Comedienne Bianca Del Rio, sometimes known as Roy Haylock, uses the phrase, “Not today, Satan, not today” when things haven’t gone as planned but she’s determined not to let the devil get in her way. We had that kind of day recently. Today’s blog post was supposed to be about a day trip to a hot springs spa town in the Pyrenees with a stopover on the way home in a once fortified Roman town with a 10th century castle still towering over it. We got as far as Toulouse, about an hour into the trip, when we discovered that our connecting train had been cancelled and later departures were likely to suffer the same fate. We then invoked what is second-nature to us and something we discovered that many French people admire about Americans: an inclination to turn a negative situation positive in an effort to make something successful. Even our friends here have confirmed to us this perceived cultural difference we had read about.
Our friend Larry sent us a link to an article from the BBC about why, according to the author, the most popular word in French is “non”. She was trying to rebook a changeable, fully-refundable airline ticket but was getting resistance from the agent on the phone. One explanation provided was that if your initial response to a question is “no” then you have the opportunity to gather more information and perhaps change to a “yes” if the situation warrants it. From what I read, it might also be that since the English language has 7 times as many words as French sometimes the Anglophone has an exact word while the Francophone might have to be more creative and perhaps a bit ambiguous by using several words to make a point. The school system here cultivates this talent by encouraging students to debate both sides of an argument and only then draw a conclusion after considering different points of view. At dinner parties we are often asked not only what we think about a particular situation but more importantly why we believe that way. We simply haven’t encountered the “I’m right—you’re wrong!” mindset.
I just read in an online issue of Expatriates Magazine Paris the idea that the way the French language is constructed could make it appear that people here are prone to negativity and complaining. For example, in English we might say, “We had a great time!” whereas the word-for-word translation for a commonly used French equivalent would be, “We didn’t get bored.” The same goes for, “I love it!” that comes out as, “I don’t detest it at all.”
Are the French a negative people who say, “non”, all of the time? We don’t think so but then we also believe that you get back exactly what you give out. A smile and a “bonjour” are returned to us every time.
Travel update: We’ve rebooked that trip into the mountains and should be telling you all about it soon.