The French aren’t ranting – they are ‘verbal jousting’
The French love to put the world to rights – loudly and passionately, says the founder of the emotional intelligence hub ‘The School of Life’ in Paris and author Fanny Auger. Talking about the weather, however, is another matter...
Even among themselves, the French have a reputation for being stroppy, constantly up in arms about something or other.
There is even a French joke about the probable reaction to the surprise announcement of an extra Bank Holiday: ‘Non! Non! Et non!’, goes the response. But the French are not really against everything on principle, argues author Fanny Auger, a French woman who has written a book about the art of conversation and debate, they just like a good discussion.
“The French aren’t grumblers, they just love to debate issues of the day and put the world to rights. They are more idealists than moaners,” she said.
“It’s their revolutionary heritage. They want a better world and they don’t see why it’s not possible and they love to debate what a better world would be like.
“In fact they love to debate almost everything ... except the weather. I know the British can talk forever about the possibility of rain but in France it’s the worst thing. If you find yourself discussing the weather your heart sinks!
“The other taboo is money.Americans discuss money all the time, but it makes most French people cringe! Everything else is open to debate. The French don’t shy away from religion or politics.
“In fact, they’re brought up to debate these subjects. The school system, the way they teach you to present a thesis, an anti-thesis and finally a synthesis, is a training for debate.
“It can seem as if the French are never satisfied and are always moaning about something, but the truth is a bit different.
“It’s verbal jousting, experimenting with ideas, discussing even non-pc subjects, in order to explore them. It’s in their DNA.”
French families, she says, debate and discuss things all the time, not furiously arguing but just for fun.
“It’s also a way of challenging perceived ideas, exploring new ones.
“People don’t always listen to each other, and don’t necessarily change each other’s ideas, but at least perhaps they understand other people’s points of view, which then makes their own views more nuanced.”
Her book Trêve de Bavardages (Enough Chitchat) is a pocket history of the importance of conversation, and a manual explaining how to have more enriching conversations.
But that does not mean she is completely against casual chitchat. “Bla-bla is the glue in communities, it’s an exchange of some sort.
“It’s better than people in offices who simply say ‘Bonjour, ça va?’ every morning, and keep walking towards their desks without even waiting for the answer.”
She says she saw increased debating during last year’s presidential elections. “People on the streets were talking politics, discussing who to vote for. Politics is never anodyne. It was fascinating to hear the conversations.”
She does not just mean people talking face-to-face, either. She includes magazine articles, letters to the press, strangers exchanging ironic jokes on the train, opinions on social media – and strikes and demonstrations.
“What is interesting is that many people were predicting extensive strikes and demonstrations last autumn, in response to Macron’s new employment legislation but it hasn’t happened because people are waiting to see what he does.
“That’s French idealism. If they don’t like it people will fight for something better, but in the meantime, these public conversations reveal the ‘esprit du temps’ which is ‘wait-and-see’.
“A good conversation is more about listening than talking. You have to listen in all the senses of the word; be open, accept what’s said.
“People often say they love conversing with me, when in fact I’ve spent more time listening than speaking.
“And that’s a very powerful piece of knowledge. We are over-exposed to messages, from advertising, news reports, Facebook posts, email messages and fluff; we’re constantly receiving information, but we need and want to be listened to.
“Sometimes you have to stop notifications on your phone.
“You have to manage the input very clearly in order to have the space to listen. We have to reflect how we converse and keep space in our lives for real conversations about the state of the world and the direction we want to see it moving...”
Ms Auger, who has lived and worked all over the world, says conversation binds us and shows us other ways of living. “Living abroad clarifies your view of your own country: with distance you see things more clearly.
“And listening to friends from Taiwan, Italy, the UK, and South Africa helps me see what is unique about France. Learning about new cultures illuminates my own.”