perceive as somewhat Catholic, too - but the whole mentality and spirituality of where you come from :) is more colourful and expressive, "chaleureux" than is French bourgeoisie!

    * Ones own openness running against walls

One side of the coin is of course the French person seeking to protect himself. The other side is this same person respecting another one's privacy. If the other one (e.g. you, or M, ...), though, seeks to communicate by opening up, making himself vulnerable in order to MEET the other, learn from the other.... "the other" (French person) will be UNCOMFORTABLE. This is an experience that I have made, too. It's like running against walls. I exaggerate!!! I have both been able to MEET others and also experienced situations when I was confronted with the opposite's discomfort; but I have NEVER experienced this discomfort in this kind of situations in any other place before!

So, how do the French COMMUNICATE? You are right, it all works the Japanese way - through sharing harmony. This allows both sides to open up - but criticism would destroy the harmony. So, you can share "des emotions", feelings, perceptions, agreement but rarely any harsh criticism - that would disturb harmony but would/could eventually lead to change.

This IS difficult.

I believe it's particularly difficult for the non-French, the non-Latin but it also creates problems among the French, notably "mauvaise foi" and hypocrisy, and lameness/lack of dynamic. True, straight talk isn't a priority; harmony is... - But non-Latins can also learn from it, i.e. to care about one another in our souls' vulnerability, individual sensitivities, etc.

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Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last! (Martin Luther King)

by ValentinD (walentijn arobase free spot franša) on Thu Oct 30th, 2008 at 09:36:35 PM EST
(just to say that the above comment, Brainstorming..., is not from me, but from L)

Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last! (Martin Luther King)
by ValentinD (walentijn arobase free spot franša) on Thu Oct 30th, 2008 at 09:45:36 PM EST
[ Parent ]
"My school experience has been similar to your work-related experience in that teachers always seek harmony with parent" (L)

Yes, in the hope that you'll pick on the very thin suggestions, when something starts to go, er, not so well. Reading between the lines is the norm.

"I can only guess that others may discuss our case amongst themselves. Maybe they don't" (L)

Some say they do. A german even said once that the moment he left the room, he was certain to hear his French mates commenting behind - and I will add, not as in, badmouthing, but in the same cryptic 3rd degree talk which everyone understood. This is what attracts accusations of hypocrisy, not always unfounded.

"So, I'm a little disappointed about this lack of interest, too"

Maybe you weren't (aren't) part of the "family" yet :) This is usually more from shyness than something else, I guess.

"I for one want to TRUST my husband and am not interested in making major efforts to CONTROL him"

Yes, but we, Latin, sensual beings above all, know that la chair est faible :)

"(running against walls) but I have NEVER experienced this discomfort in this kind of situations in any other place before!"

I too found "anglosaxons" more easy to open up with. Or to put it the other way around, the French are likely the most complicate people in Europe, IMO.

"but the whole mentality and spirituality of where you come from :) is more colourful and expressive, "chaleureux" than is French bourgeoisie"

Lots of other factors come into play here :) (let alone that I don't think I'm in any way representative of "where I come from", wherever that is :P )

Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last! (Martin Luther King)

by ValentinD (walentijn arobase free spot franša) on Sun Nov 2nd, 2008 at 05:14:52 PM EST
[ Parent ]
is that the French won't open up to people they don't know well. There is no superficial friendliness, and no openness with new people, it only comes later (later sometimes being 3 generations later...)

On women being in control, I always answer that by saying that the secret of a happy couple is when both think they are in control ;-)

In the long run, we're all dead. John Maynard Keynes

by Jerome a Paris (etg@eurotrib.com) on Fri Oct 31st, 2008 at 04:01:34 PM EST
[ Parent ]
No superficial friendliness... and yet the "ambiance cordiale" is maintained through a barrage of small talk extremely difficult to sustain (unless French-educated, I suppose).

On one side, this reminds me of someone comparing French and Finns and saying the French literally do not know how to keep silent, whereas Finns, far from feeling awkward, find (long) moments of silence as a natural part of a conversation.

