Parisians/New Yorkers: Vive Les Differences!

View from my window

I’m three years (and counting) into my on-again-off-again tenure in Paris–not quit a resident, not quite a tourist.  Having written previously about consequential strangers there and what it takes to connect with them, I more fully understand why  living amongst Parisians, a month or two at a clip, is a challenge.  I’m a New Yorker.

When I moved to Northampton, MA, from Manhattan, I told everyone (and later wrote), “I don’t miss New York.  I miss New Yorkers.”  When I’m not in Paris, I miss the city–the food, the beauty and, especially the Eiffel tower.  I now have people there–my people.  But I don’t miss the Parisians.

New Yorkers are in-your-face, cutting edge–rushing, sometimes pushing, always wondering what’s next.  In five minutes, I see more different types of people in Manhattan than I do in five days in Paris.  Parisians are proud, proper, and elegant.  Their style comes from within–it is attitude more than outfit, taste more than trend.  And no one is in a hurry.

New Yorkers–on the street, in stores–typically try to help foreigners who don’t speak English.  Parisians think we should learn French before visiting. In their city, the customer is always wrong.

New Yorkers smile at strangers, and get right down to business without fanfare. You ask a question, they answer.  Parisians rarely smile and observe strict social protocol.  On one of my early trips, I asked a bus driver, trying my best to be polite,“Ou et la soixante-neuf, s’il vous plait? –where is the sixty-nine, please?  He frowned. I knew I’d done something wrong.  Looking down at me (literally and figuratively), he answered with a sing-song “BonJOUR, Madame,” as if to say, “What, no hello? And you expect me to answer?”

New Yorkers traffic in psycho-babble and are willing to share intimate details of their lives at cocktail parties.  They move along the social continuum quickly; acquaintances can instantly morph into life-long friends.  Parisians play it close to the vest.  A friend who grew up in Paris and speaks French like a native, says of her Parisian friends–some of whom date back to grammar school: “There’s just so far they’ll let me in.”

New Yorkers quickly get to a first-name basis. I didn’t know that this was not the custom in Paris until I matter-of-factly introduced myself to the owner of the fromagerie on my street.  Even worse, I asked his name.  He was horrified but intrigued–and, apparently, teachable. He doesn’t flinch now when I call him Pascal. And whenever I pass by his shop, he shouts a hearty “Bonjour, Brenda!” in my direction.

Granted the language barrier makes it even more difficult to “know” the French.  But at least I have Francoise, whom I met in a Pilates class.  She is quintessentially Parisian–chic even in yoga pants and a white tee–and she speaks perfect French-accented English.  Most important, she knows (and loves) New Yorkers, thanks to years in “zhee schmata beezness.” We immediately were drawn to one another.  At a cute cafe around the corner from the studio, she began tutoring me:

Mayleenda, zhee Americans, zhay zheenk zhee French hate zhem.  Zhat ees not true.  Zhee French, zhay don’t like anyone.  Zhay don’t even like zhee French!

Francoise, left; Anne, our (English) Pilates teacher, right, at the American Library in Paris.

Occupy Wall Street: Payback for the Bullies

“If they sent you over to cover the Gulf War,” I was once told, “you’d somehow turn it into a story about relationships.” What’s wrong with seeing the world through a social lens? In 2009, I wrote a book documenting the importance, for better or worse, of “consequential strangers”– everyone other than family and close friends. Most of these acquaintances are beneficial, bringing novelty, new energy, and support into your life.  Others can make your life miserable. .

So when a friend recently theorized that Occupy Wall Street is the latest sign that people are standing up to bullies, I immediately saw her point. That Kaddafi was brutally stoned and shot to death bolstered her argument. And weren’t the various civil rights movements essentially a case of victims rising up against their oppressors? Coincidentally, this conversation took place a few days after New Jersey passed its new anti-bullying law.

Bullying is an apt “frame” for a lot of what’s wrong in our financial institutions, our governments, and our schoolyards. At the very least, greedy bankers need to learn to “share,” and elected officials who refuse to rise above politics in search of common ground could do with a lesson in “use your words.” We try to teach children that they’re not the center of the universe. We obviously have to extend that lesson to grownups as well.

To borrow from the movie Network, the victims of injustices here and abroad are mad as hell and aren’t going to take it any more. Continue Reading »

Chronic Sufferers Share Online, but Are They Getting Help?

Are you are among the estimated 90 million Americans–25% of the population–who has one or more chronic diseases–or are you taking care of someone who has an ongoing health issue?   If you’ve gone online to access health information, connect with fellow sufferers, or share your experiences, you’re not alone.

