So I haven’t been great at keeping up my blog. Its probably because I try my best to just nod, say ‘oui’ and accept how life is here. It certainly makes life a lot easier, for me and my husband! But I should also acknowledge that when I do eventually get around to writing a blog, particularly when its about life in France, it does tend to focus on the negative aspects (which this one is about to do). But I should make it crystal clear that while I might critique many of the things I experience here in France, it is balanced out by the fact that I really have fallen in love with it. But I’m also not someone who likes gloating about how great my life is (anyway, is anyone’s life ever just one shade of ‘great’?). Besides, its always easier to have a good bitch about things. So please don’t mistake the ease with which I can critique France/the French as being akin to actually disliking France, ‘coz that is far from the truth.
My time in France is fast creeping up to the 1 year milestone! Where has the time gone? As alluded to above, I have fallen in love with my life here, particularly the laidback lifestyle that we’re accustomed to in Albi. Just the other weekend, we left our front door for a 3 hour hike which meandered beside the Tarn river, across farmland and through vineyards. Before we arrived home we were able to admire the sun setting across our little corner of paradise, the Tarn region. That is my perfect Sunday (although I do miss a good cafe brunch with a double shot mocha).
It all sounds so idyllic, right? But just when you thought you were jealous of my life in the south of France, in the flick of a switch, you encounter a French person who can bring your happiness rating of 10/10 down to -0/10. Just like that. And for no apparent reason except that they’re having a shitty day and without stopping to consider how appropriate or not it is, will let rip at you. Welcome to life in France.
Before I go on, I should put a disclaimer here. While I don’t apologise for my thoughts, it might help to know that New Zealand is regularly ranked as the friendliest country on earth. We are a happy go lucky, she’ll be right, no complaints type, us Kiwis. I wouldn’t say New Zealand and our people are the opposite of the French since we are both urbanised, Western countries, but there are a few cultural indicators that do place New Zealand and France at opposing ends i.e. Hofstede’s power index and uncertainty avoidance, both of which hugely influence our day to day interactions with one another.
So back to the French. I have experienced the irrationality of an angry French person a couple of times. Though in fairness, I’ve seen and heard of this happening to others more often that I’ve experienced myself. Nevertheless, its quite bizarre coz people act as though they seriously have a right to let blast at anyone – the counter clerk, a passer by, family or friends, instead of managing their feelings/frustration in a diplomatic or pragmatic way. Hell, I’m not perfect and admit to having let rip at a few people a couple of times in my lifetime but it is definitly not habitual like it seems to be here. And when it has happened, I’ve felt terrible about it afterwards. In France it appears that if you have a difference of opinion or are feeling a bit off, its totally acceptable to force yourself and your issue on people, sometimes at the top of your lungs. The thing is, when once this has happened, people turn a blind eye to it. Unlike in New Zealand where, if you debate with someone incessantly or yell at someone for no good reason, it can take quite a lot of time and effort to repair the damange done.
Its a weird phenomenon to experience, one that I am trying so hard to accept. But just yesterday, while the hubby and I were shopping and happened to be standing in front of a shoe shelf, instead of simply saying “excuse me” which would have been the most appropriate thing to say in this instance, the woman looked pissed off as hell and threw her hands in the air exacerbated without so much as saying ‘get the hell out of my way’. Its just so hard to just bite your tongue in those instances when a bit of courtesy would suffice. This is the difficulty I have here. I’m am far from being an aggressive person but I feel like I’ve been pushed to boiling point more times than I’ve ever been pushed, at any other stage of my life before living in France.
So, in order for me to try and accept this phenomenon, I at least need to try to understand how or why it exists. Try, being the operative word here. I need to rationalise the behaviour so that instead of being something I react to, I can appreciate it as a French particularity that I can let slide. So why do the French act like this? My theory – completely unfounded and based on my own experiences and readings about France and intercultural commununication – is to do with emotions. More specifically, how they don’t seem to know how to manage their emotions.
Of course, all of these are MASSIVE generalisations. Yes, there are sensitive, emotional French people. In fact I have this joke with the hubby that emotional/sensitive French people are acceptable only as artists, since their emotional expression doesn’t impose itself on others unless they chose to engage with it. I really love sensitive, emotional French people. They’re my kinda people. I appreciate the way they see the world and particularly how honest they are with themselves and life. I also find them a hell of a lot more empathic than the general population and this is important to me because I have a ridiculous level of empathy (yes, I cry watching World Vision adverts). But I’ve also noticed that French society tends to treat sensitive, emotional people like there is something wrong with them. As if they are being indulgent and weak by daring to give in to their emotions. That is, unless they’re artists.
