Hardball’s Chris Matthews on MSNBC and the French have something in common. Besides left-leaning politics, they share a dialogue style that is unacceptable in American conversation.
Listening to the shrill crescendo of Eleanor Clift and Monica Crowley launching “Excuse Me’s” across their political divide on the McLaughlin Group, I long for John McLaughlin’s programmed dominance of the conversation which allows him to quiet everyone so that one person can be heard. His intervention always reminds me, through my long association with the French and my eager participation in the French sport of “Conversation”, that Americans, unless they are fighting about politics in the media, expect to be heard ONE AT A TIME.
In Raymonde Carroll’s classic “Cultural Misunderstandings, The French-American Experience”*, I learned early on about the French conversational style that I had unconsciously adopted in my years among the French.
“Americans often expressed surprise in my presence at the fact that French people, ‘who claim to be very big on manners,’ are themselves so ‘rude’: ‘they interrupt you all the time in conversation,’ ‘they finish your sentences for you, ‘ they ask you questions and never listen to the answer,’ and so on.”
Spontaneity and “fueling” of a conversation are key to understanding and participating in any discussion with the French. Interruptions are not so much considered “rude” as evidence of emotional engagement, of being hooked on the speaker’s message, to the point that an immediate reaction is complimentary and proof of active involvement in the conversation.
The previously cited work by Ms. Carroll was originally published in French under the title “Evidences Invisibles”, a wonderful paradoxical title that perfectly describes so many subtle nuances of cultural differences. Her work was the standard among French teachers and students more than twenty years ago, long before Peter Mayles and Polly Platt brought their foreigners’ views of the French into popular literature. Aside from her analysis of the Frenchman’s relationship with the telephone, which has been turned completely upside down with the advent of the “portable” or cell phone, Ms. Carroll’s observations remain pertinent to this day.
While most Americans visit France for the scenery, and perhaps the cuisine, a trip to France for me, not surprisingly, is a linguistic adventure. Although I never miss the opportunity to visit an unknown church, castle or museum, the real highlight for me is dinner conversation long into the night, around a table where plates can be cleared away, but the stemware lingers as long as our verbal exchanges continue, warm and raucous. I teach Gallicismes in my French classes, because they are the Passwords for an American to dive in to the conversation and be accepted. French conversation is a sport, in its own way, with challenges and jousts, a kind of seduction to which one must alternately succumb or wield. The subjects of politics, religion, and sex are all fair game. But, unlike Americans, the French do not discuss money. Not how much they make or have, or how much they have spent. Money, as a topic of conversation in France, is as “dirty” and untouchable as sexuality is in the United States.
I have an old video of an evening spent with my French family, all of us squashed into a tiny apartment in the Hauts-de-Seine and gaily talking together long into the night about food, about culture, about family vacations, telling jokes. The host that evening had just acquired a new video camera and was trying out all its features while the conversation rolled on. When I’m homesick for France, I pop the tape into my old VCR. Some people look at photo albums… My vacation memories need a sound track.
The verbal sparring, the play on words, the chorus of voices rising and falling together on my tape, all remind me that the art of conversation is practiced entirely differently in France. How often do Americans just sit together and talk? Without the background noise of the television ?
Living among Americans, with my French soul, I have to make a conscious effort to keep from interrupting someone with whom I am engaged in conversation. I wait anxiously for the end of a sentence. And even then, I often find that I did not respect the essential interval before launching my rejoinder. Sometimes waiting for the other person to take a breath does not suffice. I have to wait for other clues that the person’s train of thought has pulled into a station and has opened its doors for the new passengers of my thoughts to climb aboard.
So, in the sincere hope that this explantion will allow me to be culturally understood for my linguistic rudeness, I ask my American friends, colleagues and family to forgive me for past conversational transgressions.
… dis seulement une parole et je serai guérie… Amen.
*Raymonde Carroll, Cultural Misunderstandings, The French-American Experience, Translated by Carol Volk, University of Chicago Press, 1988; page 23.