Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Especially for everyone new to living in a foreign country.

 by Anne Bell

The interaction of language and social behavior is fascinating to me. You can speak a foreign language perfectly, but if you don’t take the time to understand the social habits of the foreign culture in which you find yourself, you will have less satisfying interactions with the people you encounter. You may notice that you have offended someone, and not understand what you have done to cause offense. Here is a common example:

From left to right, Ecuador Experiment blogger Michael Bell, my maternal cousin Vicky Porche Weber, my brother Alan Bell and my sister Anne Bell.  (circa 1994 in San Francisco)
American manners:

After making “friendly” eye contact, you may approach someone in a public place to ask a question, or to get directions, without needing to say “Hello” or “Excuse me”. Smiling is always helpful. After you have your answer, you say, “Thank You” and “Have a Good Day”. This is the polite way to ask assistance from a stranger.

French manners:

After making “neutral” eye contact, you must verbally greet a stranger before asking for assistance, even if you only wish to know the time of day.  You must say “Hello”, and “Excuse me”, or even “Excuse me for the interruption”. Smiling is always helpful. You have established yourself as a well-mannered individual, so you are now free to ask your question.  After you have your answer, you say, “Thank You, and “Good Day”. This is the polite way to ask assistance from a stranger.

Social Behavior Translation: 

“Friendly” eye contact means smiling at someone. “Neutral” eye contact means what it says -- neither smiling nor frowning. In France, if you smile at a stranger, you are either flirting with them, or you are a weirdo.

A French person is always very happy to offer assistance to a well-mannered individual. I have had the experience of politely asking directions of a stranger, and having the person physically walk with me for a few blocks to my destination rather than pointing the way on the map. A French person is likewise equally happy to ignore or to refuse assistance to an ill-mannered person, because the rude shouldn’t expect the same treatment as the polite. This is way the world works, and they are doing you a favor by reminding you of this fact.

In memory of my maternal family. The Porche plot in Colma.
Even after six years in France, I am still capable of approaching a store clerk or the postman, and blurting out my question, (especially when I am rushed). This may result in my interlocutor pausing, and then greeting me with an exaggerated “Hello, Madame”. I will then blush, stammer out my belated “Hello” and “Excuse Me”, perhaps even adding a head shake and a “Pardon”. I have now just communicated that I have forgotten my manners. All will then be forgiven, and we are now back on good terms and can get to the business at hand.

In France, there are social courtesies to be respected if one wishes to communicate well. But because I am an American expat, I sometimes fall into my American habits. For an American, making eye contact can replace a verbal “Hello” and “Excuse Me”, and I would be considered perfectly polite were I communicating somewhere in California or Arizona. But I live in France now, and eye contact alone doesn’t cut it.

Being a foreigner is hard, and you are bound to make mistakes. Your best protection is a genuine smile, the ability to laugh off your social gaffes, and the grace to move on. Your foreign accent is evident to the person in front of you, so they will usually forgive you easily.

When you come back to the U.S.A., you will automatically start every interaction with a stranger with a “Hello” and an “Excuse Me”. You will be a beacon of Old World courtesy in our overly abrupt and anonymous Modern world, and hopefully this simple kindness will be noticed and appreciated by those with whom you come into contact.