“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.”
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?”
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.