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.

What It Takes to Connect Face-to-Face (in the age of the Google brain…or in Paris!)

I’m back in Paris, on the prowl for a new set of consequential strangers–following my own advice about what it takes for a place to feel comfortable.

It’s not easy here (see this post about my last trip), and the challenge has made me think about what I have to do to connect in a city–this city.  New York is different for me, not only because I speak the language there, but also because  I know the unwritten social rules of the city–how to read the “body idiom” and do what Irving Goffman called the “face work.”   But one doesn’t have to be a sociologist to see that Parisians have a different social playbook than Americans–and I don’t have a copy!  Therefore, I keep reminding myself of the basics of face-to-face connection–skills  we don’t exercise in front of our computers. Continue Reading »

Do They Value Consequential Strangers in Taiwan?

I always wondered how the notion of consequential strangers would translate in other countries.  To my surprise, a Taiwanese publisher was one of the first to buy the rights.  The cover (right) inspired this post.  But it also got me thinking: Americans are generally considered among the most friendly citizens of the world, more willing to talk to strangers than say, the French or the English.   And yet, despite cultural conventions, the concept seems to resonate with people outside the U. S.  as much as it does here.  My hunch is that it’s about connection, not culture. Continue Reading »

An American in Paris: 5 Tips for Courting French CS

In ancient cultures, according to sociologist Lyn H. Lofland, strangers were routinely viewed with suspicion–in the extreme executed for the “crime” of being unknown. Parisians, it seems, haven’t come far since then.  They are excessively polite, but they aren’t interesimg_0865ted in outsiders.  I didn’t want to believe that–but my stay last Christmas certainly reinforced the stereotype. I couldn’t wait to leave and did so after sixteen days, muttering under my breath, They’re right about the French.

I was determined that this trip would be different.  Haven’t I written advice about raising your social IQ? I can’t say I’ve been totally successful in breaking through the French resolve, but people do seem “nicer” now  And since they probably haven’t changed, I must be doing something different.  Here’s what I’ve learned:

Bring a dog with you. This is the only guarantee of starting a conversation with a stranger. In fact, I’ve learned to let my six-pound poodle walk in first.  If all of Paris is Studio 54, Bogey is on “the list,” not me. Seeing him, every waiter, every shopkeeper brightens and coos, “Ooooh. Qu’est-ce qu’il est mignon! [Isn’t he sweet?] Entrez! Entrez!” and then finally looks in my direction, tolerating the human. In Paris, dogs rule–even visiting dogs sense it. Bogey trots down the street here as if he’s returned to his homeland.

Speak their language. I’m relying on my meager and long forgotten high school French, but it helps to at least try. Then again, my word retrieval is poor, my grammar poorer. I know how David Sedaris felt when he wrote about his struggle to master even rudimentary French in Me Talk Pretty One Day.  Case in point, yesterday when I accidentally bumped into someone on the street–“bumped into” as in “collided with,” not “ran into an old acquaintance”–I put on my most contrite face and blurted out, “I’m sorry to me.” Or at least I think that’s what “Je me desoler” means! Continue Reading »