Lovely Awkward: A Year of Wine, Romance and Life Among the French

Lovely Awkward: A Year of Wine, Romance and Life Among the French

Monday 11 July 2011

How to talk to strangers

When I first moved to France, I was struck by the differences in the interactions among strangers in our two countries. And now that we've landed back in Canada for the summer, I find I've been struck by those differences in the opposite direction -- at least, I've been reminded of them, going the other way. It's a subtle divide which, for me, revolves mostly around what or who is considered invisible.

The invisible person -- Canada

In Canada, there's often an invisible person who accompanies someone who is out in public, running errands. That invisible person can be a teenager, a child, a boyfriend or girlfriend, or even a friend who doesn't have anything to do with the errand being run, but is just along for the ride. I only realized this person existed in Canada when I went to France, and tried to be the invisible person, the one standing next to the person with the credit card, trying to go unnoticed at the cash. In France, the person at the checkout ALWAYS talks to both of you. In Canada, the person at the checkout will ignore you if you aren't part of the transaction being processed and don't engage them directly. You can even talk to your mom, boyfriend, or whoever and sometimes your concerns will go unheard by the cashier.

Yesterday, I went to a pharmacy in Canada where the pharmacist had to turn to another pharmacist to ask a question for me. The second pharmacist started putting on lip balm while she spoke and said her answer in a weird pharmacist short hand while searching through her pockets for gum. It took me a moment to realize that the second pharmacist, who wasn't part of our little transaction, was also supposed to be invisible -- as invisible as if she'd been consulted over the phone. But since I'd just come from France, I at first thought she was just being rude.

Invisible conversations -- France

In France, other people can't overhear your conversations. The French usually speak more quietly than Canadians, sure. But as an alert-eared Canadian, I can still hear the French voices; I'm just not supposed to. In France, you're supposed to keep your nose out of other people's business and you can't enter into a stranger's conversation just because you've got something to say on their topic or think you can offer help. Canadians seem to be known for this among the French, mostly because of our extraordinary efforts to help French visitors figure out where they are on Canadian maps, made even before we're asked.

When we got off of the plane in Montreal this week, we were with a group of other people from France, many of whom walked beside us, straight into the line for the Greyhound bus to Ottawa. When the bus arrived, it was already filled with a bunch of Quebec French travellers who had taken single seats down the length of the aisle, nearly filling the bus. So, along with the rest of the France French people, the Prof. and I got on the bus and took our seats beside our new Quebec French travelling companions.

I must admit I was being a Canadian, since much of this info was overheard.

The Quebec French people, in true Canadian form, all struck up conversations. Many of them asked for the names of the French people beside them, the occupation, education history, whether they had children or not, what their plans were in Ottawa, if they'd even been to Canada before, what music they listened to, etc, etc. They gave recommendations on the must-see sights of Ottawa and a few of them even offered the French travellers part of their lunches.

I was giggling while I watched this, knowing how oddly I'd been perceived when I first tried these friend-making tactics in France.

The Quebec French people were being wonderfully Canadian, of course, and were trying to be friendly while they were on the bus, which is very normal here. The France French people, however, were all very surprised by the attention. They seemed to enjoy this great Canadian warmth that had immediately surrounded them, but they also seemed to think they were witnessing a North American phenomenon -- an analysis I don't think the Quebec French people were aware of.

The France French travellers answered the questions, but offered almost no questions themselves. They just listened, trying to accommodate their talkative seatmates while politely sticking to their own cultural rules of not showing too much interest in stranger's lives. Some ate parts of the lunches offered, others gently refused.

Although I was slightly tempted to lean over and tell the French visitors how the rules of invisibility work here in Canada (well, to explain that this type of socializing is normal), they all seemed quietly amused. So, I left them alone.

I'm fairly certain I'll have to give up talking to strangers in France anyway (at least those who aren't running me through check-out lines) if I want to stop being seen as l'ètranger.


  1. That's funny! I must admit I didn't really notice a huge difference, although I tend to "spy" on conversation spoken in French or Chinese in Canada. Just because it's fairly rare (okay, not that rare I guess).

    Nice and humid in Ottawa, isn't it!

  2. Ah, you may be spying now because you're Canadian. Or, I may just be making all of this up. It does seem to fit with my experience so far, however. If I'm misinterpreting, let me know!