A new report by Susannah Fox, released today by the Pew Internet Project in collaboration with the California Health Care Foundation, “The Social Life of Health Information, 2010,” found that 59% of American adults look on line for health information.   A smaller percentage — 34% of internet users, or 25% of adults –  have read someone else’s commentary or experience about health or medical issues on an online news group, website, or blog.

Health-related social ties generally fall into the realm of consequential strangers: doctors and other medical personnel, patients, and caregivers who are enlisted as part of the sufferer’s social convoy–the entourage of people who travel through the experience with him or her.    Although our social convoys of course include our intimates, they might not be in the best position to help us.  They’re traumatized, too.  Also, they usually don’t have a map of the territory.

While the vast majority of our illness-associated connections offer actual hand-holding and face-to-face sharing, the Internet allows use to forge these kinds of ties  online as well.  As Pew concludes:

The social life of health information is robust. The online conversation about health is being driven forward by two forces: 1) the availability of social tools and 2) the motivation, especially among people living with chronic conditions, to connect with each other.

We are honored that the Pew report quoted Consequential Strangers (see page 7 of the PDF, or this online link): “If people who are already on board don’t have the information, experience, or empathy you need, you enlist others who do.” (from Chapter 4, Good for What Ails Us)

In a pattern that matches this observation, people living with one or more chronic conditions and those living with disability are significantly more likely than other social network site users to gather health information on these sites.

The problem is, that people you “meet” on the Internet are total strangers.  Unlike striking up a conversation in a doctor’s waiting room or meeting at a support group,  it’s a little trickier to go from stranger to consequential stranger with someone you can’t see. Some common-sense guidelines can help:

  • Proceed slowly with any online relationship.   Some people prefer to have Internet “conversations” anonymously until they are certain that the other person is legit.
  • Offer your own information sparingly, don’t divulge anything personal that might be used to track you down.
  • Never base treatment decisions or methods of care solely on information from the Internet.
  • Before you allow an online relationship to migrate off line, suggest a video chat. And if you do decide to see each other IRL (in real life), make sure that your first meeting–to be safe, first several meetings–take place in a public venue.
  • Remember that even sites sponsored by major health groups don’t usually screen their members. Just because someone says she has cancer, for example, doesn’t mean she actually does.  She might suffer from Munchausen’s-by-Internet–a condition in which someone fakes symptoms to garner attention online.   Dr. Marc D. Feldman, an expert in “factitious” conditions who first identified the Internet version, admits that while there are clues that someone has MIB, even he has been fooled.

When a Stranger Feels Too Strange

A Facebook friend posted this video on her status update.  It opens showing this man and others asking passersby, “Are you Jewish?”  He is member of the Lubavitch group of Hasadic Jews who use their “mitzvah tank” as a form of outreach.

I am Jewish. I watched the 5-minute video, and I had mixed feelings.  (Apparently, I wasn’t alone: Another Facebook friend, admitted that once, when she actually encountered the mitzvah tank, she denied being Jewish!) Continue Reading »

Facebook: More Tales of Chicken Soup for the Social Soul

More evidence of chicken soup for the social , and I’d have to add spiritual, soul.  This message was posted today by by Nitin Naresh of the Global Concern Foundation.  On April 13, it was his birthday.  He lives in New Delhi, India. He wrote:

I really feel out of this world today, I never knew that I am so lucky to have such wonderful well wishers and friends who love me so much.

I got more than 987 messages for my birthday wishes today from all my group members & Friends.

I Today feel one of the richest person of this world, even richer than Bill Gates to have such lovely and dear friends and well wishers around me.

with warm regards

Nitin Naresh

I met Nitin, if the word “met” even applies, on Facebook.    I quote him a lot, repost his ideas.   He’s smart, and he’s obviously a good guy–a philanthropist and activist in his early twenties.   Many of his generation–the Millennials–are like that.    Historians who study “turnings”–generational swaths of time–look for patterns that repeat themselves with each new cohort.  Many compare Millennials with the civic-minded G.I. Generation, today’s great-grandparents.   But the G. I. generation didn’t have the Internet, and its members didn’t perceive themselves to be citizens of the world.  Nitin lives in New Delhi, but he can “converse” with anyone anywhere.  I’m not surprised that he was flooded with good wishes.  He gives. What goes around comes around.

The Millennials are inheriting a tough world.  People like Nitin are rising to meet the challenge.   They don’t need a book about consequential strangers.  They talk to anyone and everyone and realize that every conversation counts.   They believe in sharing.  It gives me hope.

