Stranger in a familiar land

After eight years living abroad, already well aware of the differences between Paris and Midwestern America, I usually still feel a shock when I go back for my annual visit. A culture shock, naturally.

It’s normally just details like the abrupt change in what people are wearing once I deplane in Chicago—a lot less black, way more baseball caps—and other things like hearing English all around me and noticing strangers striking up conversations with each other. Although it’s sometimes hard to distinguish true culture shock from the disorientation I feel after an eight-hour flight and no sleep.

This kind of reverse culture shock is usually but a momentary disorientation, fading after a day or two once I re-accustom myself to my former everyday landscape. I shouldn’t even really call it shock, since I know about and expect these differences.

During my last visit earlier this summer, though, the differences for some reason seemed greater. I also found myself paying more attention than usual to all the little things that had changed in my home city since the time I first left. Improbable new flavors of Mars Bars and M&Ms at checkout counters. A laundromat that had become an electronic cigarette shop and a parking lot that used to be a bank. New teenage clothing styles I hadn’t noticed before. And most disconcertingly, large flat-screen monitors at the train station playing mass-shooting survival instructions (similar to these) on a loop.

And then I had a strange experience that went way beyond normal culture shock.

I had been cozily isolated at my parents’ house in the Wisconsin countryside for a week or two, not venturing into town much but spending my time with family and taking advantage of the large kitchen to try out new recipes. A visit to my sister in Minneapolis was next on the agenda, and on the way I would need to stop by my bank to reset the PIN number of my debit card.

I felt fine when I entered the mainly empty branch office, where I was greeted a tall, solidly built man in his 30s who looked inordinately happy to see me. A dark-haired young woman behind a counter seemed to share his feeling. To my surprise, this unnerved me. I stopped where I was for a moment, halfway between the door and the counter, to collect myself while the two of them smiled broadly in my direction as if I were a celebrity. This was of course completely normal, I knew, especially in a semi-rural area of the Midwest. But their attentiveness somehow struck me as aggressive. I went up to the woman to explain what I was there for, hoping I could get the PIN number changed without too much delay.

“How are you doing today?” the woman asked, before I could speak. I had a curious urge to back away and almost narrowed my eyes at her. How can she be so personal when we’ve never met? And yet, countless times in my life, I reminded myself, strangers had inquired as to my well-being and I’d never been bothered. In fact, it was nice that she’d asked. Feeling more and more out of place, I managed to react as a normal American would, telling her I was fine and returning the question before going into the situation with my card.

Using the word “you” to address her suddenly also felt odd, overly intimate. But there is no “vous” in English. I wanted to reach for a more formal equivalent that just wasn’t there.

For a debit card problem I would need to speak with Doug over there, the woman informed me. She motioned to a corner, bracelets clinking, and I turned to see the tall man grinning at me from the entrance to his padded cubicle.

After shaking his hand and going through another how-are-you-good-and-you, I dutifully sat down, with a growing sense of unease, in front of Doug’s desk while he called up my account details on his computer. This took a few moments, which gave him time for chitchat. “So, what are your plans for the weekend?”

What? My mind raced. Why would he ask that? The question took me off guard—it felt invasive and wrong, the way it would be if a casual acquaintance at a dinner party asked you to state your yearly income. I fidgeted with my cardigan, pulling one side up over the other. “I’m spending a few days in Minneapolis with my sister,” I confessed, unprepared to make up an alternate story but feeling a bit violated. Come on, I told myself, he’s just being friendly like everyone else here. I got more flustered and began inspecting my nails.

“Small world—I’m going there myself tomorrow to see some old college buddies,” he replied. “We’re going to the beer festival. Have you been to the Twin Cities before?”

Somewhere around this point, I felt myself sort of split into two. The American me recovered her senses and joined in the talk without missing a beat. Yes, I’d been there many times since my sister moved there ten years ago. Yes, I liked the city and we did have some fun things planned to do during my stay. The non-American me (I prefer this to the overly restrictive “French me”) was appalled at his presumption and mentally crossed her arms over her chest. What’s it to him if I’ve been there before? What’s he after anyway? Say you’ll be really busy so he doesn’t get any ideas. Say it!

