France: can you believe what you hear?
That’s it for the re-runs folks, the five week expedition is over and I’m back reporting live at the blog desk. Dammit!
Apart from the obvious delights of wandering around Europe in summer, it was bliss to be totally free of media as (so I’m told) week after week of Michael Jackson news analysis unfolded.
It’s always instructive to see how communication works when you can hardly do it at all. I know enough Italian and German to order food and understand childrens’ books on which farm animal is which.
With French I’m on shakier ground, with a high probability of ordering the horse. With lots of goofy miming.
And then there’s the French themselves. Oh, how people like to warn you about their national character. Haughty. Arrogant. Dismissive. Disdainful. All qualities that every French person we met showed absolutely none of. They were all perfectly pleasant and hospitable.
Why so? It takes about 10 minutes in the country to learn that the French have a rigid system of manners that requires you to say a cheery ‘Bonjour, madame!’-style greeting when you enter a shop. And learn how to say, in enthusiastic French, “I am a confused Australian and my French is non-existent, do you speak English?” and they’re just fine. That’s all it takes.
But if you walk in and don’t say ‘hello’, you’ve got yourself a one-way ticket to the conversational leper colony, my friend.
No matter who you’re talking to, manners are important. We’ve spoken many times here about the importance of learning your audience’s language as the first step to winning them over.
Next time you have to talk to a tough audience, ask yourself if the perceived threat is a little overblown, like all the warnings about French people from people who’ve tried speaking to them in English, then tried SHOUTING AT THEM IN ENGLISH. With a little research into how your audience sees things, you’ll probably get on perfectly fine.
By the way, another French stereotype that proved to be untrue: I did seen a Parisian organ grinder, but where there should have been a mischievous monkey, there was a ginger cat attached with string. That must really kill the cash flow.
French stereotypes that are totally true: small dogs where small dogs shouldn’t be, people sitting on trains reading existentialist novels with titles like ‘The Man Without A Head’, and pretty much everyone smoking like they’re at an audition for Mad Men.