Sunday, April 3, 2011

The Polite Frenchmen (& women too)

I'm sure all Americans have heard the saying that the French are considered to be rude people. I have lived in Paris, France for almost 2 years and can testify that they are not any more rude than other big city people. I can also say that the times we have been outside of Paris and in the smaller towns have shown the countryside Frenchmen to be very kind. In many ways the French are a much more polite society than what I grew up in.

As a child we were always to place Mr., Mrs., or Miss in front of a person's name unless they were our age. I still find that I must call people significantly older than me by those titles. However, in France, the use of the equivilant (Monsieur, Madame, and Madmoiselle) are used often. For instance, when I speak to a sales lady to ask a question I always say, "Excusez-moi, Madame...." (excuse me ma'am) and then enter into my question. And every time we greet a neighbor we always use the appropriate title with the proper greeting. We could simply begin speaking, but there is a certain form of respect expected among the French people. It doesn't matter how old you are you still speak with titles and formal addressing.

In France, they also have two different words for you. One form is singular and informal; the other form is plural and formal. Until you know a person well you use the formal version, after the friendship is more solid there will be a point at which you ask about using the informal you. From this point on the informal you is used. With those who are 20 or more years older than us, the formal you is always used; they in turn can use the informal you with those that are much younger. Confusing yet??? Children are always addressed in the informal you no matter if you know them or not. It is really quite an interesting form of respect in the culture.

So why do Americans view the French as rude or harsh? Simply because there is a cultural misunderstanding. In France, privacy is valued (especially in the big cities) and they are introverted in their personalities as a whole; and although we like our privacy in America, as a whole, we are a more extroverted people. In France, you will often not know a person's name until after several good conversations. In fact, in my childrens' school I am not known by my name but as "la maman de Claire et Matthew". On the other hand, in America I can know a person's name (and maybe even a personal history) simply by having a conversation in a check-out line.

This next point varies from school to school. However, I do know that in some junior highs and high schools in France, the students must rise and greet the teacher together when he/she walks into the room. Wow!

It must also be understood that they have a much different history than ours. After all, how many times has the US been invaded or had govermental overthrows? Think about what America might be like if we had been used to such violent changes. Think about how our "American Personality" might be different than it is now. And just for the record, the French view of the typical American is that they are shallow. I have been told that by several French friends. I think it mostly comes from their love of watching American movies where they see the actors lives and the lives portrayed in the movies. It may or may not be true, but it's never bad to check ourselves.

I say all this because it was a shock to my American viewpoint when I arrived over here and experienced the "French Personality". But here are some of the main things I have learned or observed:
  • When I meet those who are culturally different than us (even other Americans) I can't forget to view them within their history and to recognize those things that are wonderfully specific to them. I have learned to love the stereotypical French, and feel fairly comfortable in their culture. Other cultures are now very interesting to me and I love studying them or watching documentaries on them.
  • I have also been reminded of the kindness and biblical mandates involved in the politeness to and respect of our elders and peers.
  • The French are wonderfully loyal people. Yes there are steps to get to know someone and ways to go about a friendship, but once you are friends you are good friends and you help each other in times of need. I truly adore their loyalty!
  • This last one is a little check on our own culture. Americans are loud, no offence, but it's true. I can be on a bus with Arab, French, American, Japanese, Italian, and Spanish nationalities; and do you know who I hear? The Spanish and the Americans with the Americans usually out doing them all. :) Not necessarily a bad thing, but very interesting. (Is it strange that I only speak French around them? I'm just not sure if I can handle a boisterous American converstaion outside of my American context.)
Don't worry, I still love America and it's culture, but now I can add France to my list of cultures I have grown to love living in. I wonder which culture could be next!!!

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