Meanwhile, American me kept talking. She made a final few remarks about the size of the art museum and the nice restaurant scene in Minneapolis before moving on to the second order of business: finding out how to deposit a check remotely. Doug explained that I could download the bank’s app and just scan it. “Here, let me show you.”

American me turned on her phone and went to the App Store but remembered she had no network there with her French phone plan. “The coffee shop just next door has wifi,” Doug volunteered. “You can download it over there. I’ll go with you if you like.” Non-American me poked American me in the shoulder, a little too hard. Why would he go so far out of his way to help? We’d better get out of here.

The encounter ended without incident and I was soon on the train to Minneapolis, musing over my bizarre experience. It had been like inhabiting two sets of consciousness at once, with two simultaneous sets of reactions. Two identities superimposed in the same body. Clearly, the bank representative hadn’t had any ulterior motives in my regard and was just being friendly. If he’d been after something else, American me would have detected it. But non-American me was taken aback by his approach, automatically filtering it through the prism of what would be normal in France, and couldn’t help wondering what he was up to. At the very least, she was so unused to a stranger showing an interest (however transient) in her personal life that she was disturbed by it.

For the first time, I had experienced American culture directly through foreign eyes, having the visceral reactions of a non-American myself rather than just imagining what someone would think or feel in a given situation. The new identity I had developed over the past eight years could not so easily be set aside.

Even if unfamiliar with French culture, you will have deduced from this story that customer service in France, where I live, is quite different from the American approach. In France, the default behavior of people working with the public is one of businesslike straightforwardness largely devoid of emotion, an attitude that often strikes Americans as cold or rude (but actually is not). In your everyday life in France, whether you’re buying bread at the bakery or trying to return the wrong size shoes at a department store, you will usually be assisted by no-nonsense individuals who greet you courteously but don’t act like they want to be your friend. There’s no “How are you?” because that’s perceived as nosy.

Customer service people also don’t fall all over themselves to assist you. They’ll help you when they’re good and ready. If you’re standing at a grocery store check-out, your items on the conveyor belt in full view of a cashier already busy stocking a shelf, they might come over only once they’re done. And this isn’t meant to offend; there’s just an understanding here that customers need to be reasonable and patient.

Smiling is purely optional. Even catcalling men on the streets of Paris have never told me to smile. (What do they say, you ask? Just last week, one of them trampled upon all the rules of civilized society and yelled Bonjour! Ça va? in my direction.).

To be fair, most of my experiences with France are concentrated in Paris, and as any non-Parisian will tell you, this city is not representative of all of France. Like in most countries, attitudes in smaller towns tend to be friendlier than in large cities. Parisians themselves are aware of their general reputation for unfriendliness. In this short comedy sketch from 2003, French actor Omar Sy (The Untouchables, Mood Indigo) plays a Malian immigrant who quickly learns that his natural friendliness is not welcome in Paris. He decides to assimilate to the culture of his new home, becoming just as grouchy, unhelpful and unapologetic as everyone else—a move that earns him the approval and respect of his next-door neighbor.

In the US of course, people working in customer service are encouraged and expected (by their managers, by society) to be very friendly, smile a lot, and make small talk. This is famously interpreted by many non-Americans—not just the French—as fake and superficial, as they suspect these people are not really so happy to see them. Yet when you know the culture, you understand that there isn’t any duplicity in it because the other players of the game (other Americans and people living in the US) already know that it isn’t meant to be genuine, that the friendliness is intended to last for the duration of the encounter, to create a cheerful ambiance.

Of course, these tendencies are merely the default; exceptions can always be found. Smiling customer service people do exist in Paris, although this is more likely to reflect their genuine mood of the moment, and I certainly encountered some gruff, grumpy characters during this stay in the US—most notably, and just as genuinely, at the DMV.

