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Bonjour.

Written By: katie_k on December 28, 2008 4 Comments

So I began writing this as a comment on daveski’s “Good morning” but it grew into this post instead. I’ve actually wanted to write on it for a while, so thanks for the inspiration daveski!

One of my favorite things in France was walking into a shop and immediately having to say “Bonjour Monsieur/Madame”. I was always really sad when I went into the bigger stores (Auchan for example) where that necessary greeting in French culture has been lost because of the imported supermarche/mall culture. Then, at home with my host family in France, every day when I got up my host mom would say “Bonjour” (that might be all we said to each other in the morning – neither of us is a morning person) and it just was an acknowledgment that we both existed. It never felt insincere or outworn or banal.

When I got back to the US, that was one of the things that gave me the most culture shock – how little people actually say “good morning”, etc. to each other here. It’s not a cultural custom for Americans to do that; it’s nice, but it’s not socially required to say “hello” to the person behind the counter when you go into a cafe. It felt like an interpersonal connection that existed in France was lost in the US.

So does this kind of socially required, set language form have meaning? Language gets scripted, but it’s grown into this script from something that had meaning once and lost this meaning because people just say things from habit, making it banal. In France, it didn’t seem this way. Saying “Bonjour” may have been necessary (or you’d be labeled as the rude foreigner) but the acknowledgement of the other person’s existence was always a good reason for using it. After all, what good is a language if one of the simplest forms of communicating (saying “hello”, that is) has no meaning?

I know that it’s not part of American culture the way it is in France, but maybe we should start incorporating it to battle that overpowering “me” culture that we have. Just saying “hello” pulls people outside themselves and makes that connection to show they are not the only ones on the planet. But maybe it’s our culture itself that makes this kind of script meaningless; the very thing that worked in France won’t work here because this is the US and our cultural mentality doesn’t support it. Of the two ideas, I think I like the first one better.

So, “Hello everyone!”

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4 Responses to “Bonjour.”

  1. Youki on: 29 December 2008 at 1:00 am

    hello!

    great post, this would fall nicely into a discussion on “does myth trump narrative?” that daveski asked in a previous post. In what ways has the pattern of our cultural mentality become a mythology for us, overshadowing day-to-day interactions? We all have expectations, and by your accounts (and Usree’s in Dave’s post) these expectations are culturally shaped.

    This reminds me of de Certeau’s “strategies” and “tactics” — he argued that the city was a “concept” and strategies represent institutions and structures of power (like corporations and government, or in this case, stores/the mall), while tactics represent the ways in which we maneuver through everyday life. We’re always in a process of negotiating with our terrain, figuring out how to work within a set of rules/procedures/regulations, carving out our own space within these structures.

    Perhaps the relationship between strategies and tactics is analogous to the relationship between myth and narrative. Through narratives – the way we conceptualize our experiences – we navigate through the world of myth, the larger forms of meaning-making that are culturally shaped. One particular event can always be described in an infinite number of ways, and it’s only really through metonymy (using an object to describe another related object, like “mother tongue” or “Wall st. vs. Main st.”) that we’re able to comprehend that event. For example, if I said “Youki opened the door” there are an infinite number of actions happening – Youki is bending his arm, Youki is pushing the door, the door’s hinges are moving, Youki’s heart is beating, the neurons in Youki’s brain are firing, etc to the nth degree. Yet through this matrix of infinite actions lies the one statement that I use to describe what is happening. For every narrative statement, we selectively choose features to highlight and an infinite number of features to suppress. The true narrative is the expression of the infinite number of actions occuring, and the myth happens when we explain the totality of the event as one singular phrase.

    hmm the only logical conclusion is that there is no such thing as narrative, it’s all myth. ahhh, oh well.

  2. daveski on: 31 December 2008 at 5:17 pm

    Kak dela?

    Yeah, youki, i wondered where you were going with that one, if you were going to work around the wall of myth with infinite description (“the particles of loose paint under the heel of Youki’s right shoe, which had just been purchased for $14.56 (half of the price of the pair, mind you) at the local shoe store (whoops, gotta talk about how that fits into the global economy–doh!!), shifted ever so slightly as the neurons fired and muscles twitched, allowing his hand to reach around the shiny brass handle and release the tension on the spring-loaded door ever so slightly, beginning the process of…”)

    Whew! 🙂

    I always find it fascinating to see where people feel like they can start, or have to stop, ‘genuinely’ saying hi to each other. Like, if you’re out for a hike in the hills, if you’re going camping, etc., people say hi to each other all the time. Like we have to leave the city (the city in our minds?) to find some genuine connection, even if it’s only saying hi?

  3. katie_k on: 1 January 2009 at 2:18 pm

    Well, and then even when you’re out on a walk in the “country”, you have to be careful. There was one time I was walking with my aunt in Moraga (not exactly a city atmosphere), and we said hello to an elderly couple that was also walking along the path and they got really scared. I guess they thought we might be trying to target them as a vulnerable group. We were really sorry to have frightened them, especially since we were just trying to be friendly! So even when you’re trying to be genuine, there’s just this culture of suspicion (for good reason, even though it is sad).

  4. catty on: 28 March 2009 at 6:28 am

    Bonjour, encore.
    And the English also: Consider the fish in the beginning of Monty Python’s “The Meaning of Life”. If, as an American, you “marry out” it can take some time to realize that NOT saying “Good morning”, and “Have you slept well?” can be perceived as outright rude by not only your spouse, but your inlaws…and anyone else you speak to in the morning. Every single day.
    But I agree, once you get used to it, it is very agreeable.
    And of course in France, one must not only greet all co-workers but shake hands with them; and all actual friends must receive the correct regional number of kisses upon ones first meeting with them EVERY DAY.
    This can be a little exhausting. Say, if six friends meet up with a group of six other friends who are already seated at a café. That’s a lot of obligatory kissing. No chance of just waving and passing by.

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