Chez Soi

Adventures of a Year Abroad

What You See Anew


Now that we’ve been here for five months, the one thing we notice is the subtleties of manners.

In the US if you enter a store, you enter a store. No need to say hi, or make eye contact or anything.
in France, you enter a store, you say Bonjour at a minimum. But good manners would suggest eye contact. And if you start a conversation, you say, “I’m sorry to bother you but I am looking for something specific”, not “do you have x”.

In the US, if you go to a restaurant, you are expected to check-in and wait to be seated ONLY if it’s a super tony place. In France, you are expected to say good evening, and that you are there for dinner, that yes you’ve made reservations, and would it still be possible. You assume nothing about whether they would like to serve you. You ask if you can join them.

About two months ago, I asked if I could have a pen from a cafe owner because I needed to write something down. I was with Alexa Clay and I was going to tell her some metro stop info. I was pretty proud of myself with “Puis-je prendre une stylo” but today I would say it more like, “Bonjour, Monsieur; puis-je vous déranger avoir d’une stylo?”. In other words, you don’t say, “May I have blah, blah, blah”, without first acknowledging that you are interrupting them and that you must acknowledge the trouble and your respect for them BEFORE you go onto your thing. You must first build a bridge of connection … IMG_1386 … before you can get something done.

This word, déranger seems to be crucial in this interaction. Just a few days ago, Lev Rapheal over at Huffpo, wrote “Being Polite in France Isn’t Complicated, But It’s Crucial.”

Oh dear, yes.

But you have to be pretty fluent to know how to say it. So I think he’s being a little dismissive of the language barrier.  We went into a book store in Auvers-sur-oise and the staff were having lunch and we felt bad about bothering them, but we didn’t say anything. Now we know more. Whether the words come out at a particular time is less clear.

Underneath (dessous) all this politeness is a general belief that all people deserve respect. You treat the cashier well, the server well, the storekeeper well, the guardian well, the ticket sales person, and so on. Not because of their rank or status in society but because all people deserve respect. Because it’s how you are raised. Because this is how the world should work. Now that I notice this with so much more subtlety, I keep noticing how much Americans don’t do this well, or AT ALL. They step up to a ticket booth and say “two tickets” not “two tickets please” or even “Bonjour, May I have…two tix, pls”.

Now it grates me. When I went back to the US for a meeting at Walmart in Bentonville Arkansas, about 8 or so weeks ago, I was in line at the Embassy Suites for custom omelettes first thing in the morning. I said hello to the young man, I asked if he could make me something with xyz, and after he said he could, I said, well, It would make my morning and thanks. He stood up a little taller, I noticed. And as I waited for mine to be cooked, I watched 8 people walk up to him and without acknowledging him at any individual level, they said “scramble” or “veggie omelette” but sans thanks, and certainly sans respect. It seemed to me I had changed, not America or Americans. Being in Paris helped me see something about the two places, that I didn’t see before.

Even without leaving Paris and having that kind of comparative experience, even Kiddo notices it. He rolls his eyes when he hears Americans talk. He wants to fix it for them. To teach them better. Curt has gotten much more conscious of his manners, though we all know we could get better at our interactions.

And if I was in charge of import/export stuff, THIS is 1 thing I’d like exported from Paris, to around the world. THIS, and the fromage. Well, and the chocolate. But definitely THIS.

Author: nilofermerchant

Strategist. Passionate about igniting cultures of innovation. HBR Writer, O'Reilly Author (published January 2010) of The New How, and former CEO of Rubicon.

2 thoughts on “What You See Anew

  1. I think this might be my favourite chez-soi post so far!

    After living outside of the US for 17 years, and interacting with a lot of ex-pats over that time (from many different countries), I’ve some observations on living overseas. I think that people engage at varying levels.

    There is the tourist level, where you just see all the things. This is where you do stupid things like go to all 20 arondissements in one day.

    Then, when you look at things a little deeper, you notice the differences between the new place and home – and there is a strong tendency to think like one place is better than the other on every dimension. This can be negative – “this is different from, and it’s stupid” – Nancy and I did this a lot in New Zealand, but thankfully were pretty much over it by the time we moved to Australia. It can also be positive – “everything here is better” – I’ve seen this a lot with South African ex-pats that emigrated during the apartheid years. I think people fluctuate between these two extremes a lot in their first 12-18 months overseas. IF you don’t get past it, it is a strong sign that you will head back home soon.

    The next level is thinking like an anthropologist. Really observing the differences, and having enough knowledge about both places to understand why the differences are there, and what it might mean. I think that this post is a great example of this kind of thinking.

    Once you’re thinking like this, then you can start to make decisions about which ideas from the new place you want to try to hold on to, no matter where you are. Personally, I think that getting to this point is really important for getting the full benefit from living overseas.

    This is mostly observation, not data-based, so it could be utter rubbish. But it’s the thought that was triggered when I read this…

  2. Tim, I love it that your professor side shows up at the end to say, hey this observation is unbacked by evidence, so … take at your own risk. 😉

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