Facebook: Chicken Soup for the Social Soul

The wonder of Facebook is that you can have a thought, share it, and get feedback from the most remote corners of your world, even from strangers who skirt the periphery of your world.

I think about such things every day, among other reasons because I traffic in relationships, professionally and personally.  I speak to strangers all the time. During the year, I live in five different homes (counting my same-time-next-year rental in a summer community). I need consequential strangers to live the way I do–often, far away from my most beloved family members and friends. Continue Reading »

Forcing Us To Be CS?

I was amused by a Q & A article in yesterday’s New York Times. The questioner complains about a new restaurant in which the menu offers patrons the option of ordering a “six-pack for the kitchen,” a choice, the writer explains, the waiter pointed out “before we’d even ordered drinks, let alone a first course that might let me discern whether the food was worth a tip.”

“Mr. Critic” Sam Sifton agreed with the questioner that “a server pushing the business on a table is lame, lame, lame.”  But he also points out that it’s a way of enticing customers and employees to connect:

The gesture can elevate the mood of a restaurant in ways that have very little to do with the consumption of alcohol and everything to do with the creation of bonds between those consuming food and those preparing it.

Connection feeds the soul.  But if one is forced into rewarding employees, it’s more like an arranged marriage!

Then again, the option doesn’t even have to be on the menu.  In a good restaurant, where the staff is friendly, and the chef makes herself accessible to patrons, it elevates the experience, and you want to say “thank you” in more than words or tip.  So go ahead, think of something special.   Damn, the last time I was at Michy’s, and Michelle Bernstein came out to chat with us, I should have bought her a glass of champagne!

Whatever Happened to Violet?

On January 18–less than 3 weeks ago–I wrote a plea here and on Facebook on behalf of one of the women I met in Louisiana–who now faces a different kind of drowning.  I asked you for money–as little as $10 or as much as you wanted to give–to help “Violet” get out of debt. I knew her situation was dire when I heard she had to pay $99.99 a month toward a $1000 loan and that not one cent of her monthly payments had gone toward the principal.  But imagine my shock when I saw the actual contract, stating an annual percentage rate of — I exaggerate not — 116.52%.

But the point of this update isn’t to lament a country in which such “poor-people’s loans” are legal, but to fill you in on what good came of the plea–good that reflects the kindness and power of consequential strangers. Continue Reading »

Katrina Survivor Faces a Different Kind of Drowning

Let me warn you before you read further:  I’m going to ask you to send me any amount of money you can afford, from a few dollars to whatever.   But it’s not for me.  Allow me to  explain…

In the last chapter of Consequential Strangers, I included a personal story about meeting some of the survivors of Hurricane Katrina, among them, Violet Simmons (not her real name–hence, no photo), a single mother whose New Orleans home was under water.  Violet, who had fled west across the state until she ran out of gas, was then living in one motel room with her eight children.  I’ve since stayed in touch with her.

Five and half years later, Violet’s youngest child, a toddler then, is now in second grade; her oldest is the mother of three.  As it turns out, Katrina wasn’t Violet’s worst enemy; poverty was–and is.  Katrina just complicated matters. Continue Reading »

Elizabeth Edwards’ Secret Weapon

Elizabeth Edwards walked that fine feminist line between being a generous, caring, supportive individual and, at the same time, not taking s – - t from anyone.   She had a secret weapon–better yet, a suit of armor.  I met her at a book-signing of Saving Graces, which came out in 2006 when I was researching my book. Her subtitle–Finding Solace and Strength from Friends and Strangers–says it all.  This was a woman who cried with a stranger she met in a ladies’ room, who appreciated the checkout guy and the mailman, who shared her grief with strangers on the Internet.  In short, she appreciated, depended upon, and sought out the empathy of others.   Even more important, she knew how vital it was to return the favor.   The September evening  I met her,  I had arranged a brief hello with her publicist, explaining that I wanted to interview her because, whether she had used the term or not, her book was mostly about consequential strangers.  I was first to approach the podium after her talk.

I stood there at first as a journalist and had planned to tell her a little about my project.  But as I handed her a book to sign, I blurted out that my family had just suffered a terrible tragedy.  My great nephew, my sister’s first grandson, had drowned in her pool. At 14, he was already an amazing and versatile athlete, so no one realized he was in trouble.  (Later, we would learn he had a heart condition and that no one could have saved him anyway.) I told her I wanted to give her book to his parents. “So could you please inscribe it to Heidi and Louis?”

“”Oh, dear, I’m so sorry.  When did this happen?” she asked, acting as if no one else was in the room.  It wasn’t fake empathy.   In that moment, I could feel–and her eyes confirmed–that she truly cared and felt my pain. Continue Reading »