You can say a lot of things about the French. But for me, it all comes down to the fact that they’ve got something specific in mind (both personally and culturally) and they don’t give a shit if that pisses you off. It may come off as rude or snotty to some, but I admire their certainty—and their standards. For instance, there is a Ministère de la Culture et de la Communication, which dictates how new and non-French words will be translated and used. That may seems stuffy to you, but I think it adds more to their society than the alternative.
I’m writing this post from Paris, specifically from Le Café Chineur in the 14th arrondissement, across the street where I’m staying for a work trip. It’s been 16 years since I’ve been to Paris, and in that time not much has changed in terms of the casual observance of society. Whereas every third person in America seems to publicly yammer and selfie in disregard for their surroundings, you just don’t see it as much here.
What strikes me as I walk around the city is that I see more people engrossed in conversation in cafes, soaking up the sun in parks, or just walking alone and thinking. It’s not a matter of being better than others. It’s just a matter of what matters.
Parisians, while not what you would call ebulliently accommodating in the American sense, are exceedingly conscious of manners and considering the needs of others. That may seem counterintuitive in a place where the city slogan could well be “piss off, this is Paris” but my observation is that while they may not coat it in sugar, they care about how they treat others. The flip side of that is that they don’t tap dance around inconsequential considerations—and when someone crosses a line, the gloves are off.
And that to me, it what my mother would call “a sense of propriety”. It was how I was raised and is among the things that is more important to me. There are things like table manners, which are helpful to know but needn’t be a rule book for life… and then there are things like common courtesy, which I feel is a dying art. I often sense that, in America at least, the scope of personal responsibility and consideration has shrunken to a radius of about 18 inches from our face.
I spent my teens and twenties questioning then trying to push the idea of social norms and things one can’t or shouldn’t do/say. But I think a person can break the arbitrary rules of society, while still honoring other people. While there’s value in being able to contact someone or look up some information when we’re out and about, it does not supersede being among others. The French have their own way of interacting. They seem to think nothing of smoking while holding their child’s hand or of blowing through intersections. Doing for yourself and not getting intimidated by others is a way of life. What I admire, though, is that they don’t take that as a license to give up their standards.
At the end of the day, there are many ways to butter a baguette. In Japan—for instance—some consider it shameful to smile, but people think nothing of buying porn from an old woman at a newsstand. And I realize that there’s room for many viewpoints and people to co-exist table to table, city to city, and all around the world.
For me, I’ll take Paris and propriety. I think I’ll have another coffee and take a quiet walk.