Followers of my blogs should realise by now that I’m a man with a passion. Fortunately, I’m not alone. There are millions, perhaps billions, of people like me out there who genuinely believe that life could be much better for everyone, if we all recognised the truth – that things have to change quite fundamentally if humanity and the other world species are to survive.
Of course, what we need is to examine all the challenges, to work together to devise a coherent and viable plan, and then to collaborate to put it into action. Easier said than done; but hope springs eternal, so they say, and a mere glance at the Arab uprising shows just how powerful this approach is.
Anyway, what has provoked these ramblings? Two things: firstly an interview from someone from L’Ecole Française de la Courtoisie et du Protocole. The article – Manners are very much part of the French identity - appears in the May 2011 edition of The Connexion newspaper, one of the English-language monthlies aimed at Francophiles. The second is linked to the Greek tragedy of Dominique Strauss-Kahn.
Firstly, the interview, I quote (the context is using the terms monsieur and madame and “remaining nice and polite, and little by little you can pass to first names and tu.” No problems with that.) It’s what follows that I find quite shocking. Question: Is it more a natural progression than the very informal American way? “Yes, it’s like smiling straight away at people; we don’t see the need. … but for us it doesn’t make sense to smile at someone you don’t know. When we start smiling it’s because a rapport has been established*.”
Now, I think I can see where this lady is coming from. After all, where smiles are merely self-serving and manipulating – and I’ll admit it’s sometimes difficult to discern the difference – they can be considered as cynical and hypocritical acts (and most of us are capable of these!). However (and I’ll probably receive brickbats for this), have you never heard that old chauvinistic and ignorant remark: “I love France. The only problem is that it’s full of the French.”? Well, let’s face it; even the French often lambaste their countrymen and women for being railleurs or mal éduqué. But surely it can’t be true that the French norm is actually to bring up children not to smile until they know someone. I really find this hard to believe. What then is this “Bonjour” greeting all about? Merely about appearances? Surely not. And what about all this supposed Fraternity business? Is this merely aspirational claptrap? Like Liberté? I hope not. (As for Equalité, perhaps I’ll tackle that another time.)
If the above is indeed the case, then France must be congratulated for the most brilliant world-wide marketing job. How could we all have been taken in so completely? However, I have my doubts about all this. For lots of us expats, it flies in the face of much of our personal experience with French people. For my family, at least, most of our contacts have been (on the face of it) very friendly and positive. That said, it could explain in part some of the not-so-agreeable experiences. It might also explain why, in the guest book at our still-unfinished Chambres d’Hôtes and Gîte, almost everyone (and particularly our French guests) refer approvingly, seemingly, to our accueil chaleureux. Perhaps our simple, friendly and obliging guest/client-oriented, experience is not what people are used to. But, what a shame and tragedy for the French nation that would represent!
Look to yourself, France, if smiling at other people whom you don’t know is still being discouraged. Smiling is a deep-rooted and basic human sign of communication. It is a way of releasing healthy endorphins, and a key way of forging links, making allies, and of improving one’s own and others’ quality of life. Besides that, it apparently uses fewer muscles than frowning, and thereby could help resolve the energy crisis (joke). Most important still, the fact is that we are all going to need to break down a lot of outmoded ideas, barriers and practices if our world is to survive the troubling times ahead. I don’t seek to patronise or cause to offence; but you don’t need to have an Anglo-Saxon upbringing to understand this.
Remaining on the theme of shame and tragedy, I return to my second subject – that of the DSK affair, if one can call it thus. Now, I don’t know the full details and am not one to kick a man when he’s down; but it is clear that there is something clearly corrupting about individuals, however clever and charming, wielding so much power and financial clout. This is not envy talking. It just seems that something is very wrong and sick about a society in which individuals’ view of themselves can become so skewed by the trappings of it all that they seem to think that they can act with impunity and without sanction. We’re not talking about the clinically mentally ill here; but about people who, despite having personal flaws, like the rest of us, probably should know better or should have a greater sense of self-control; or be less naïve; and, essentially, should recognise the shallowness and temporary nature of it all and behave accordingly. This is clearly all the truer when they have a key duty and responsibility to others to fulfil.
No wonder there is such cynicism amongst the voting – or, more like it, the non-voting – populous at large. My current reading matter (The Spirit Level – Why Equality is Better for Everyone) argues very convincingly that the negative social phenomena that plague our societies are accentuated by the increasing manifest levels of inequality (no real surprise there for most); but it proves the lie of those who, taking full advantage of the privileges offered by power and wealth created by us all, then claim that all this is good for society as a whole.
I learned a painful lesson a while ago: not to put too much faith in individual leaders; they all disappoint in the end, and that’s even if they don’t end up as tyrants. What we need is a new generation of actively-engaged people that share a renewed social vision; that don’t get carried away with the tat and trimmings of excess; and that are imbued with a sense of justice, fairness and humanitarian values. Now, where can we find people like that? Everywhere, I’d like to think.
As a suggestion, here’s a first step on the ladder of hope. Keep smiling everyone!
For more about the benefits of smiling see: http://www.ted.com/talks/ron_gutman_the_hidden_power_of_smiling.html
*Perhaps this practice derives from earlier times when teeth were black, rotten, and a source of embarrassment. It might then have become established as the norm among the nobility and then adopted by society at large. If so, it is certainly now outmoded. Although, with the cost of dental healthcare nowadays … and those horrible glow-in-the-dark, whitened teeth …!