French Talk

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The French love to talk. This is not a surprise. They also love to argue which, to this American in Paris who prefers quiet conciliation to noisy confrontation, can be a bit harder to comprehend. I’ve seen dinner conversations here turn heated even on a theme that seems to be unworthy of such passion, and when I ask if everything is okay or if I’ve said anything wrong, my French table mates are often surprised by my question. Nothing at all, they say. We’re simply having a discussion.

I admire people who can discuss what they think or feel, perhaps because I grew up in a household where discussion wasn’t really part of our daily routine. This may be because there were so many of us – I have 10 brothers and sisters – and my father might have preferred to do the talking at dinner rather than to put up with the chaotic interjections of 11 children. He lectured us on comportment and moral choices, but didn’t pose questions. We were expected to listen to what was being said, rather than voice an opinion on what we heard. So I didn’t develop a habit of explaining myself. Even in high school, where I was part of the debate team, I preferred performing speeches that I had written to taking part in an extemporaneous debate on a topic.

But voicing opinions seems to be a French trait, like shrugs and frugality.

Talk shows are everywhere on French television too, often during prime time. One I like is called C’est dans l’air (it’s in the air), which tackles a subject of the day, and features a rotating series of regular contributors made up of journalists, researchers and specialists. But unlike some Sunday-morning talk shows in the U.S., where the guests seem primed to repeat memorized talking points than to actually engage in conversation, the participants on C’est dans l’air respond to others, meaning that they’ve listened to what was said rather than wait for an opening to repeat a well-rehearsed statement. Certainly each of these people has a certain expertise and can trot out a personal cache of oft-repeated points to explain an opinion, but they all still seem to be able to express themselves in full sentences.

This isn’t merely a matter of language, but of leaning or learning. I’ve read some recent memoirs by English-speakers who have begun to speak French and who seem to be in awe of how people in that other language can express themselves so well, and who fault their own mother tongue for not being as expressive as they believe the French is that they’re learning. But this is incorrect. Of course people who are raised in a language will be able to use that language better than someone who’s learning it. But each language is different too and no one language is better than another (to think otherwise is to fall sway to a version of insidious linguistic eugenics). People simply express themselves according to the nature of the particular language they speak, and according to the culture and society in which they are raised.

This isn’t to say that English speakers aren’t good at discussion, or that they don’t indulge in well-reasoned or heated arguments. I’m not a particularly good conversationalist or raconteur, but I do know many Americans and English who are. But I also think that because the French define themselves more by their language than do Americans or even some English, for the French, speaking their language, arguing in their language, are essential ways of defining who they are too, of embracing what it is to be French.

That involves talking and talking and talking, often just for the sake of talking without any other purpose than to utter words with a certain flair. The celebrated 1996 movie Ridicule (which was nominated for an Oscar for best foreign film, and received a César award for best film), concerned the role of savage wit at the decadent court of Louis XVI in the years leading up to the French Revolution. In it, a country engineer arrives at Versailles to get financial backing to drain a swamp to save the peasants who are dying of mosquito-borne disease. He finds that the only way to gain an audience with the king is by demonstrating cutting verbal felicity. It soon becomes clear that in this atmosphere of elaborate talk for its own sake, of wittiness to be witty, a court so intent on proving itself ready with raillery is entirely ignorant of the growing public unrest that will lead to the doom of an old order.

Sometimes you can talk so much you can’t actually hear what’s being said outside your purview. This isn’t to say that the French today are unaware of the world beyond their circles of animated conversation, though everyone who speaks well might like to hold court now and then, and glory in the sound of his own voice speaking. I enjoy hearing the French speak and converse and argue too, but sometimes I feel like the hungry rabble outside the court of Louis XVI, who are fed up with the avalanche of empty, elegant sounds at the dinner table and who simply want to eat.

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