Is English a Friendly Language?

A bit of a cultural insight today, but one I think will interest you. I have lived in France for six years and affirming insights continue to delight me, and if you visit France for the first time, they can be a revelation and prevent a lot of frustration.

Recently, I discussed with two French students the use of “friendly” language, words and phrases that most of us use unconsciously, but for a foreign language learner, need to be emphasized – how to write or speak so that you sound friendly. It is particular to the English language (and others perhaps?) with varying degrees of importance to the British, American and other English language speaking cultures.

The French language and the way it is spoken in conversation is more direct in some respects than English (we are not talking about the length of time to make a point). Polite, yes. Friendly, no. They are not the same thing.

La Boulangerie, by Rita Crane

Every time you enter a boulangerie (bakery), supermarket, pharmacy, catch a bus, enter a hotel or any public place you will likely be greeted with ‘Bonjour Madame/Monsieur’ and you will also receive a farewell salutation ‘Au revoir (sounds more like ‘arve-wa’ here in the South), and ‘Bonne journée’. This is politeness and by learning these few simple French phrases, a more positive experience is likely. A smile however, is a rare and precious gift, and eye contact is not guaranteed.

For more insight on the smile, there are some interesting comments by French citizens in Elaine Sciolino’s ‘La Seduction – How the French play the Game of Life’, which infer a smile is something that must be earned, it is not a gesture offered freely to strangers, it signals the beginning of a relationship. It is not being unfriendly, it is being true. To smile at a stranger can be considered false and anyone indulging in that behaviour may even be regarded as suspicious, conduct Harold and Barbara Rhode’s were baffled by in William Maxwell’s novel The Château.

So during our lesson, we read an email text with some words underlined and then we read it a second time leaving out the underlined text. Here is a short section of the text.

Hi Patti! Thanks for your email. Your new job sounds really great – I know that you’ve wanted to work as a graphic designer for ages and ages, and now it’s finally happened! Congratulations! I’m sure you’ll do really well in the job. Well, what about my news? I arrived in Prague about a month ago. It was quite difficult at first. Of course I couldn’t speak the language, and finding a place to live wasn’t easy. Then my friend Belen and I found a lovely little flat in the old part of town. It’s quite small, but it’s full of character and we love it. I’m working as a waitress in a cocktail bar. It’s okay – I don’t suppose I’ll do it for long, but it’s a way to earn some money.

One student read the entire text and the other the shorter version. At the end, I asked what the difference was.

“The second one is more like we talk” one student responded confidently.

“Well, no.” I replied.

It is true, direct conversation sounds rude unfriendly in English and can be the cause of unintentional cultural misunderstandings when foreign language students attempt to speak in English. Equally, we should not expect our smiles and warm, friendly conversational attempts to be greeted in appreciation. We are strangers until we have been introduced, or at least until we have become regulars.

So what are those friendly words/phrases that we use? Here are some of them:

It seems that        Unfortunately         So    Luckily          In Fact     Of Course     Well      Basically     To be honest       Frankly         Anyway        Apparently     Actually       Obviously       Would you mind

Can you think of any others?

La Seduction – how the French play the game of life

Séduire * plaire à quelqu’un et obtenir amour ou faveurs en usant de son charme * conquérir l’admiration, l’estime, la confiance * captiver, charmer *attirer de façon irrésistible en parlant d’une chose

Suggested by a local book club and interested in an outsider’s perception of life in France, I find myself in the company of Elaine Sciolino, Paris bureau chief of the New York Times between the pages of her alluring book.

Inspired by a lecture she gave at the NY public library in 2008 entitled ‘Séduction à la française’ the author explained how seduction was key to understanding France and the French, positing that one of the reasons for President Sarkozy’s low ratings in the popularity polls post-election was because he had not mastered these rules. He may not play by the rules, but he did find his counter balance when he married Carla Bruni, who Scioloni describes as:

a modern-day woman with the manners of an eighteenth-century courtesan, skilled in the art of movement and the rituals of conversation.

Intriguing indeed and what fun the author must have had flirting flitting around the micro empires of Parisian style, beauty, cuisine, politics and culture, meeting presidents, diplomats, artists, writers, chefs, businessmen, merchants, farmers, philosophers, journalists, fashion designers, perfumers and museum curators.

The book describes a world and a manner of being I know little about, despite living within its midst these past six or so years; but Paris, like many large cities is not necessarily typical of the rest and after listening to others discuss this book, opinion is indeed varied, some suggesting ‘la seduction’ old fashioned, a prerogative of certain social classes, political circles or even pure fantasy. I tend to think there are sufficient anecdotes to say oui to all of those suggestions.

