The other day I had a long list of things to achieve whilst the children were at school. It was unlikely that I would get everything done, but I was going to give it my best shot.
At 11 am I was on target. By midday I had surpassed even my wildest ambitions. By 2 pm there were but three items remaining on the list. I was on fire. It was therefore with some perplexity that, at 3.30 pm, I found myself sitting in someone else’s house, sipping espresso and making polite conversation, with two of my tasks for the day still incomplete, and absolutely no prospect of leaving before I had to pick the girls up from school. You might well ask how I could have let it all go so wrong.
It was at 2.50 pm when the rot set in. Finding myself ahead of schedule I decided to dash to the boulangerie for some bread for supper. There I encountered someone I knew a little bit from the school gate. I smiled broadly at her (I was feeling smugly efficient). In response she, too, broke into a smile. We exchanged bonjours. One thing led to another and, before I knew it, and to my considerable alarm, I found myself pulling into her driveway.
It is, of course, preposterous to complain that you find yourself accepting someone’s hospitality against your will. Unfortunately, though, this is not the first time that I have got myself into this predicament. The reason each time is the same, and has to do with my Britishness.
British people, you see, speak in code: it is a question of manners. These manners are so ingrained and are so much a matter of routine for us that, most of the time, we don’t realise that we are doing it. It is only when we encounter people from cultures which don’t speak in code that we become aware of it.
Let me illustrate what I mean with the conversation that took place in the boulangerie. My parts of the conversation are in bold. The nice lady’s (NL’s) parts are in italics. Translations, where necessary, appear in parentheses. Needless to say we were both speaking in French.
Me: Bonjour (hello: it’s too late to scurry out now that you’ve seen me so I will greet you to be polite)
[Polite pause of about five seconds, during which I feel a mounting sense of panic and scrabble for something to fill the silence. NL, by contrast, does not appear uncomfortable.]
Me: How are you? How is the new house? (Thank God I have found something to say that doesn’t involve the weather. What a good conversationalist I am to dredge that up from my memory. In French too!)
NL: Ah, how good of you to remember! We’re very pleased with it, thank you. It has a wonderful view and the builders have done an excellent job.
Me: Oh really? Was there a lot of work to do? (This is getting into a level of detail I didn’t anticipate but it would be rude to break off now, so I’ll plough on.)
NL: Yes, there was. The place is unrecognisable from the photos we took before the work started. They really have done a good job. Perhaps you’d like to see it some time?
Me: Oh yes, I’d love to. Thank you. (That’s nice of her. I’m sure she will forget that she ever suggested this in a few days’ time and we can go back to smiling at each other outside the school.)
NL: I tell you what, it’s probably not very tidy, but why don’t you come round right now? You could have a coffee and look at the view. It’s such a lovely blue sky that you will be able to appreciate it.
Me: Thank you. That’s very kind of you. I am sure we can do this another time though. I don’t want to trouble you if you have things to do. (Eek! I can’t possibly go round now. Why is she taking me so literally? Hopefully she’s just being polite. I’ll give her a get out clause.)
NL: I don’t have anything to do that can’t wait and I’d really love to have you round. It will be my pleasure.
Me: You are very kind. But really, are you absolutely 100% sure? (You are being very kind but I really, really don’t want to come round right now. Please, pleeeeeeeeeeeeeeeease don’t insist.)
NL: I’m sure. You can follow me in your car if you like. (Why is she grovelling?)
Me: Thank you ever so much. (Really this is just too bad. What is she thinking?)
I mentioned my discomfort at this situation to one of my French friends who, once she had finished laughing, said ah oui, la fameuse hypocrisie des anglais. I was, of course, shocked and appalled. I associate many negative attributes with my fellow countrymen, but routine hypocrisy – renowned hypocrisy even – has never been one of them.
Yet of course, now that I’ve transcribed my conversation, I can see what she means. To a French person, integrity means wearing on the outside what you feel on the inside. Thus, whilst I am busy beaming away at everyone on the school run even though I want to throttle half of them, many other parents don’t bother to wipe the scowl off their faces in response. Why should they? It is early; it is cold; they are feeling rubbish: what on earth is there to smile about?
When someone asks me how I am and I respond with a polite ça va, I am not, in fact, providing an accurate translation of the “fine” I would have uttered had the conversation been in English. You see “fine” can have any number of meanings ranging from, “I’ve had a tolerable day actually” right through to “as it happens I am really, really annoyed right now and I would advise you to steer well clear of me if you know what is good for you”. I don’t need to specify which meaning is intended because a fellow Brit will be able to work it out for themselves. It is no more than elementary code-breaking for them.
In French, though, ça va basically means OK: no, you’re not so joyful that you might swing from the rafters swilling champagne, but neither are you at rock bottom. If the situation had been a bad one you probably would not even have spoken to me. You would just have scowled.
My British code is there to save face: it ensures that nobody feels slighted or humiliated at any point. When you invite me round on the spur of the moment, you do so to make me feel wanted, without necessarily expecting me to turn up on your doorstep. When I say that I would love to come but don’t want to disturb you, it is my polite way of thanking you whilst signalling that I have better things to do at that moment. When you agree that actually you do have things to be getting on with, you are gratefully accepting the escape clause I just offered you. Ours is a code that presupposes that we are all sensitive little flowers who need protecting from the harsh social realities around us.
In France, on the other hand, if you don’t want to invite someone round, you don’t do it. If someone invites you but you don’t want to go, you say so. It all seems so simple when I put it like that…