Friday, December 24, 2010

Final grand theory (France’s gift to me)

What did I learn in France? The big take-away for me was the relative lack of shame. And I am surprised by how revolutionary this is to me. All the functionality and sense of entitlement shown by the French could very well come from what I see as a lack of desire to make people feel bad. Or, put another way, a great desire to shore people up, let them feel good, appreciate them for who they are, and protect them from humiliation.

And it could all be in my head—is probably a theory that says more about me than anything about “the French”—but I am enjoying the fantasy and finding it really helpful. (I chose not to watch French daytime TV just to keep it alive.)

In the US, and even more so in England (and perhaps in other northern European countries like Germany and Scandinavia), I find there is a
real sense that when you do something wrong, people want you to feel bad about yourself. The correct response is to show that you feel bad, that you are humbled. Feeling remorse, putting yourself down, is the polite thing to do. Nothing is more infuriating in these cultures than a lack of shame. Pride goeth before a fall and all that.

And England has perfected the art of the put down. They do this brilliantly. They don’t just say, “Take your feet off the table.” They add some shame and say, “Who do you think you are? Have some common decency and respect for humanity. How could you even consider putting your feet on the table?” The idea is that a poor choice comes from a fundamentally flawed personality. Make a mistake and it reflects on your inner character.

In England (and America too, but most strongly in England, I think), there is a huge premium placed on not losing face. It seems that many of the news stories on public figures are about embarrassment, how they were shamed. Sometimes it seems that the whole purpose of public figures in England (and America) is to watch them be taken off their pedestal. It is so common to have someone try to “put you in your place” that one strategy is to simply do it for them, and put yourself down first. Make it a joke. Much of British and American comedy is self-deprecating and about humiliation.

I just don’t see this in France. There is not this strong shame/embarrassment/self-deprecating side to the culture. Sure, the French are seen as having big heads as a result, but do they care? French politicians and public figures are rarely embarrassed. They make mistakes like everyone else, but there is very little “outing” or shaming. Soccer phenomenon Zinedine Zidane’s head-butt at the end of his career would have ruined him if he had been English. In France, he is still a popular and respected figure.

Imagine a place where no one wants you to feel fundamentally bad about yourself! This is the most foreign thing to me yet. Sure, they might get irritated, want you to change your behavior, but they don’t want you to be humiliated. Putting someone down is not a habitual reflex.

In France, if I wear the biggest size in a store and something doesn’t fit, it is not that I am somehow the wrong shape or size, it is simply that the right clothes haven’t been designed yet. Wow.

And people in France are willing to go out of their way to protect you from humiliation. In fact, if you act humiliated or embarrassed when you make a mistake, I think it’s more your embarrassment than the initial mistake that irritates them. The cover up is worse than the crime. They are infuriated by humility.

I love this. If you let it in, stop taking criticism to heart, you might just find a whole culture set up to defend your basic feeling of goodness. It’s a pretty fundamentally different way of seeing things for me, not something that I am used to at all. Imagine a place where you don’t need to be defensive. Where instead of people looking for a chink in your armor, the hole in your façade, you feel the people all around you wanting to build you up, enjoying the artifice you’ve created. They want to appreciate the persona that is you, they don’t want to tear it down.

And this sort of inner confidence is very appealing. Could it be why the French seem to have an inner glow, why they are so attractive? It’s not just the food or something in the water (or wine).

Perhaps this lack of a burden of shame is what gives them the confidence to glide over ice and seemingly effortlessly avoid collisions, how they can walk all day in high heels, feel they deserve leisurely two-hour lunches. It might explain why it is no problem to undress if front of a doctor---there is nothing to hide. And this is perhaps why the burka is so infuriating---it’s wearing humility and shame on your sleeve (or whole body, really).

Imagine there being no original sin, instead just a fundamental feeling of rightness, a whole culture set up to defend a basic feeling of goodness inside. This could even explain the “French paradox” of how they smoke, drink, eat high fat foods and have one of the longest life expectancies in Europe.

Maybe I only see this idealized side of French culture because I’m peeking through the fence and only taking in what I choose to take in, but I still think it’s possible…and what a gift that is.


Rob Duisberg said...

This strikes me as a remarkable cultural insight, and one that had never occurred to me before, even though I have a French brother-in-law and all. And regardless of its objective "truth," as a perception or attitudinal perspective or personal choice, I think it is brilliant. An excellent notion to cultivate! Thank you! -Rob

Robin S said...

Great post. I think Catholics exhibit less shame because they unload their sins in confessional, and this is generalized in their society. The Protestants wear their shame 24/7.

Ning said...

Very interesting thoughts, Jane. What an experience you had! I can't wait to talk to you when you get back.

Catie said...

I love this insight. You know the expression, "you might as well be speaking French". This is how this concept is for me. It's something I can't even quite grasp or imagine. I love your somewhat revolutionary suggestion that shame is a cultural phenomenon, not just a human one. This gives me great hope...Vive La France! and Merci Jenny!--Catie

Johnno said...

Hi JeninCO - can you email me We are envisaging a move to France from Boulder, and wanted to ask you some questions about your experience there. Thx! John.