samedi 5 janvier 2013

Religion, politics, money : french taboos or cornerstones of good manners ?

Christmas and New Year's Eve are over. This was good family time for me and I hope this was the same for you. Gathering with family members should always be a good time but sometimes it can degenerate into trenches battlefield. Because even if we're same blood, each one of us has his own opinions and beliefs. I've never been at an American Christmas or New Year's Eve, never been at a US family gathering either. But I did see a lot of American cars with political stickers, I've discussed with business acquaintances about politics, economy, religion, money. All things I cannot discuss in France with family and friends, even closest ones. Cause those subjects are taboo in France. Or is this just good manners ?

Politics, revenues, religion : French taboos

When I was young (8 years old), my father, a university researcher and teacher (thermodynamics) went for 4 months in Newark, Delaware to work at the university there. I joined him with my mother at the end of his stay and this was my first discovery of America (a few key memories : Airspace Museum in DC, Airforce planes in Dover, a lot of yellow cabs in New-York, endless firemen trucks). Then, the professor my father worked with came to France. I can remember him in a restaurant saying out loud "Mitterrand est con" ("French President is a jerk"). My father wanted to hide under the table and other clients were horrified, staring at us or acting like they had not heard which was quite impossible considering the loud voice of the Delaware professor.

In France, we speak a lot about politics. But saying who you vote for ? That's a taboo. I know who my mother voted for at the last election, but nothing about my father's vote. Among my best friends, I know for sure the vote of one of them. For the others, I can often guess. Since we speak a lot about politics and economic policy, I can infer who they voted for. But we can't say it outloud. That would be embarrassing for everyone and, moreover, rude, impolite. Having a sticker on your car stating you're pro-Sarkozy or pro-Hollande would lead other people to think of you as a weirdo. 

Revenues are one degree above politics. Talking about money is not really polite but talking about your revenues ? Well, you may as well get up, jump on the table and show your genitals. I don't know any of the revenues of my family or best friends. Again, considering their position, the way they live, the size the house they've bought, I can make a good guess. But asking ? I don't want to lose my friends. Don't ask, don't tell, that's the policy. Recently, I've told my mother my exact revenues and savings position. She was raised in different time and culture where, if you have a good working position, you keep your head low and keep it. I'm more the changing type, changing jobs every three years, therefore worrying her. So that was a way for me to tell her : look, I'm OK, you don't have to worry. But there was a silence on the phone because this display of numbers made her uncomfortable.

Religion was also a taboo but it's fading away. That's because religion itself fades away. Less and less people believe in God in France and only 5% people go to the mass on a regular basis. So the taboo is falling apart. You could note it's a lot easier to you to say you don't believe in God than the opposite. France has a long tradition of sarcasm, of being non-believer (I'm not talking of God) and maybe some cynicism.

California vs France : Freedom or bad manners

Now, let's talk about US. Most of experiences I had (except my 1980 small trip on the East Coast and some other short trips) were in California. And I'm aware that US is not the same depending on which part we're talking about. I've already spoken about the bumper stickers. I've also found that some people I worked with and barely knew were very open to talk to me about their political choices (Democrat or Republican), if they were liberal or not, if the Obamacare should be implemented or not. Asking them if they have faith or not wasn't rude at all. About the revenues, they may not tell me the exact numbers (especially when we worked for the same company) but it seemed not to be a problem.

The fact is Americans (or at least Californians) are speaking their minds where French choose to hide. A Freudian would say the American way is better. Hiding things into your brain will cause neurosis. Maybe French behavior will lead us to a collective neurosis (or are we already there ?). But the French attitude may also be seen as "good manners".

The CEO of the company I worked for a few years ago, an English (or Scottish maybe) fellow living in the Silicon Valley for 15 years, told me that he hated the relationship genuine Californians had with money. "If they could display their yearly revenues on a T-Shirt and wear it, they would do it", he said to me. Well, they actually could but don't. But they're doing it through "wealth displays" : the number of sports cars on the 101 or 405 (San Francisco / San Jose) is just amazing.

In France, especially in traditional countryside culture, you don't speak about politics, money or God. But you also don't show your money. Even if you have plenty of it. You don't buy a sports car, but you indulge in some leather inside because it's discreet. The very traditional culture was no good to me because we were hiding too much and it actually led to neurosis. But the modern culture is more balanced : the taboo still stands but you have more space, more freedom. Therefore, maybe it's a good thing to keep those taboos. That's part of "french style". And keeping some secrets, even to family and friends, is a good way to keep peace at home and abroad, and also to leave some secrecy and mystery in our lives.

4 commentaires:

  1. "A Freudian would say the American way is better" if we talk only about money, maybe. But if you talk about sex, Freud's favorite subject after all, you will see there are just as many taboos in the US. They just focus on different subjects.

  2. @Anonyme : you're totally right. I was just focusing on some particular aspects. But american society has its own taboos, like any other human society. Just different ones. And maybe sex is one of them (but I wouldn't start to compare cause I'm not aware enough on the topic ...).

  3. An interesting observations having grown up in the UK and lived in California for over 20 years I have noticed many Californians “Fake it- until the make it” and that’s not a bad thing, when I went to a careers’ class at school in London my teacher asked me if I want to be a carpenter, electrician, or plumber. Those were my only choices. Californian kids are not trapped by dogma; they believe and often achieve whatever they set their mind too.

  4. @George E :

    @George Edwards : you're right, same in France. The school system is a gigantic "sorting system" meant to put you in boxes. Of course, some boxes are supposed to be "low-level" and will be affected to people "weak in school". Plumbers, carpenters, electricians : in France, those choices are for people that are failing in school (even though plumbers are earning big money). A very common sentence in high school or university in 60s or 70s were (from teacher to student) : "you suck, some workforces miss in agriculture". Now, the sentence is obsolete cause there are no many people left working for agriculture. And once starting your pro life, you're in the box and it's very hard to swap from a box to another. I had the chance succeeded into thanks to some people I met and trusted me. Not everybody get this chance ..