So this week marks my eighth month of life in France. Beyond all my expectations, it hasn’t proven to be as difficult as I’d honestly thought it would be. I’ve managed to settle in as well as could be expected and to date, I haven’t actually missed my homeland too much. But I have to be honest about feeling culturally fatigued at the moment. While I don’t miss New Zealand per se (though I do wish popping over for a weekend was easier said than done), I am beginning to wish that the marked cultural differences would melt away and that French people would behave like Kiwis!
I think we often take for granted the daily habits, expectations and behaviours that just come naturally in our day to day lives, like taking your shoes off at the door (of a Maori household). But there’s a difference between temporarily abandoning those norms when you go on holiday and actually having to re-consider what’s important enough to hold onto, what’s worth abandoning and what’s worth adopting in order to successfully integrate into society. So that’s what I’m trying to process at the moment.
One of the biggest issues I’m having at the moment, something I’ve touched on in earlier blogs, is the differences in communication styles. I know all the theory about effective communication – in an Anglo-New Zealand context. I know all the theory about problems between intercultural communications. But knowing the theory and trying to deal with the reality are two completely different things. No amount of knowing that the French enjoy a good “jeu de mots”, game of words, (otherwise known as arguing for the sake of it), makes me feel better when my completely relevant point is being totally ignored instead of considered thoughtfully, or whats more, having someone concede that I might have a point by saying, “thats true”, “fair enough”, or “I never thought of that before” (which is a nice way of ending a differece of opinion without being an arrogant asshole about it). And no amount of knowing that New Zealanders are considered to be low-context and direct (meaning that we’re totally casual and give respect where its due and not by established rules), makes me feel better when I’m meeting with an acquaintance for the umpteenth time, which in NZ would mean we’ve crossed the threshold from acquaintance to established ‘friends’, and I can’t be a complete idiot because they’re still holding up pretenses and aren’t comfortable enough to just chill out and be a dork.
There were a couple of particular incidents which got me reeling with anger recently. The first instance was a bus driver who actually growled me off for not putting my hand up at the bus stop. When I say growling me off, picture a father growling off his 7 year old child for doing something quite naughty. It was the first stop on his bus route, it wasn’t obscured from his view and I was standing right beside the signpost, looking at the driver as he approached. So I felt shocked at his over the top reaction, with his hands flying and raised, patronising voice when I boarded the bus. Apparently, even if they see you, they’re within their right to keep going if you don’t put your hand out – because regardless of whether or not they actually see you, you have to put up your hand. Those are the rules.
A friend experienced the exact same thing, with the exception that she had both hands full with groceries and was unable to put either of her hands up when the bus approached. On principle, both her bus driver and mine drove for an extra 10+ metres even though they saw us. In each case, the drivers eventually stopped to let us on but proceeded to lambast us for not putting our hands up. In my friend’s case, she explained that it wasn’t possible to raise her arms due to the weight of the grocery bags in each of her hands. The driver explained that this was irrelevant. The rules state that commuters must put their hands up at the bus stop and failure to do so apparently means that drivers can leave you hanging. Never mind being compassionate, kind or reasonable. It’s the principle that counts above all else. Principles. Pfft.
In my case, I felt totally embarrassed and I was so shocked that I couldn’t respond, except to say “sorry, next time”. And yes, I was sorry that I didn’t follow the rules and apparently upset the guy so much he had to yell at me. Anyone who knows me well enough would know that I’d never purposefully try to upset someone to the point they need to yell at me to feel better about themselves. But HELL NAH you don’t have the right to talk to me like that (asshole). You could make a short film about the things that went through my head on that 20 minute bus ride. I thought about yelling “connard” (asshole) when getting off the bus. Then I thought, “I’m not sure I’m pronouncing it properly, so I’ll just yell ‘asshole’ in English”. Then I thought, “Nah in the heart of rugby country, I’ll yell ‘I hope the All Blacks beat France!’ ”. Then realised he might not give a crap about rugby. So I thought, “screw the language barrier, I’m just gonna tell him exactly what I think of him in English. At least I’ll feel better”. In the end, I realised that he needed to understand my point and that whatever I said, it should be in French. At the end of his route, I approached him and in my best (but shitty) French, I said, “I need to apologise to you because I did screw up but at the same time, you need to explain things much more calmly and with more respect, especially with foreigners. I wish to learn the rules of society but when you explain things with such anger, I don’t understand anything”. He looked genuinely shocked that I had the audacity to backchat (especially as it’d been a good 20 minutes) but it felt so damn good to see that look on his face AND put him in his place. He actually apologised and came up with some lame excuse. So all ended well, although its only coz I had the balls to effectively force him into apologising.
The thing is, this is only one of many situations where I’ve been made to feel completely stupid, embarrassed or ignorant. And I can say with complete sincerity, I have never been made to feel like this as often as I have in France. I may have been made to feel like this a couple of times in New Zealand but only if I’ve truly deserved it, not because someone can’t deal with a difference of opinion, a faux pas or has a trivial point to prove. Of course not every single French person has made me feel like this and to be fair, I have seen French people do it to eachother without any problems arising from it. I mean, there is this certain manner of speaking where people often talk above/over each other rather than ‘to’ one other, and it appears to be perfectly acceptable. There’s a certain way in which people discredit another’s ideas without seriously considering the true merit of it or commenting on the validity of it, and no-one seems to have a problem with that. And one should forget about receiving compassion, which is akin to squeezing blood from a stone. There’s this certain thing that compels people to put others in their place for no apparent reason other than to prove ‘their’ point. It’s no wonder the French are known as arrogant. And for the record, NO I do not believe this is accurate or fair but I can completely understand why it appears to be the case. Particularly when you come from a country like NZ, which is regularly listed as one of the friendliest countries on the planet!
I understand that in a country of 60 million people, society has to organise itself somehow and perhaps this apparently ruthless form of communication is just a consequence of it. I understand this. I accept this. But it is hard to feel ok with it. It’s hard to feel ok that people just dismiss each other so easily and without regard or compassion. The thing that worries me even more than this, is that I know I need to harden the f*** up. But the question is, what will that do to my character? I’m supposed to be a nice person, but I’ve already found myself becoming terribly cynical. I’ve already caught myself telling off a bus driver and last week I yelled at a street hawker and walked away without feeling any remorse (its ok, my terrible French had him laughing at me so I clearly didn’t piss him off as much as I’d wanted to). But it was the first time in my life that I’ve EVER done anything like that. And I just walked away without any second thoughts or doubts as to whether or not that was ok. The worst part is that it felt good. But in retrospect, I truly do not want to become that person. I don’t want to be that person who doesn’t give a crap about yelling at people because thats just what you do. This is the predicament I’ve found myself in re- what to hold onto and what to give up when integrating into a new society. If I dont harden up, I’ll just keep getting upset by the mean ol’ French people. But if I harden up too much, I might become a dismissive, cynical asshole and I don’t want that either. So I need to find my balance.
So although I’m not yet homesick, I do appear to be experiencing cultural fatigue/sickness. I just wish the French would be more like Kiwi’s. That way, I wouldn’t have to adapt and become a cynical meanie. So how bout we all just show little bit more respect and compassion for our fellow humans and their silly faux pas’. Be a little bit more Shire and less Mordor. Fair enough?