On another side, this reminds me (like L) of Japanese way of covering with several layers of "personalities".
When you get beyond the first two, you realize indeed that there's no superficial friendliness.

Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last! (Martin Luther King)

by ValentinD (walentijn arobase free spot franša) on Sun Nov 2nd, 2008 at 04:18:34 PM EST
[ Parent ]
hmm, interesting dialogue, made me want to see the protagonists.

as an anglo italian raised in england and living in italy, i'm pondering the different concepts of value attached to one's word in the two cultures.

so some of the conversation rung some bells, the desire for harmony, with only a 'pinch' of perturbation allowed, whereas in england my experience was people were more likely to say provocative, even outlandishly jarring things, and they would be more phlegmatically recieved there .

here it's less mentalised, more said in what's left unsaid, more said with subtler range of tone, with a glance, with a gesture, a more nuanced, more ancient set of ways, but from a brit's viewpoint oblique and conventional, recycled old traditions that give security bit are out of touch with the modern world, where it's more brutal, but you get more done, at often great social cost...

here it's more about your intention, than the actual words you say.

it's very difficult for a part of my brain to process, it seems so unnecessary and disrespectful, though i've learned the last thing to do is to take it too personally, i am ascribing it to a desire to remain more sovereign to oneself, a head-toss of pride that one has a life that always greater duties than one's actual job.

utilitarian assumptions are swiftly disposed of...expectations dwindle to limbo dance levels, one is so grateful the plumber ever shows up at all, all resentment at having been told for weeks he's be here in the next few days is vaporised in the joy of him showing up, with the usual well-worn excuses he doesn't mind knowing i'm pretending to believe.

it's a daily mindfuck, but i chose it, because even with that addiction to inconstistency, (or sometimes i wonder because of it the sum total is a more human feel to social intercourse, i used to arrogantly think they would all enjoy being set straight, once they saw the advantages as i explained them. they would agree and say admiring things, while inwardly rolling their eyes at how naive and linear i was...

keep splitting the difference too long, there's no cosmic constant any more, lol!

the best things in life don't make sense on every level, geography forms personality, cultures form attitudes...

which makes foreigners very puzzled indeed!

'The history of public debt is full of irony. It rarely follows our ideas of order and justice.' Thomas Piketty

by melo (melometa4(at)gmail.com) on Fri Oct 31st, 2008 at 05:13:40 PM EST
[ Parent ]
"whereas in england my experience was people were more likely to say provocative, even outlandishly jarring things, and they would be more phlegmatically recieved there"

Indeed. Personally, it took me a while (and a lot of wrong steps) to realize that.

"here it's more about your intention, than the actual words you say."

For a newcomer in the world of French speakers, with dire skills for second (let alone third) degree, it can be exasperating to fail so often in getting people to pay attention to your actual words that you carefully layed out (after no little brainstress).

It becomes more serious when you're at work and realize that no one really takes the actual job seriously, and it's all an endless game of social intercourse, of which work is only a small, sometimes insignificant part (even when some make it appear insignificant in order to look cool :))

"one is so grateful the plumber ever shows up at all"

Peter Mayle had a very funny story on this, in his book "A year in Provence".

Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last! (Martin Luther King)

by ValentinD (walentijn arobase free spot franša) on Sun Nov 2nd, 2008 at 04:33:58 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Your exchanges with L. are very interesting. What I share with you and L. is that I'm an ex-pat in France. What I don't share with you, if I read you correctly, is gender.

There are a lot of things there in your dialogue, and I haven't got time now to go into them. I'll try to come back later.

by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Fri Oct 31st, 2008 at 03:07:03 AM EST
it has been a titanesque (for me, as a newcomer) work to evaluate and interpret behavioral deltas

I think this is something all migrants have lived with anywhere. Learning a language isn't enough. I've been in France for more than thirty years, and I still sometimes read things wrong.

As for the niceness, yes, I'd say it may be overdone because "they" don't want to appear xenophobic. (Not in itself a bad thing). And you might find the same behaviour elsewhere. In the work environment, it may be compounded by the care taken not to expose oneself to accusations of harassment (a superior has to be careful about the conditions in which s/he points out shortcomings in your work; colleagues may be careful not to create an atmosphere of ostracism or exclusion).