I had a few more culture-difference annoyances during this stay, particularly at restaurants. I myself worked as a restaurant server in the US for years during my university days and completely understand the reasons behind a waiter or waitress’s accommodating—some might say obsequious—manner. But I was more irritated by it this time than during other visits back. I just wanted to be left alone, even if it meant I would have to chase after the waiter in the event of a problem.

And now I will reveal a paradox. In spite of my reactions at the bank and the restaurants in the US, in spite of what I’ve grown accustomed to here in France, friendliness among strangers (to a point!) is one of the few things about the US that I miss.

My context-independent, innermost feelings about smiling and being friendly are complicated. Despite my nationality, I am by nature a rather solemn, poker-faced individual and an introvert, a condition that’s only exacerbated by working as a freelance translator. So on the one hand, my natural disinclination to smile too easily means that I’m comfortable (to a certain degree) living in a non-smiling place. But on the other hand, I’m aware that smiling can be good for you, physiologically speaking, as long as you don’t feel forced. And it can be contagious, helping lift the moods of people around you even if just by a little. When I’m in the US I find it’s good for me to be prodded by social situations into smiling and opening up a bit rather than staying encased in a shell as I would otherwise, or as usually happens in Paris.

I will admit I’ve sometimes given in to the temptation to make small talk in France (strategically, to the right type of person—recall my reaction to Doug), partly out of a real need to talk to someone besides my cat.

If it were up to me, I would probably dial American effusiveness down a bit and turn up the volume on smiling and small-talk in France. Some people are just never satisfied. 😉

Just how American am I now? How French/non-American have I become? I’m sure that my inner core is still quite American, having been forged in the US over several decades, and that if I were to move back I would shed my non-American reflexes after a while. But for the moment they’re still firmly in place.

The very last day of my five-week visit, I was back at that same train station with the mass-shooting video and nearly collided with a woman coming the other way around a corner. At a speed exceeding that of rational thought, an apology in French rather than English burst out of me. Whatever my cultural behaviors might be, the default public language of my operating system has clearly been reset to French.

4 thoughts on “Stranger in a familiar land

  1. You’re not “French me”, you’re “European me”!

    I think you are suffering a little from living in Paris – people out in the sticks in France tend to be a little bit more chatty and open, especially in Normandy, for some reason, where they’re astonishingly cheerful compared to all the other parts of France I’ve lived in. But I do understand your (sometime) yearning for a bit more effusiveness in customer-facing staff.

    It’s one of the things I really notice when I go back to the UK – most checkout staff are extremely friendly and you can usually have a joke with them about something. And unlike the US version I think it’s actually genuine… mind you, the Brits have always been good at comedy in crisis situations, and they certainly need to be these days! I do, however, vividly remember my encounter with American checkout staff on my one trip to the country nearly 30 years ago. I was so traumatised by the almost aggressive animation they displayed that I’ve never got up the nerve to visit since.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank for you this lovely blog — it sings out in full voice my heart’s laments… I.e. WHY are they accosting me with fake cheerfulness when I go “home” to the States, it’s comforting and disconcerting at the same time. And WHY must people in positions of customer service in *Paris*, on est d’accord, be so grumpy and unenthused.

    I am a classic case of the expat who feels foreign at times just about everywhere.

    Thanks again for this. Very well articulated and insightful.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I too feel foreign everywhere to an extent, Ann – but equally I also feel that I’m capable of surviving anywhere (well, to the extent that “anywhere” encompasses somewhere women have the right to exist as individuals, that is). So I prefer to think of myself as a European – or, Teresa May notwithstanding – as a citizen of the world!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I love this blog so much! I could visualize everything you described. Since I’ve been living in Oregon for one year, I found it interesting how much I know about my patients lives. Everyone is so open and friendly here. When I learn that some of my patients speak French, every so often a French word or phrase would slip out of my mouth while treating them. I agree about the over-friendliness at restaurants or any service oriented place in Oregon as well. I still find it weird that people want to put my groceries in a bag at the supermarket when I check out. Thanks for sharing your culture shock experience. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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