On conversation between cultures / La conversation entre les cultures

People conversing and eating in a brasserie across from Père Lachaise. From what I remember, many of these people may have actually been German tourists, but humor me and pretend they’re all French… or French and Americans trying to have conversations.

So I have a few other posts simmering away, but for now I’ll write about conversation. I ate dinner with a lovely couple last week, one member of which is French and the other American, and it reminded me of a few things about France and Franco-American relations — including conversation. Conversation works very, very differently among the French than it does among Americans. This may seem like a broad generalization, but it’s one of the ones I’m the surest about making.

I’ve read/heard that conversation is an art in France. While I think it’s true that conversation tends to be somewhat more important in France — it’s a major part of why, traditionally, meals are so long — I’ve never quite understood what this particular cliché about “an art” means. From what I’ve always been able to tell, conversation is, if not necessarily a pitched battle, at the very least a melée. To quote Olivier Magny of Stuff Parisians Like:

A conversation in Paris is both a scene and a battle. Parisians win conversations. […] For non-Parisians, this habit may seem unpleasant. For Parisians, it’s a mind workout […]. Conversing in Paris is an activity with two strict rules. Rule number one is that a Parisian conversation can only tackle the following topics: politics, economy, or geostrategy. […] Rule number two is a state of mind. To converse like a Parisian, systematic opposition is necessary. If the Parisian is opposed to his fellow converser’s point, it means he obviously knows more than he does. His opponent soon enough starts wondering if the Parisian’s knowledge is endless […] Winning conversations is a matter of dignity in Paris.

(See Magny, Olivier. Stuff Parisians Like. New York: Penguin/Berkeley, 2011. p. 115. I will shamelessly tell you to go buy this book if you’re interested in the French, because it’s brilliant.)

In the above quote, substitute “France” for “Paris” and “French” for “Parisian” and, in my opinion anyway, you have a wonderfully succinct and not-particularly-exaggerated exposition of what the French “art of conversation” actually is. This is not to say that the Frenchman in the aforementioned couple was trying to win the conversation; he wasn’t, though it was true that we were discussing politics or geostrategy (I forget which). I am used to conversing with French expats in the States and this is a matter, I find, in which French expats do not become Americanized, so I probably wouldn’t have noticed the cultural difference if his American wife hadn’t been clearly worried that he might be overwhelming me with his way of conversing.

I suppose that people who argue for French conversation being an “art” might say that it’s like a very fast-played tennis match in which you have to bring yourself to new heights, dazzle the audience (which is everyone else involved) with your mastery of technique, and in a sense that’s true — as long as you keep in mind that tennis can get as dirty and nitty-gritty as any other sport, and you pretend that tennis players can fake brilliance. (Oh dear, I think this metaphor might already be getting away from me.) Magny is being comical above, but he’s also really onto something when he snarks about the French (“Parisians”) wanting to seem like experts on everything in conversations. I can’t count the number of times I’ve sat there trying to control my temper while random French people went off at me about American politics (the default topic if you have anything to do with the States) or some point of American society/culture (the other default topic) as if they knew what they were talking about when it was evident that they knew little or nothing.

But notice I said “sat there … while [people] went off at me.” It’s very American of me not to engage in the conversation-melée, and I don’t think this is necessarily a good thing. For one thing, it’s incredibly difficult for French people and Americans to converse without mutual frustration, and that’s not ideal. What it boils down to, I think, is that conversation serves totally different roles in America and France (I realize I’m generalizing in a somewhat problematic way; I am referring to my America and my France, neither of which is everybody’s). Americans, in my experience, generally want consensus. Disagreement is to be avoided at almost all costs, hence the notion that conversation should stay away from topics like politics and religion. This creates what can be very comforting moments of apparent social harmony, but it shuts down debate or any group-based critical thinking process, and French people I know have pointed out (with what I think is some validity) that Americans have a great deal of trouble expressing dissenting opinions without simply talking past each other.

In other words, it may sound like I’m bashing French conversational methods. I do find conversation in France and with (other) French to be mentally tiring sometimes, but bashing French conversation isn’t really my intention. It was a little comical to me that the American at our dinner seemed to be trying to protect me a bit from the debate-like aspects of the conversation, but I was also heartened to see that she had learned to respond in kind, to air objections and, well, debate. To be honest, I would love to get more French vis a vis conversation. I tend to find what I see as American consensus-driven conversation comforting and restful — there’s usually little strain involved unless someone is saying actively f*ed-up things — but it also leads to an unhelpful timidity around disagreeing with people verbally (and probably, in my case, to a certain intellectual laziness).

The French are not timid — you might’ve heard. There’s one stereotype that I consider almost 100% true. Oh no, not timid at all. I also wouldn’t call them intellectually lazy as a group (obviously, people simply pontificating tend to be intellectually lazy no matter where they’re from, and as individuals I don’t find the French any better about this than anyone else). I may not like people talking to me about American politics and society as if they knew everything when they’ve never been to the States and the only American they know is the hybrid that is me, but hey, at least French conversation is spirited… and once in a long while, when I’m talking to French people and I can forget being half-American and the years of trying to fit into American culture long enough, so am I. Now to learn to do that more often, particularly in the American academic setting it would be most acceptable in — because isn’t it great to be able to disagree with people out loud, to their faces? Yes, yes it is.

(I feel like there should be a disclaimer in here about gender playing a role in being too timid to disagree as often as I’d like, but true as that is, it seems like another post. I also readily admit that plenty of Americans like to assert their correctness by mowing others down in conversation; one of my points, garbled as it may be, is that this is much more socially acceptable here than in the States.)

Gosh, it’s hard talking about culture without being incredibly reductive. I’d bolster up these posts with theory, but this blog is meant to be a break from my dissertation, not the dissertation itself. Oh hey! Anyone want to converse/argue/melée about Woolf or Proust or, for that matter, comics and/or video games? Might be good practice.