So right now I should be working on one of the millions of scholarship applications I need to submit if I want to do my masters. *sigh*. But I need to vent. About the French.
Last night I was talking to an English friend who vehemently agreed that it is difficult to have a conversation with an opinionated French person. And this represents a large majority of the population. The reason it is so difficult is because the French choose a side to bat for, put their stake in the ground, and see it as a battle to the death to prove their argument/opinion is far superior to yours and thus the conversation come to an end. There is rarely a compromise, which I am a personal fan of. Even if its something completely trivial or subjective in which case there’s never going to be a winner!
Those of you familiar with my Facebook posts might think I’m used to this since I seem quite happy to post my opinion in my status update and bat for it should someone disagree. But for me, Facebook is not representative of real life. Facebook is a platform for people to promote themselves or their ideas however they like. I use it to share political ideas (generally ideas that the mainstream do not share) sometimes a debate may ensue. But thats just how I choose to use Facebook. In reality, I am much less of a ‘stake in the ground’ kind of person. Having grown up surrounded by a multitude of cultures, beliefs and world views, I know that there is always room to consider other point of views. In fact I think its important to consider other people’s point of view, especially if it comes from somebody who is more informed or experienced than I am and their opinion may guide me, or at least enlighten me.
Furthermore I think that New Zealanders are more careful and strategic about sharing the opinion. Everybody might have an opinion on someone or something but before sharing their opinion, they might consider why they are sharing the opinion i.e. are they sharing it because they genuinly want to help the person? or because they want to plant a seed of doubt? (i’ve met this kind of person plenty of times!). They might even measure how valuable it is to share their opinion. For example, if its going to create conflict for no good reason then they might not bother but if something positive might come from it, then they might bite the bullet and go ahead. And they might even consider how to share their opinion, particularly if its about a sensitive topic. We all know some hugely opinionated people who will share their opinion regardless of all these things, but in general I think us Kiwi’s are quite careful about the reason for sharing our opinions with others.
Not the French. Everybody seems to have an expert opinion, even on matters which they have no business, experience or knowledge and further to this, they feel – no, feel isn’t quite right – they believe it is their right to share this ill informed, perhaps unwanted opinion whether or not you are interested, whether or not you want it and whether or not it is going to have an impact to your life. They certainly don’t consider their tact when they do this and whats more difficult, is that it seems natural for them to share opinions at the polar opposite end of the spectrum from yours. For instance, you might make the statement ‘I like the summer because the sun comes out”. Instead of simply accepting that this is who you are, and recognising that a debate about the sun/season isn’t really going to change anything in the scheme of life or world affairs, they will put their stake in the ground and counter your argument with facts and figures that won’t actually change the fact that you simply enjoy feeling the warmth of the sun on your skin. It seems by nature, a French person just HAS to disagree with you. Even if they actually agree with you. It seems, they just do not know how to have conversations of agreement. Apparently its not fun when you agree?!
Of course when we’re talking about trivial issues it doesn’t seem to be much of a problem. But when people proceed to give their unsolicited opinion about very personal decisions, that is when I have a problem. As i have said above, in New Zealand, we are quite conscientious about the reason for sharing an opinion. I can at least speak for myself when I say that I rarely give unsolicited opinions about people’s personal lives because I am well aware that I don’t know everything that goes on in people’s lives. I’m not an idiot, I know that none of us are perfect, no matter how hard we might try to fool people into believing that! So if I do share my opinion about someone’s private life, its usually because I know whats going on, because I care about the person but MOST importantly, they’ve indicated that they are open to hearing my thoughts, suggestions or opinions. I wouldn’t do it out of sheer arrogance with the idea that my opinion just has to be shared, unless there’s a bloody good reason. And yes, I admit to doing this more than a few times but there’s usually been good cause for it (usually, but then again, I’m only human!).
The French on the other hand, are happy to share their opinion about the most trivial things as well as quite personal things too. Perhaps its not fair to say the French, as if all French people are like this. Having said that, it’s also a bit strange that I’ve manged to stumble across a large sub-section of opinionated French people from several corners of the country who feel it is their right and duty to tell you what they think about your behaviour, thoughts or actions. The worst instance of this was when person A called person B ‘inhumane’ for doing something that all except a very few and privileged parents have to face at some point in their life – returning to work and leaving their child between daycare and a nanny. By golly I was shocked! If that conversation had happened in NZ, I could just imagine the catfight that would follow! For me there is no point in airing a difference of opinion when it might hurt somebody, when the decision was difficult to make and especially when it is shaped by the personal and very private circumstances of others. But on discussing this with other French people, they simply accepted that people have a right to share their opinion and concede that maybe you can learn something from it. Thats so diplomatic but I still do not see the point in doing it all the time and especially with respect to private issues.
To me, its a very aggressive way of conversing and it doesn’t really make any sense when you run the risk of hurting people’s feelings. Instead of taking individual responsibility for their own opinions on an issue, instead of recognising that differences of opinion simply exist and just staying quiet or just agreeing to disagree, the French have to share their opinion so that everybody else has to deal with it. It’s like, “I dont agree and it unnerves me so much that I just have to tell you, even if it upsets or angers you”. This way the responsibility to rationalise things is made with their opinion as the point of reference, as if it seriously matters. It must work because everybody does it to eachother but I have to pay closer attention coz I just don’t see how it solves anything.
Then again, I guess telling you to your face is better than stabbing you in the back. I’m not sure which is worse?
There have been plenty of other examples where French people think it is their right to share their opinions and I am trying to get used to it, to let it slide. But its hard. Back in NZ people normally pick sides only when the issue really matters to them. But generally our conversations centre around shared experiences, ideas or opinions. its about finding common ground and building relationships. From my own reading and experiences French conversation is like a game of words, in fact I think there’s a term for this. They appear to pick sides for the hell of it and proceed to see who will have the better argument. I dunno what it is in their psyche, whether they’re sadists or what, but they seem to get joy (well, not that i see joy…more often people look flustered and angry) out of having a debate, even if its the most trivial thing you will ever argue about in your life.
This brings me to my last point. Back home, people know me as hugely talkative and bubbly but I fear that people have the wrong impression about who I am in France because I appear quiet. Conversations so often take place in the form of opposing opinions and I’m just not interested in arguing with people. Especially with people I’ve only just met and especially with the in-laws. I just don’t see any point if the topic has no importance to me or if I simply don’t have any knowledge, experience or an opinion of it. And I just don’t see the point if my oponent is adamant that they are right and I am wrong. So more often than not, I keep my thoughts to myself because its just not worth fighting over (although, this is also impacted by my lack of French). But I do want to join in sometimes. I enjoy talking and I do have a lot of insight and knowledge to share but I don’t want to enter a discussion with the fear of it turning into a battlegound.
I guess I just have to get used to it. Either that, or people need to get used to me biting their heads off when they cross the line.
In the end, right, wrong or otherwise, this is all just my opinion :-p
NB: Having an interest in intercultural studies, I am well aware of the need to be ware of blanket statements and stereotypes about different cultures. Nevertheless, cultures do have certain characteristics and commonalitites that exist across the board. There is also plenty of linguistic research which talks about the different forms of conversation which exist across and between cultures. I have read that French conversation is generally more combative than Anglophone conversation which is more agreeable (Anglophone = English, American, NZ, Australian). This does not mean I believe every French person is opinionated. My husband, for example, is very careful about how he constructs his opinions, often witholding them (with the exception of Facebook!) with the knowledge that Anglo’s find it aggressive.