“Uh-oh, I really hope she doesn’t poo, I don’t have any little bags with me.”
I am walking in the park with a couple of expat friends, one of whom has his dog with him.
“I might have a bag,” my other friend says, digging through her purse.
“Wow,” I say. “So do y’all always pick up your dog’s poo?”
“Yeah,” says friend number one. “I get a lot of weird looks from people when I do it, like ‘what on earth are you doing?’”
I laugh at this, thinking of the obstacle course of poo on the sidewalks throughout town (our nice little Espace Chiens aren’t in Centre Ville).
“Well,” friend number two chimes in. “My husband and I will stop and give people dirty looks when we see their dog go, you know, to see if they will pick it up.”
“Really?” I ask. “Have you ever been able to shame anyone into doing it?”
Friend number one looks at me as though I have missed something really obvious. “The French have no shame.”
This is a beautiful, hilarious, and sometimes annoying truth – there is no shame in the French game. They are an unflappable people when faced with societal judgment. For instance, Americans are working to eradicate cigarette smoking through a vigorous shame-campaign:
“What? You want a cigarette? We will need you to publicly whip yourself 3 times with this cat-o-nine-tails and then step into that designated smoking area – you see it, the space with the septic sewage oozing out from the ground.”
As you light your cigarette the town’s children surround you throwing rotten vegetables and pointing while yelling “Smoker! Smoker!”
Or something like that…perhaps that is a bit dramatic. My point is that we are trying really hard to change the branding of smoking from being something cool and/or normal to something gross and trashy because the thought is that if society decides it is nasty then that will dissuade younger generations from smoking (aka: through shame).
This is why I am constantly amused/surprised by the references to cigarettes throughout my French courses. In one of my grammar textbooks there is a chapter of exercises (a chapter is about 3 pages) which includes 4 different sentences on the subject of cigarettes, I’ve even had teachers use smoking as examples for sentence structure in class. These are things that would be incomprehensible in the United States. Smoking in a textbook?! Tsk, tsk!
The French just take a different view on the matter – and no, it is not the view that nothing is wrong with smoking, but perhaps rather the idea that public shaming just isn’t going to be the most effective method in France. In fact, it could even encourage the behavior it is trying to prevent:
“Pffff…you say smoking is disgusting and I should be ashamed, uh? Challenge accepted, you bureaucratic oaf – I will now smoke on your baby and then casually dump my ashtray in the front seat of your car…and it will be dead sexy, uh?”
This is a society that doesn’t accept embarrassment and therefore can’t be controlled through threat of humiliation. Line-skipping is another good example. The French aren’t exactly keen on one-by-one straight queues for things but rather mass disorder and a collective gathering at point of payment or entry – it’s a dog eat dog kind of situation and one in which it is very easy to be skipped. It is no rarity to have someone brazenly step in front of you while waiting on a line (especially little old ladies). In the United States if this happened you might be able to make someone self-conscious enough to apologize or move by giving them dirty looks or talking loudly about their rudeness…not so in France. In France it is more like this:
This is you: “I can’t BELIEVE that chick just stepped right in front of me. Give her laser eyes, make her feel super uncomfortable. DEATH STARE – DEATH STARE! HA – TAKE THAT! This is going to be the most awkward wait of your life you LINE-SKIPPER!”
French Response #1: “I think there is something wrong with the person behind me. They look crazy – I am glad I got in front so that I will be out of here first.”
French Response #2: “There is someone behind me?”
French Response #3: *yawn*
The French just don’t have a desperate need for approval (like Americ—what? Nothing, I didn’t say a thing). They are content to dictate their own personal behaviors and no amount of societal humiliation is going to make them pick up their dog poo or queue in an orderly fashion if they don’t want to. It just isn’t the French way and I suspect it probably never has been.
Let’s journey back to Gaius and Sextus, our Ancient Roman Sentinels stationed in formerly Gallic territory to better exemplify the point.
Gaius: This place is driving me crazy!
Sextus: Oh come on, at least it isn’t as crowded as Rome.
Gaius: But that’s just it, Sextus, in Rome at least there is some order but these Gauls are killing me. None of them ever line up straight, just the other day when I was off to get some bread, right as the baker opened his door they all just crowded up towards it. You couldn’t tell who was first and who was last. I told two of them that if they didn’t get out of my way I would have them beat and you know what they did?
Sextus: Uh…got the heck out of your way?
Gaius looks at Sextus and shakes his head mournfully.
Gaius: No, they didn’t. They just acted like they couldn’t hear me.
Sextus: Woah. Bold move.
Gaius: Right?! I mean, don’t they realize that they have been enslaved, humiliated? Where is their shame?
At this moment a Gaul approaches the two of them, heading towards the door to the Praetorium.
Sextus: And just where do you think you’re going?
Gaul: To the Praetorium…obviously.
Sextus: HEY –
Sextus smacks the Gaul on the behind with the broad side of his sword.
Sextus: Don’t get mouthy with me!
Gaius: Yeah – you have to show us respect! It is the law!
The Gaul gives them a pointed look.
Gaius: Kneel, you Gallic trash!
Gaius and Sextus exchange a look with each other and Gaius whispers in Sextus’ ear.
Gauis: This is exactly what I was talking about.
Sextus walks towards the Gaul and stands over him menacingly.
Sextus: Look here, if you don’t kneel now you will be shunned from any and all decent society! You will be mocked and people will turn their back on you in the street!
At this point our Gaul just shrugs and walks on through the gates.
The world would never be the same.