Sunday, May 15, 2005

Words Before Action

Americans – and expatriates of other nationalities – living in France are sometimes astonished at the French penchant for "discussion".

Some even go so far as to assert that the French prefer words to action. Business executives frequently complain about the apparently agendaless, lengthy meetings which seem to consist of "nothing but discussion". The radio and TV here are filled with talk shows and at any time of the day or night one can tune in to reruns containing particular percipience.

What these foreign observers fail to grasp, being in French life but not of it, is the emphasis the French place on analysis, whether of a situation, a work of art, or an action. Succinctly, the French feel that to obtain the desired result from any action or series of actions, for example, a detailed analysis must be carried out beforehand. In daily life, this analysis takes the form of "discussion", for want of a better word. Cartesians, the French place equal emphasis on la forme et le fond ("the form and the substance"). Both must be carefully dissected, examined and combined to produce a suitable action plan - or critique, or opinion. It's as simple – or as complex - as that.

Success stories abound: the Citroen traction and la Sécu, for example. More recently Concorde, the Smartcard, Airbus and GSM spring to mind, as do hypermarkets, the TGV and Doctors Without Borders. Given situations were analyzed, almost to exhaustion, and appropriate plans developed and brilliantly executed.

Sometimes the analysis is profound but the plan catastrophic, with ensuing failure. The Minitel was designed and built to a) raise keyboard consciousness among the French people, b) move French society into the information age and c) ensure French excellence in computing for years to come. Wildly successful in parts a and b, it failed miserably in part c due to the adoption of a quirky minimalist standard that was just not exportable. The current brouhaha over the lundi de Pentecôte is another case in point. Working more to make a better life for senior citizens is a great idea, but it's the execution of the plan that is wanting.

Naturally, too much analysis and discussion can lead to apparent - or genuine - paralysis. After an overly long analytical period, the conditions laid down at the beginning may no longer hold true. Example ? Building a tramway in the Paris suburbs might have sounded like a good idea in the 1960s when public transport was king and people didn't own automobiles. Such a plan might have been debated and adopted in the late 1970s, after a 10-year analytical period, but never put into effect due to lack of financing and political clout. Resurrecting the same scheme in 2005 without taking into account the changes in society since then would be sheer folly and some French people realize it. The answer ? Re-analyzing the situation and modifying – or scrapping – the original plan. To the outside observer, this will appear, alas, as "discussion" or "inaction".

An example of prolonged analysis and paralysis ? In the late 1960s, the press was filled with headlines concerning the possibility that banks might pay interest on checking accounts. It was against French law and the consumer associations were pushing for change. The law needed to be revised, but, before modification, light needed to be shone on the possible and probable consequences - to consumers and to financial institutions, including La Poste - of such a momentous change. In the end, who could benefit, who could lose ? How ? When ? Like a mythical sea serpent, this issue surfaced regularly in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. Study supplanted study, survey succeeded survey, discussion followed discussion.

Unbelievably, the question has only just been resolved. Several years ago when the euro was introduced, the Spanish bank Caixa announced that it would thenceforth pay interest on checking accounts. The government pointed out that it was still illegal and Caixa went to court, sending the issue up to the European level. The verdict was returned last year: the French law was illegal and interest could be paid on checking accounts. Nigh-on two generations to decide such an apparently cut-and-dried issue ? Yes.

Participating fully in French life requires constant exchange. No matter what one's opinions, one would do well to develop the patience to listen to and understand French "discussions" (aka analyses) and subsequent actions. One reason is to learn the manner in which the French see the world, and another is purely for one's self-improvement. If one is not comfortable with "discussions" (because of lack of intellectual interest or even language shortcomings) and prefers "action" to "words", France can be a very frustrating place.


Text © Copyright 2005 by L'Amerloque


Blogger PTA Mom said...

I love France and am so happy to be here, but it definitely is frustrating. I am a typical American in that I want to just "do" and don't want to have a discussion about what I want to do. This is particularly the case when I ask for something and am told "no." I usually walk away. I know I should have a talk with the person to persuade them that I have a good reason for what I want to do, but it's so exhausting! The French love a good story. At least this is what I've found.

4:40 AM  
Blogger L'Amerloque said...

Hi Auntie !

This is particularly the case when I ask for something and am told "no." I usually walk away. I know I should have a talk with the person to persuade them that I have a good reason for what I want to do, but it's so exhausting!

It's always a good idea to obtain the other person's point of view. I try not to walk away, but usually enter into a conversation to find out why it's non. (smile) Yup, it can be very, very tiring, too !

The French love a good story. At least this is what I've found.

Yes, I've found that, too. It's all about the contexte The French like a lot of background before they make up their mind.


8:20 AM  
Blogger Sammy said...

Ahh, lundi Pentecôte...aren't we all just glad it's over and we can breathe a little (until next year)?

9:43 AM  
Blogger L'Amerloque said...

Hello Sammy !

Welcome aboard ! (smile)

This year there were virtually no ponts. May, in a good year, will yield three, at least: le 1er mai, le 8 mai and Ascension or lundi de Pentecôte. This lundi de Pentecôte was ... bof, as the French say. Cold and rainy, no sun.


11:13 AM  

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