US-French bickering: tradition, not news

If you were to believe what you read about France these days, you might think there was something new about Franco-American bickering. But nothing could be further from the truth. While the French ambassador to Washington took the latest spat to a new level last week, alleging a White House-inspired "disinformation campaign" against France, it was really all a part of a long tradition.

Americans and the French spent the second half of the 20th century quarreling on the international stage. And they will continue to spat in the century to come.

Why? It's not that they actually disagree about the fundamental aspects of running a country. Both embrace democratic values, liberty, women's rights, and the primacy of law. Both oppose terrorism. But after 2-1/2 years studying the French as fellows of an American institute, we realized that the real difference between the French and Americans is at once subtler, and more fundamental than these values.

The real difference is in their concept of privacy. By privacy, we don't mean the issue of legally protecting personal information. We're not talking about ideas of personal space. By privacy, we mean each culture's intuitive sense of what's intimate and what's public.

The reasons the French come across to Americans as "rude," "aloof," or "arrogant" have less to do with their attitude, than with their different idea of what you talk about, and what you don't, or what you show, and what you hide.

Almost all Americans traveling in France are stunned at how rude the service is in stores. Many tourists fail to realize that the French, whether they are shop owners, waiters, or clerks, expect to hear two simple words from any outsider on their premises: "bonjour" when you enter, and "au revoir" when you leave. The reason is simple: The French consider a store an extension of the home of the owner, not a public space. If you don't greet them properly, you can be sure the service will be rude.

On the other hand, behavior that seems rude might not be what you think it is. French ideas about what's private and public also affect the way they make conversation. It's considered rude in France to ask a stranger his name or what he does for a living - information Americans typically use as a polite way to start a conversation.

The French will never ask you about your job right off the bat. To them, it sounds like a way of trying to find out how much you earn. And guess what? Money is an extremely private matter in France. The French may think about money all the time, but they don't like talking about it. If you broach the topic of money with an acquaintance, brace yourself for a rude reaction. It's like an American starting off a conversation by asking your religion.

So how do you start a conversation in France? Even though the French want to know who you are and what you do, they won't ask you. To start a conversation, they'll express an opinion about something - it could be the weather or the national education system for all you know. Your job is to return the favor and give them your opinion back - or at least to display some wit if you have no opinion.

French conversation is like a tennis game. One party serves, and the other returns. To an American, this feels uncomfortably competitive, as if their conversation partners are trying to beat them with arguments. True enough. French conversation is something like a competitive sport. Except that the real goal is to keep the ball in the air as long as possible, not to win.

The French love good conversation. To this end, they are happy to resort to the odd hard shot. Americans are typically taken aback by this. They feel like they are being "attacked" and take it personally. Yet that's because they instinctively believe that arguing is something you do in private.

For the French, expressing disagreement in public is not only acceptable, it's a sign that a relationship is strong. We observed this over and over at dinner parties where there were both North American and French guests. North American couples typically project an image of harmony, supporting and reinforcing each other. Meanwhile, the French couples argued openly in front of the room of guests, even about domestic matters.

To the French, it's normal for couples to argue. So why hide it? The French are actually suspicious of couples that seem too harmonious.

For anyone following international news these days (and who isn't?), the couples theory should ring a bell. What enraged Americans about France's refusal to join the coalition was not so much that the French disagreed about how to disarm Iraq, but that the French refused to show solidarity with Americans at the international dinner table.

In France the whole debate over Iraq never reached the level of intensity it did in the US, and for a pretty simple reason. For the French, even if you do agree about the fundamentals, it's normal to disagree in public. So why hide it?

Jean-Benoît Nadeau and Julie Barlow are authors of the new book, 'Sixty Million Frenchmen Can't Be Wrong.'

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