But many modern-day conversations [in France] make more sense once you realize that everyone around you is in a competition not to look ridiculous. When my daughter complained that a boy had insulted her during recess, I counseled her to forget about it. She said that just wouldn’t do: To save face, she had to humiliate him.
This is probably worse in Paris, and among the professional classes. But a lot of French TV involves round-table discussions in which well-dressed people attempt to land zingers on one another. Practically every time I speak up at a school conference, a political event or my apartment building association’s annual meeting, I’m met with a display of someone else’s superior intelligence. Jean-Benoît Nadeau, a Canadian who co-wrote a forthcoming book on French conversation, told me that the penchant for saying “no” or “it’s not possible” is often a cover for the potential humiliation of seeming not to know something. Only once you trust someone can you turn down the wit and reveal your weaknesses, he said.
Meetings in France are perhaps the greatest single source of puzzlement in the working lives of expats. Anyone from the Anglo-Saxon world will sit through a meeting with no agenda that started late and concludes (also late) with no substantial decisions being made and wonder what the purpose of it was other than to offer workers an opportunity to demonstrate how wonderfully clever they are in front of their peers. The way in which meetings are conducted in France was a major subject covered in my intercultural awareness training when I first arrived, and remains a frequent topic of conversation among the expats. Apparently, according to the article, this sort of behaviour has a long history:
Life at Versailles was apparently a protracted battle of wits. You gained status if you showed “esprit” — clever, erudite and often caustic wit, aimed at making rivals look ridiculous. The king himself kept abreast of the sharpest remarks, and granted audiences to those who made them. “Wit opens every door,” one courtier explained.
Indeed it does. An inability to answer a random, irrelevant, and often daft question in a French meeting will demonstrate that a speaker is “unprepared”, and thus possibly unsuitable for promotion. Hence he or she must “prepare” by stuffing their presentation with dozens of slides containing table after table of raw data in Font 8 or smaller, which are preceded by five or more slides of “context” containing sentences such as “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth” and “When viewed in an inertial reference frame, an object either remains at rest or continues to move at a constant velocity, unless acted upon by an external force.” Given French presentations normally consist of the speaker reading the contents of a slide line by line, one after another, it’s no surprise to learn that meetings can run on for hours.
Whether these practices are fit for a modern business operating in an increasingly competitive and globalised world is a matter for debate. A glance at the French economy and unemployment rate would suggest not. Us Anglos could learn a lot from the French in many fields, but conducting meetings and delivering presentations are not among them.