October 31, 2004

In France, "tact" is just a four-letter word

October 28, 2004—PARIS—"The child may say ‘bonjour' to the lady, even though he thinks that she is mean and ugly." As we completed aloud example #5 on page 8 of the University of Chicago Paris Program grammar workbook, the class erupted in laughter. "Non," explained Sylvie, our language and writing teacher/pedagogue/surrogate mother/director of the study abroad program, "that is ‘la politesse!'" Of course… "politesse."

This "politesse" of which the French are so proud and fond has no American equivalent. It is not like "tact" and "discretion," the wishy-washy virtues on which we rely so heavily, rather they subscribe to a matrix of formal laws dictating social conduct that are inscribed like scrimshaw into their very French bones. "Politesse" is what makes the French world go around without exploding into public displays of hatred; it allows the French to politely tell strangers "Je vous emmerde, Madame" (I shit on you, Madame), which is a perfectly respectful way of telling someone to go to hell.

As Sylvie explained to us, the main reason that Jean-Jacques Rousseau was unsuccessful as a member of society was because, although he was a brilliant intellectual, Rousseau believed that a person's interior and exterior lives ought to be one and the same. Thus he could not and did not follow the rules of social conduct because they were completely contradictory to his personal philosophical beliefs. In my own case, it's not so much that I refuse "politesse" as that I was not naturally designed to understand it.

While some of the rules—such as always saying hello, thank you, and goodbye to anyone with whom you interact—are born of what seems to be common courtesy or even kindness, others simply do not mesh with my alter-ego, American Rebecca. For example, it is commonly accepted that in France you must always give an excuse, and you must apologize even if you are not sorry, and even if it is not your fault. In my opinion, this is a preposterous demand. And yet, after UPS tried and failed on five successive occasions to deliver a package to my home, I was informed by the U of C center office assistant that if I didn't immediately apologize to my guardien for any inconvenience the package problems may have caused her (regardless of the fact that I pay her a hefty sum each month to do seemingly little more than spy on me, smell like cats, and handle my mail), I might never receive my New Yorker again.

What's more, the French don't send anything back in a restaurant or a café if it doesn't arrive as they ordered it. And so, through gritted teeth, I smiled and thanked the waiter who brought me my "hot goat cheese salad" that was topped with cold cheese. In Chicago I would have sent it back in a second, but at that moment had no choice but to breathe deeply and repeat to myself my new French mantra: "C'est comme ça" (That's how it is). This is, more often than not, the response of the Parisians when you complain about being made to wait or being disappointed by the timeliness or quality of a service.

But despite all of these rules, the French are not exactly internationally acclaimed for their kindness. What is interesting is that they guard their right to open criticism with the same pride and intensity as they do their "politesse." Without batting an eyelash, the French regularly turn to one another on the Métro, in the supermarket, or on the street, and begin to lecture each other on how they ought to live their lives, raise their children, or better train their spouse/pet/etc. It seems completely contrary to the logic of "politesse" that there exists the kind of brutal "franchise" (frankness), as the French harmlessly qualify it, that we foreigners find so intimidating and off-putting. An example overheard on the Métro: "Franchement, Madame, votre fils est un animal" (Frankly, Madam, your son is an animal).

An acquaintance of mine in Paris, a 38-year-old writer with dual nationality in the U.S. and in France, offered the explanation that if you tell someone off on the street in Paris, you don't have to worry that they will pull a gun on you. This may be true, but still, it is not the reason that I remain wrapped up tightly in my blanket of tact when on the subway in Manhattan. I am not afraid of being shot…I am afraid that people might not like me.

This fear extends itself to strangers I see in the grocery store, the other fourteen people on the program, and even to my roommate Becca, which makes it much more difficult for me to strike that magic balance between tact, "politesse," and getting what I want. And although I am learning, however slowly, to assimilate into the French system, there does come a time to throw "politesse" out the window and stand up for yourself, even if you are afraid. Because, despite what Sylvie may say, I don't think that it is polite (in the American sense of the word) to smile at your roommate while really wanting to dump all of the dirty dishwater on her bed, especially if the tension has been caused by a misunderstanding as to who will be scrubbing the bathroom floor this week.

Since I am not and never will be French, I will never completely master the French version of "politesse," but those who know me well will doubtless be shocked to discover that I have actually learned, since arriving in Paris, to wait patiently (at least for a half an hour) in a line without breathing down the neck of everyone around me, and to eat what is on my plate (even if there are raw tomatoes that I did not want). Granted, I have never been one to bend over backwards for the sake of social protocol, but who is it hurting if I make sure that I always wish a good evening to the woman who sells me my 6:00 p.m. baguette? But if she were to give me a burned one, I can't promise that I wouldn't ask for another. Politely, of course.