An American in Paris Offers Advice to Expats

Polly Platt teaches US nationals to cross the culture gap

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

THERE may be no country on earth that has inspired ''how-to-get-by'' literature as rich and uneven as that regarding France.

From tourist phrase books to full-blown treatises of cultural analysis, there is something about French culture that commands attention and seems to require explanation. Many focus on rural France, but Polly Platt's ''French or Foe?'' (Cultural Crossings, Ltd.) tackles the problem of cultural misunderstanding at its most challenging point -- France's brilliant and often exasperating capital.

''I have children and grandchildren to spend time with. I wouldn't have written this book if I hadn't been convinced that it was absolutely necessary,'' she said in an interview.

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For the last eight years, Ms. Platt has directed cross-cultural seminars for more than 1,000 English-speaking business executives and their spouses, many of whom initially agreed with a 1991 headline in the London Times, ''City of Love Drives Foreigners to Despair.''

''This is a city where you need to draw in and make human contact,'' Platt says. ''One reason foreigners feel rudely treated is that they don't understand how it works.''

Take smiling. Just because your Parisian cab driver or the clerk in the post office doesn't return your smile doesn't mean they're snubbing foreigners. The American ''cult of friendliness'' that understands smiling back as a ''fundamental right'' does not exist here, Pratt says. Parisians don't grin.

Instead, she advises, try the standard French greeting: ''Bonjour, monsieur (madame).'' Never drop the sir or madam. It expresses respect, a recognition of the humanity in even the smallest bureaucratic encounter. It's Parisian for a smile.

If you need directions to the Eiffel Tower, use what Platt describes as the most important phrase in the French language: ''Excusez-moi de vous deranger, monsieur (madame)....'' (''Excuse me for disturbing you....''). For example, in the French film ''Police Python 357,'' Yves Montand is about to blow up the city. As the seconds tick down, the detective hero rushes to the phone to make the one last call that could save the day. The contact's wife answers. The detective begins: ''Bonsoir, madame, excusez-moi de vous deranger....''

The phrase is a formality, a ''code,'' she says. But it shows that you've taken the time to find out what is correct behavior here. The phrase takes on even more value if ended with another five words: ''...mais j'ai un probleme.'' (''... but I have a problem.'')

For most foreigners, bureaucratic encounters -- complete with long lines, fat dossiers, and the inevitably missing document -- are the source of greatest anguish. Asking for help, Pratt says, instead of sputtering about imagined rights, can be the start of a solution.

To be at ease in this city, you need to understand the codes. Some French multinational firms don't give their new foreign employees anything to do for the first weeks or even months of their Paris assignment, she writes. ''They simply turn them loose in Paris. The foreigners think it's to learn French...but mainly, it's to talk, and talk, and figure out how things are done.''

The inspiration behind this book is not to somehow manipulate people to give you what you want. It's to understand and delight in the pleasures of a thousand-year culture -- on its own terms.

''There is a great interest in France, which has done much to ennoble the human spirit and to enchant it,'' she says. ''Its architecture, its musical genius, its writers and poets. In Paris, conversation is the greatest art of all.

''I wanted to spread the word that the French are wonderful,'' Platt says.

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