Ca le fait, ça le fait pas (meme or not)

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Pierre Carion and Damelon Kimbrough are two expatriated guys, a French in the US and an American in France, respectively. They have published their list of five behaviors they have adopted from their country of residence and five that they have imported and maintained even so they look odd to the locals. For your reading pleasure, Pierre's and Damelon's lists are published in both English and French.

The figure 1 on their respective post title let me expect that more lists are coming, but these first primers already give a list of the usual suspects that give a few helpful keys to understand our cultural differences. Since they did not compare their lists before publishing them, I tried to get the similarities that would highlight the main differences (that sentence sounds really weird, but you should get the idea). For the sake of comprehension, when I write here or we, I mean France and the French.

La poignée de mains (shaking hands) is a very basic sign of politeness in France. This habit comes from a very old trick: showing your good intentions by approaching someone with your right hand in clear sight and open, carrying no weapon, the handshake sealing a reciprocal acknowledgment (think of that, you geeks, when you use the concept of handshake in your software). It is a natural part of the body language, in such a way that it is very easy (for a French) to find out if a handshake is not spontaneous. It also carries a symbolic, yet strong visual meaning for others (e.g. when Chirac and Blair met after the Iraq crisis wreaked havoc, everybody here noted that Chirac did not shake Blair's hand and that absence of handshaking carried way more sense for the French than has probably been noted on the other side of the atlantic, or the Channel for that matter). It then falls onto one's cultural knowledge to (be able to) take it as a simple behavioral difference or a meaningful sign of (im)politeness.

Faire la bise (kissing cheeks) is not to be confused with the French kiss. In family and close friends circles, you kiss hello and goodbye when and where the handshake would be taken as too formal. It carries no sexual connotation so that two guys kissing each other on the cheek does not mean anything much beyond that they are related or close friends. But it is easy to understand how that can be even more disturbing for a foreigner than the handshake.

Ca va ? et autres artificialités (how are ya doin' today? and other artificialities) are a bit trickier. Pierre notes, on his changes, that he now has to start a conversation by some generality (how are you? how was your holiday?) before going to the point. Damelon notes that the French start with "ça va ?" but do not expect anything else than a positive answer. This hits a more subtle and more disturbing (at least to me) difference in interpersonal relationships. While the French may seem to have a strange sense of contact in the light of their handshaking/kissing habits, they have codes regarding interpersonal frontiers that will lead them to find any personal or general question asked by a stranger as either an invasion of their private sphere or an artificial behavior. I am no sociologist but cannot count the numerous situations where my acquired "multicultural grep code" had to intercept a "this is none of your (f*cking) business" and replace it by a "very well, thank you" and not take those general questions as artificialities coming from shallow or obsequious persons. My point is not to determine who is right, but to articulate something that seems to be a good source of clichés, the French seeing the Americans as superficial and everybody seeing the French as impolite or worse, rude.

Bonjour et au revoir (hello and goodbye) go in pair in France. I cannot say if there is a clear difference, just a regional one, but I often noted in California that you always get greeted when entering a shop and almost never when leaving. Each time we did say goodbye when leaving a public place, people looked at us oddly. Is that specific to California or was it because French people are expected to be impolite at all time and we did not fit in the cliché, I am clueless. In private circles, the goodbye ceremony may even be longer than the initial greetings. If not, it might be a signal that the food was bad.

Which brings me to the food, my favorite. What Damelon says about meal rituals being an art-form here is true. How are you supposed to fit a traditional festive family meal, that is (in order) apéritif, amuses-gueule, entrée, premier plat, entremets, second plat, salade, fromage, dessert, digestif in less than four or five hours? Plus, that is only lunch. And yes, seriously, blue and green are definitely not acceptable colors for a cake you little tasteless barbarians. Here, I must admit I have some issues with our American friends peculiarities regarding food. It's nothing big, but the waiters flying around with giant pepper mills asking you if you want pepper (not on my strawberries, thank you!) or the cooking of beef (rare, I mean it, and if you don't know what that means just bring me the cow. My recipe on how to cook beef: think of a big fire for 15 seconds, and it's cooked enough) are a bit hard for me. My best anecdote remains a business contact from New Hampshire who, while in Paris for about a week and walking with me near Place d'Italie, stopped suddenly and, looking like George W. Bush catching a glimpse of Saddam in the crowd, cried without an ounce of malice "a real restaurant, at last!". It was a Kentucky Fried Chicken.

So you see, working out our cultural differences can be challenging, but it is definitely worth it. By the way, the fact that the French Chef Alain Ducasse has been named the best Chef in America is a positive sign that our friends are making progress. We hold you by your stomach, resistance is futile.