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.

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.

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 »

Four Reasons to Thank Everyone in Your Life

Thanksgiving is a time to be with loved ones and to reflect on all the caring and support we have in our lives.  But what about people who aren’t in the room but who share slices of your life and who have contributed, in great and small ways, to the fabric of your life? Continue Reading »

Psychic Sharing: Done Best with a CS!

This, one of my columns for Shareable: Sharing by Design, was published there today.  I strongly recommend that you explore that site as well as this one, as both are devoted to ideas for a more socially-conscious world.

A recent call from a old collaborator reminded me of the importance of “psychic sharing.” Often, when we think of sharing, it’s around something material and measurable, like saving money. There’s nothing wrong with that, but there are also undeniable benefits to shouldering a burden, a problem, or, in the case of my phone call, a creative endeavor. The end product, be it a fresh solution or groundbreaking idea, is never what you thought it would be. It turns out to be something neither of you could have imagined, or executed, alone–something better, because two minds trump one.

In the past, I’d written three books with this man. Our respective roles were typical of 20th century collaborations: he the expert, and I the writer. I was his “with.” Now he wanted something different: to write a book together, as equals.

His personal reasons aside, psychic sharing is in the zeitgeist. And why not? The Internet has made it easier to Continue Reading »

Close Encounters of the Best Kind

I love the relationship I have with Reggie, who owns this summer resort town’s only grocery store. I don’t know much about him–not even his last name. And yet, I’ve eaten his mother’s cooking and the other day, briefly met his wife. We see each other anywhere from four to six weeks a year, depending on how much time I spend on Fire Island. We share moments, not events.

As is true of most consequential stranger relationships, Reggie and I couldn’t be more different. Continue Reading »

Social Strategies for Hard Times

An artist I saw recently on the nightly news had her own studio–but no one was buying.  When people are worried about putting food on the table and health insurance, the artist realized, paintings aren’t usually in their budget.  “But at least,” she told the reporter, “I hope that my old customers will still drop by if only to chat.”

When economics define hard times, it’s important to remind ourselves to take pleasure in the non-material reward of connecting with others.  It doesn’t pay the bills, but it can help alleviate the stress. And stress, as we all know, makes us more susceptible to illnesses, which then makes a bad situation worse.  Researchers put the risks associated with social isolation right up there with smoking and obesity. Continue Reading »

CS: The Paperback

It’s official:  The paperback version of Consequential Strangers will be available on July 26.    Look for a new subtitle, a new cover, and new cover quotes.  You saw all here first!  I’m on the road for the next few weeks and won’t be sharing much here.

A Cure for Loneliness?

I thought about the work of neuropsychologist John Cacioppo, co-author, with William Patrick of Loneliness: The New Science of Human Connection as I watched this video put out by the Mental Health Foundation in Great Britain, which highlights the findings of a new study, The Lonely Society.

The antidote for loneliness is to connect with consequential strangers.  Having a “tribe,” John told me when I interviewed him for the book, is the flip side of social isolation.  All of us experience loneliness at times, but it is most dramatic–and we are most vulnerable–during major life transitions when a dependable “circle of support” is disrupted. In this film, for example, the woman lost her CS at work when she had a baby. Continue Reading »

Bi-Postal Blogging

I can’t believe I launched another blog. What could I have been thinking?  Only a few months ago, I was bemoaning the hype around social media, wondering how to get back to my writer self.   But I realized it wasn’t the blogging that got me crazy; it was the disappointment that I didn’t have much of an audience (which didn’t prevent me from feeling deeply grateful to the six of you who did tune in!).  I kept saying to friends, “Blogging is like sending an email into the Universe, but you have no way of knowing who’s read it.”

So here I am again, now with two blogs–Consequential Strangers and MotherU–each representing a totally different part of my life.   I’ll funnel some ideas into in one blog, some in the other, and with others, such this one, I’ll be “bipostal,” contributing to both sites.   I’ll express my thoughts and hope that they resonate somewhere in the Universe, share my expertise and hope that it helps.  But I’ve let go of the expectation.

I’m not the only bi-postal blogger out there, according to some recent stats on blogging.  Approximately half of us are working on at least our second blog, and 68% have been blogging for two years or more.  To paraphrase Oscar Wilde’s famous quote about second marriages, “Second blogs are the triumph of hope over experience.” Continue Reading »