Monday, March 23, 2009

Speaking Frankly

I like to listen to the radio station France Inter as I attempt to wake up in the morning, and this morning there were two items that actually got me to stop and think (no small feat for me before 10am). The first was a short segment on a new tendency amongst politicians to “parler cash.” I had to ask my husband (who is French), what that could possibly mean. Were they speaking about money? No, apparently this is the new slang for straight talk, plain speaking. This tendency will be welcomed with open arms by most ex-pat North Americans, who for years have had to cope with the French way of verbally attacking even the simplest of matters, that is, sideways. Though I love the French language and am in a state of continual awe at how French people use it with such elegance and style, their abhorrence of just saying what’s on their mind can really complicate your life. Direct speaking is generally frowned upon here, and those who choose that path are considered borderline barbarians. For example, in the early years of my marriage, when I would foolishly ask for the butter dish by saying: “pass me the butter dish,” my usually kind and mellow husband would go ballistic because I had not used the conditional tense.

So I was fascinated to hear that politicians like president Nicolas Sarkozy and Ségolène Royal would go so far as to “parler cash.” As the commentator pointed out, French politicians traditionally speak in a language so florid that even French people have a hard time figuring out what they are talking about, using unbearable tenses like the imperfect of the subjunctive. But he then went on to make the case that in fact, “parler cash” wasn’t as great as all that. That there was something vaguely sinister about it, and that while these politicians were daring to tell reporters how they felt about an issue, they were using this new way of talking to avoid saying what they might actually do about an issue. As if this new trend, which admittedly has an American tang, goes so against the cultural grain that it could only be a political subterfuge meant to confuse your average citoyen.

The other item was a hilarious riff by France Inter’s resident humorist Stéphane Guillon (photo above). At least, I thought it was pretty funny, I can’t imagine what a devout Catholic would think of it. Guillon, to put it mildly, took the Pope to task. In case you are not aware, Pope Benedict has been on a tear lately, not only re-instating four excommunicated bishops (including one that denies that the Holocaust happened), not only excommunicating a mother who obtained an abortion for her 9-year-old daughter who had been raped, but also declaring during his visit to Africa, a continent ravaged by AIDS, that condoms were not beneficial and even made the problem worse. I can’t recall all the highlights of Guillon’s rant, but neither he nor the radio station censored his detailed descriptions of condom use, nor his suggestion that the real problem was that the Pope, being chaste, was in need of sex ed, specifically on how a condom works, and even more specifically that the use of a certain type of vibrating ring is guaranteed to make lovers believe in the existence of God. Keep in mind that France Inter is basically government owned. Whatever prudishness French people may have about the use of the conditional, they are clearly way ahead of us when it comes to being direct and frank about sexual matters. Can anyone even begin to imagine NPR serving up a similar dish?

7 comments:

SeekOdin said...

Great post. I too am a fellow North American (Canadian though) living in Paris.

I agree, the French are very eloquent when they speak their own language (I DO NOT miss at all the Quebec French, which I find very crude and too direct if you want my opinion).

As for the overall French way of speaking one's mind on the media, I love it. North American TV comes nowhere near the depth and arguments you can see on French TV. No commercial breaks, people can say whatever they want, you don't constantly have to worry about being politically incorrect ...

Margie Rynn said...

I know, it's amazing. They talk over issues for hours without a commercial break. Sometimes it's almost too much...you wonder if all the talk doesn't become a substitute for action. But it is refreshing, after North American soundbites!

By the way, I'm not sure the Quebecois will agree with your assessment :)

Starman said...

I think the French dislike for "parler cash" is deeply rooted in their need to complicate matters as much as possible. Kind of like their devotion to politeness. You must say "bonjour" when entering a shop, but that doesn't stop the shop-person from being as rude as possible and making it seem as though he/she is doing you a favor just by being there, much less actually helping you.

Margie Rynn said...

While I agree that the French tend to go out of their way to complicate things, I disagree about the politeness thing. I tell people to imagine they are in Japan. There is a lot of protocol. As for the shops, French shop keepers take a lot of pride in their wares (often for good reason). They expect customers to show respect for their hard work. The customer is never right, they are. I usually find that if you go through all the politesse rituals, they soften up, but it's true that in tourist areas, they can be insufferable.

David said...

"parler cash" is not exactly new slang... I even find it a bit passé (but politicians are champions at using obsolete slang to try to sound cool and young)...

And I'm a bit confused about your "French people are not direct while Americans are."

French people are way more direct than Americans. Remember that in France we don't sugarcoat everything in order to "not hurt people's feelings" (even after years living in the US and being surrounded by Americans I'm still not sure how a feeling can be hurt... a person yes, but a feeling...) and what country invented political correctness? talk about a way to not speak directly and not call things what they are...

Finally, about using the conditional when you ask for the salt, it's not about being indirect it's about being formal... (so technically you shouldn't use it with your husband, unless you have an unusual relationship)

Shani said...

I don't know, I guess my American-ness is more deep rooted than I thought. After 9 years in France I still can't figure everyone out. Phfff...extremely rude on one hand, extremely polite on the other. I for one wouldn't mind a little more "sugarcoating" over here though.

Margie Rynn said...

I feel your pain. I've been here almost 9 years too and every time I think I've broken the code, some new and bizarre situation comes up that I'm not sure how to deal with. I'm beginning to think that this is just part of being an ex-pat.