Other things it may be due to: people just avoiding poking their nose in, because they might end up having to help you. For instance, they'd rather say you're doing your job well, because they might have to spend some time showing you how to do it if not. And there are those in management who prefer to let you get on with finding out what they want you to do - it makes less work for them.

Are the French (in particular) not straight-talking? Well, that depends. Some people are, or claim to be. That does set them apart somewhat. Generally, no. There are precautions to be taken. Men in SW France, where I live now, have a fairly ebullient manner; yet I can fairly easily find myself saying things that "go too far", which shows it's more a matter of content than style, in other words, what you say, not how you say it. There is, yes, a social consensus about what's comfortable and doesn't get too personal or too close to the bone. That can be frustrating if you come from a different culture. Coming from Britain, I, er, didn't really find it hugely surprising, just not always articulated in the same way.

by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Fri Oct 31st, 2008 at 04:30:53 PM EST
[ Parent ]
To reply to some of what L. says, I'm wary of stereotypes based on categories like "Latin" or "Catholic". France is a culturally mixed country with as much Celtic and Germanic heritage as Latin. And, if French women behave as L. perceives because of Catholicism, has she observed the same thing in Catholic Germany? Could we say the same of Flemish or Irish women?

The Frenchwoman in control, the supposed superwoman, is largely a middle-class construct, I think. I don't see it in working-class or peasant families (even in the arguably Latin South). And it's probably not just a matter of controlling their husband (who, according to the French stereotype, can't be trusted! ;)), but of being capable of running a whole set of cultural lines at once concerning what a wife and mother needs to know how to do. Terrifying.

by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Fri Oct 31st, 2008 at 04:50:13 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Does this mean you don't really believe in the existence of a "French identity" (or exception! :) ).
In any case, I for one use "Latin" in a broad meaning, as in, Latin origin, but also, people from the South, or even Catholic. The best place to see this is Germany, when you compare north and south, Köln and Hamburg. Latin Germans, and Anglosaxon ones, I like to say :)
Latin can also be used for, more exuberant, bored with discipline and rules, with an aesthetic sense even when no need for it, with a taste for details and hairsplitting (and getting lost in them) as opposed to using logic to simplify (like I do now, but these should be the main lines).

Or, most of France is like that, I guess.

I won't speak for L, but I do use for instance Protestant to relate to certain common traits to what some call Anglosaxony - a tendency to humbleness, individual responsibility, a cult of individual effort.

I'm not sure how to relate all this to women, though.
I guess none of the spouses can be trusted in "Latin" countries - men often happen to have the same reaction about their wifes. I know a case where a Dutch woman was reassuring her partner, and making a case that she's in control of her own behaviour, while the man was fretting, because he thought (well, knew) no woman is safe, no matter her will, feelings, determination, when a man has the means and wants to seduce her.

Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last! (Martin Luther King)

by ValentinD (walentijn arobase free spot franša) on Sun Nov 2nd, 2008 at 04:58:09 PM EST
[ Parent ]
... differently. A big trap for yanks in Oz is thinking that getting used to the accent and being able to understand some at first obscure lingo is "getting it" ... when the cultural gulf can be quite a bit wider than the linguistic gulf.

While the gulf was still there, I think it was a little less of a challenge for me since I had lived for a couple of years in the Caribbean and had already worked out that the real differences in culture lie lurking behind the most obvious ones.


I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.

by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Fri Oct 31st, 2008 at 03:53:34 PM EST
Culture makes the human world so interesting, but we can't really appreciate the wonder of cultural diversity until we learn to celebrate not just tolerate the differences.  There has to be real hidden wisdom locked up inside cultural difference, so it would truly be a wonderful thing if one could see the world through the eyes of all cultures.

I can swear there ain't no heaven but I pray there ain't no hell. _ Blood Sweat & Tears
by Gringo (stargazing camel at aoldotcom) on Sat Nov 1st, 2008 at 01:47:36 PM EST


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