The flipside of the coin is the ‘no feelings zone’, where fact and reason are supposed to guide you through the day and empathy has no place.
Well here’s one theory I have. I’ve read a book, ‘French Children Don’t Throw Food’, written by an American woman who moved to France and has raised her family here. I found the book so fascinating because it highlighted the author’s experience of trying to raise children with two very different sets of assumptions and expectations for how you should do this – American (or Anglo) vs French. Anyhow, there is way too much for me to recap here but there was one particular thing that I found interesting, which relates to emotions and empathy.
According to the author, French children and babies are taught from a very young age to be autonomous. That is, to be independent from their parents as early as possible. It doesn’t sound like a very big deal, probably not too different to back home (as if I would know, with all my child raising experience and all?!). But I posit that the way this is implemented may be quite different to back home. For instance, I understand that all babies find their sleeping rythym at different times but in general, this tends to take place around 3-4 months (at the latest; or if at all possible, straight out of the womb) in France and beyond 6-8 months in Anglo countries i.e. the USA/New Zealand. Its not that French and Anglo children have a completely different chemical make up, but rather, that the parents start the process earlier.
According to both the book and anecdotal evidence, its about autonomy for each of the parents as much as for the child. With reference to toddlers, I remember reading about and even hearing one father proclaim proudly, “yes, when we closed our bedroom door, our children knew they weren’t allowed to come to us”. From what I gather, this isn’t so much about having ‘parent time’, as is was about teaching that Mum and Dad are not at their beck and call and teaching them to be self sufficient. I am not passing judgement on parenting styles here, especially since people all over the world do everything differently. No right, no wrong. Just is the way it is. But with my inquiring mind, I can’t help but wonder if there’s a bigger picture. A cause and effect type thing. If, like both the book and the anecdotal evidence, French parents – in general – are teaching their children from the earliest age possible that they are not always there when they need them, do French children repress their emotions coz there’s just no point in doing otherwise?
A French friend recently validated this point by suggesting that this is what tends to happen. But I do understand why, and it sounds like a good cause. The point is that children will learn to be well behaved and polite once they realise their parents will not react to them. Of course I get that kids can be manipulative and probably deserve to be ignored if they’re being brats. But I do wonder if there’s a connection to attachment theory, which suggests that our earliest relationships, that is, with our primary caregivers will influence our behaviour as adults. Proponents of this theory suggest that a child whose emotions are not responded to appropriately, will not grow into very secure or empathic adults. More specifically, because their emotions are ignored they don’t learn to manage their feelings in the most appropriate way. Which might sound great when, as per the book title, children realise there’s no point throwing food.
But if there’s any merit in the theory, these children grow into adults who, through lack of better judgement, don’t know how to manage their feelings appropriately. So I guess that leaves a whole lot of people on a spectrum from being either too emotional or too hard nosed, and who blow up at eachother whenever they like. The good news is that blowing up at eachother seems socially acceptable here, so as soon as you’ve snapped at someone, its yesterdays news. There’s no need to sit down and discuss the situation and come to any conclusions. Everyone gets over it and carries on like nothing e v e r h a p p e n e d. Which is kinda my problem. If someone loses their cool, they should be held accountable. And those around them, their friends or their loved ones, should make an effort to understand whats going on. And I say this as someone whose been on the receiving end of a hissy fit, as well as someone whose thrown the hissy fit.
Anyway, I get that these are all generalisations. I’m not a parent. I’m not French. I’m not a pscyhologist. But this is my reality, which I acknowledge may be very different to other people’s experiences of life in France. But I have experienced and witnessed French people acting quite aggressively to one another, rather than managing their emotions appropriately. This is hard for me ‘coz back in New Zealand, we just dont walk around like its our god given right to fly off the handle when we’re having a bad day. And if we did do that, we’re usually held accountable by others who might care to ask what the hell is going on, rather than letting it slide. But I know I need to try hard to accept that this is just how things are here in France. So even if my logic is far from the truth, which I absoloutly, hands down, accept that it may well be, at least it satisfies my need to find some kind of explanation. It gives me something to hold onto and hope it will help me ‘keep calm and carry on’ the next time I find myself in the company of an angry French person!