Cultured Insolence

“Wit is Cultured Insolence” – Aristotle

So last night while watching “The Walking Dead” there was a moment when our heroes drive by a frantic and lone hiker on the highway without picking him up.  It is heart-wrenching as the hiker runs after them screaming in stark desperation and eventually falls on his face as they silently drive on unwilling to stop and help.  Even now, just thinking about this scene makes me want to start crying.  Now, of course, I realize that this is a fictional television show about a zombie apocalypse (yes, even writing that out makes me roll my eyes at myself) but I’m telling you – it was a compelling moment, a moment that made my core of humanity shiver at the possibility of ever being so completely turned off.  Even in such a wildly fictional world it was painful to watch a cold and cruel moment.

MB, however, smirked.

“Oh my god,” I shriek.  “That is so depressing, what is wrong with you?  How can you find that funny?!

He’s laughing a bit when he turns to me, “mais non, I don’t think it’s funny, it is horrible.  I mean, it’s crazy!”

“Then why are you laughing?”

“Because it is not funny otherwise.”

“huh?”

He shrugs; this makes perfect sense to a Frenchman.

The French have a little bit of a “mean girl” sense of humor.  It is something I noticed when I first started dating MB and he showed me some classic French films.  I watched in horror while he and his friend (also French) held their stomachs laughing during “Dîner de Cons”, a film about a group of people who have a dinner party in which they are each required to bring a moron for the rest of them to make fun of.  I sat there in shock, confused as to how anyone could find such a cruel premise funny; and even though our leading “mean boy” finally receives his comeuppance I couldn’t reconcile the meanness of the jokes with the slap on the wrist at the end.  It is a type of humor that just doesn’t work for this happy-ending-loving American; where were my birds and squirrels sewing ball gowns, where were my “Bad News Bears?”  Probably being kicked in the head by “La Chevre” (another “make fun of well-meaning morons” French film) before being sent to 18th Century Versailles pour le “Ridicule” (this French film leaves out the moron for the more heavy hitting insults).

And it isn’t just in the films that this humor exists but in day to day life as well.  This week in my French class our teacher reviewed the vocabulary for qualities and faults.  In order to work on class participation, she opened a group discussion in which we all listed a few qualities about ourselves.  After I listed my qualities she turned to the class and said, “okay, now, what do you think that her faults are?  Who would like to take a guess at some of her faults?”

(Crickets)

I looked at the other foreign students in the class who all sat silently, looking at each other questioningly as if to say, “oh my god, do we actually say something?!”  I started laughing.  It was so absurd; none of us are from a culture where we could conceive of listing out a stranger’s supposed faults publicly and to their face (that last bit is put in for those of us who have no problem listing faults behind someone’s back…what?  I wrote “us?”  Well, I don’t mean me, obviously!).  The teacher shrugged and continued the lesson without forcing us to affront our new classmates…but I suspect she would have liked us all a lot more if we had made a go of it. 

This is not to say that the French are mean; they aren’t…but they do enjoy a well-played witticism (read: not-too-mean-insult).  Now that being said, they may dish it out but they can take it as well.  I have often sat bemused at dinner parties watching the hardcore “ribbing” that goes on at the table; they all think it is hilarious and are just as quick to laugh at themselves as at someone else.  It is like a formal fencing match – you don’t throw a fit when you opponent makes a hit but instead you respect and congratulate them.  It is a delight in wickedness rather than mean-spiritedness.

Here is a perfect example from the film “Ridicule” – I like to call this “aggressive word play”.

So prepare your thick skin before entering the French sphere and make sure that you have a sense of humor about yourself, for as they say in the film “Ridicule”, “wit opens any door” and you wouldn’t want to end up in a French zombie apocalypse with nothing clever to say.

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14 Responses to Cultured Insolence

  1. Brea Brown says:

    I believe they made “Dîner de Cons” into “Dinner for Schmucks” here in America, and it did NOT do well. We’re definitely more of a “make fun behind people’s backs” kind of culture. Which is just as bad, right? But we love righteous indignation.

  2. Cécile says:

    Great post! Once again you described and illustrated a real cultural difference. Here in NZ, I noticed people are very reluctant to say anything negative about a third person, even if the third person is not there. At first, i thought, “wow, they’re nice people” but after a while I noticed the subtle way they actually do criticise. I’ve often heard: “it’s interesting” meaning “I don’t like it”. What was your experience with the kiwis?

    • breadispain says:

      Thanks Cecile – I always love getting your feedback on whether or not you feel I am getting it right. 🙂 This is definitely one I noticed early on! Hmmm…yeah, I’d say the Kiwis (in my experience) are pretty reluctant to say something to someone’s face…unless you start talking politics, haha! And yes – the “it’s interesting” is right on…where I am from in the U.S. we have the joke about “nice”. Like, “oh my goodness, that is perfectly NICE.” Same thing!! 🙂

  3. Just thought I’d let you know that I had *exactly* the same experience watching ‘Dîner de Cons’ with Cécile. Such a mean movie, but she was in hysterics.

  4. Den Nation says:

    I’ve been reading your blog for a year now. I find your posts witty and full of humour. Thanks for the great read!

    What really baffles me is how you can sit around the table and totally disagree with French people and have what you would consider to be a fight and the next day everyone wakes up and is best friends again.

    Once I argued with a French woman about the French system regarding stages. I stayed up for hours that night; I just couldn’t stop thinking about ‘our flight’ and how our friendship was definitely over. When I saw her a few days later it was like nothing had ever happened.

    • breadispain says:

      LOL – oh my goodness – you may be my emotional twin! I am the same exact way when fights/disagreements happen; I analyze analyze analyze and feel worried about it and so concerned about how the relationship may be effected. In France, they definitely just move right on with a shrug – it is something I LOVE since I have a tendency to express my opinion freely (and not always eloquently)…although it may get me in trouble if I end up back Stateside, haha!

      And thank you so much for such kind feedback!! I have a lot of fun writing it and contemplating all our cultural idiosyncrasies. 🙂

  5. Theresa says:

    When are you getting a book deal?!? Seriously!

    Also, you should get your blog listed on all the expat directories out there, like:
    http://www.expatsblog.com/blogs/submit
    http://www.expat-blog.com/en/directory/europe/france/
    http://gofrance.about.com/od/blogs/Top_France_and_Paris_Travel_and_Expat_Blogs.htm

    Who knows how many other awards you’ll end up getting!

    • breadispain says:

      Haha – I figure I’ll get my book deal when you open your publishing company! How about it? 🙂 Thanks so much for nice words – you are the best motivator ever…especially since I am so bad at promoting this little blog. I am on some of the expat directories but I know I need to spend some time just working on marketing…not my strong suit. Thanks for the links – I will check them out and get on the ball!!

  6. Oh, I am so with you on this one. Mean humour is just not up my alley, never was, never will be. So I still pause and shrug (not the Gallic kind, the genuinely confused kind) when it is considered a sign of friendship when someone “gently” rips you to pieces!! 😮
    PS. Remi is up in Grenoble today! So wish that I could have come too…

    • breadispain says:

      Indeed, I don’t really get it but at least I am used to it now! At first it really through me for a loop. 🙂

      DANG – you gotta come with next time – bring the pups and we’ll walk them up the Bastille!

  7. Sara Louise says:

    I feel like I might be a little French 😉

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