What is certain is that cultural perceptions are different even when values may be similar. While a certain look ‘le regard’ from a man is welcomed as a complement in France, it might receive a verbal legal threat in America. In France, there is greater tolerance and less testing the waters of behaviour that in the US might be construed as sexual harassment.

Statue of Benjamin Franklin, Paris, 16ème - Photo Lycée Condorcet

An interesting example of how long things have been so, was observed ( and well portrayed in the excellent HBO series ‘John Adams’) in the conduct and perceptions of Benjamin Franklin (first Ambassador to France) and John Adams (the second American president), Franklin understood it impolite to discuss business at dinner, immersing himself in the peculiarities of French culture while pursuing his goal; Adams however, saw Franklin’s indulgences and game playing as a complete waste of time, his disapproving manner causing the French to frown and exclude him completely. When Franklin died, France mourned him like a hero; people thought so highly of him, some believed he had been a president.

One of the paradoxes is the attitude towards privacy. Behaviours complicit in la seduction are accepted, but it is frowned upon to indulge in more than fanciful rumour; the media keep their distance from any story that verges on incriminating a person for something considered to be private or slanderous. This was highlighted recently when Sarkozy whispered an insult in the ear of President Obama about another Head of State and although the comment was overhead and reported widely by English and American media, it was not reported until a week later by the French press and even then it was kept very low profile. Not one French person I asked knew about the story. The sanctity of the right to privacy is paramount.

The chapters on gastronomy and concocting perfumes I particularly enjoyed, time spent with a connoisseur passionate about their work is pure joy and since mixing the essences of plants and flowers is one of my own passions, I was happily lost in these chapters imagining the sweet mix of aromas and the taste of Guy Savoy’s mother’s home cooking. See him work his magic here and experience his culinary art of seduction.

I recall reading ‘Sixty Million Frenchmen can’t be wrong’ by Jean-Benoit Nadeau and Julie Barlow, a Canadian attempt to understanding France and the French and their effort to explain the root of the differences. One of the analogies they made that has stayed with me was to suggest that visitors should expect a culture and a people as dissimilar to themselves as they might assume when visiting Japan or China. All are ancient civilisations and have many traits, laws, beliefs, habits, attitudes and ways of doing things that go back generations, centuries.

Our institutions originate in the decadence of ancient Rome. We are an old people. The mistresses of monarchs, from Louis XIV to Napolean III … are part of our history. – Patrick Devedjian, Paris

Rather than debate whether this is an accurate portrayal or not, I see it as another contribution to an attempted unveiling of what lies within an ancient culture and how that influences what we encounter in our modern day interactions and visitations in this intriguing country and among her patriotic people. It remains a slow opening mystery to me, so I just continue to listen, observe, interact, read and learn.

An Ode to Love or a Dear John?

Now that I have taken the bold step to create a blog, I guess it should come as no surprise that I am subsequently contacted out of the blue by a new author who has asked me to review her book, ‘Seven Days to Tell You’ due for publication on June 1st 2011.  So here it is and thanks again Ruby.

‘Seven Days to Tell You’ could be renamed ‘Seven Days to Figure It Out’ except that it is sure to take less than seven days to read because once you start, this book has a way of hooking you in and stirring your curiosity in an unputdownable kind of way.  It shifts and changes in time and point of view, keeping you wondering and guessing through its many twists and turns.

 Ruby Soames first novel succeeded the vote of bookclub readers whose opinion influences which novels are chosen for publication by Hookline Books and I can see why this riveting, page turning novel was enjoyed by so many and undoubtedly hotly discussed.

Kate is a paediatric doctor not given to wild, spontaneous acts, so surprises some and generates envy in others when she marries the wild, charming and mysterious Marc, a Frenchman she meets during a brief encounter at the end of an otherwise disappointing holiday.  She appears to have proven the doubters wrong, until one day three years into their marriage, Marc disappears without trace.

After three fruitless years searching for him, Kate is beginning to rebuild her life when she wakes one morning to find the familiar form of her errant husband in bed beside her.  He asks for seven days to prove his love, seven days to spend together before she makes her inevitable decision.

Soames doesn’t give anything away and is adept in her use of the unusual second person viewpoint in much of the narrative, which makes reading her story a little like reading a private letter or prying into someone’s journal; it’s not written to you the reader, it addresses Marc and like eavesdropping on a conversation, you find yourself trying to fill in the gaps to figure out what’s not being said.  It is only through the more reliable interactions with other characters that the truth begins to emerge. 

Often unpredictable, you will want to discuss this book and the relationship it describes with your friends, the intrigue it arouses continues long after the last page is turned.