When I moved to France as an adult, I already spoke the language rather well, having studied abroad in Paris and Avignon on earlier occasions. However, being well-versed in the language was no guarantee that I understood all French ways.
A friendly and pleasant dinner…
One evening early on in what was meant to be a two-and-a-half year stay, my husband and I were invited to dinner at the home of one of my husband’s colleagues by the name of Georges. We carefully chose a box of nice chocolates as a gift for our hosts, avoiding the pitfalls of offering wine, chrysanthemums or other yellow flowers, all a no-no, according to different experts on French customs.
We spent a lovely evening discussing France and America, what we thought of Paris, a bit of politics, and avoiding much discussion of work. My husband and Georges had already slipped into the familiar “tu” for addressing each other, while I carefully navigated the “vous” form to draw out Georges and his wife.
… that ends with a slap in the face
I spent much of the evening chatting with Georges’ wife, Marie. At the end of the evening as we were saying our thank-you’s and goodbye’s, and feeling that I had a certain affinity with Marie, I asked her if she’d like to have coffee sometime. My hostess considered my request for a moment and replied, “ I’m sorry, I don’t think you’ll be here long enough for me to want to get to know you.”
My American sensibility was hurt and confused by this response, and although Marie and I have seen each other a few times over the last 30 years of my Parisian sojourn, and we did have tea once or twice, we never did develop a relationship.
We build relationships differently from one country to another
In retrospect, I realize that we construct relationships differently in France and America. In America, we can often enjoy a quick, even in-depth and personal, exchange with a total stranger who we might never see again.
In France, it often takes more time to open up to someone new. As a French person, I first decide if I want to get to know you, and then like the fox and the Little Prince, we tame each other over time. Little by little, for me, my friend becomes Unique au monde, in other words precious and unlike any other person.
Marie didn’t think we had the time ahead of us to construct that kind of relationship. As for me, at the time of our meeting, I lacked the needed cultural understanding to see my invitation from her point of view. I was hurt and so never really tried again to reach out.
Later, I also realized that as Americans, we sometimes say, “ Let’s have coffee,” or “I’ll call you sometime,” but we don’t always follow through.