Sunday, March 22, 2009

What's so funny 'bout peace, smiles and understanding?

A recent post over at Chez Loulou has gotten me thinking about the role of smiling in French culture and American culture.

Loulou just got back from a stay in the States, and writes:

First, there's the smile.
Wow! I guess I've always been aware of how often Americans smile, but it had somehow slipped my mind. I mean, everyone smiles. At seemingly everything.

Her take on it is neutral, but she has clearly become accustomed to the more reserved French facial expressions.

I, on the other hand, truly miss the American smile. And reading Loulou's post, entitled Not So Subtle Differences Between America and France, made me remember my own rather painful experience with adjusting my personality and behavior to fit into French standards.

I used to be a big smiler. But somewhere along the line in France, I figured out that big smilers were sometimes taken for big idiots. And over the years, I have definitely changed my smiling habits.

Part of the change was in reaction to remarks from my husband, who just can't stand the American tradition of "smiling big" for photos. A few other smile-related comments came up in our relationship, but I'm not going to splay them all over this blog. It was all very unsettling to me -- I had never imagined that smiling could be subject to criticism.

Starting to teach college-age students in 1995 also modified my smile quotient -- the constant cheery and "up" attitude that I had used teaching in the USA seemed to confuse and bemuse them. I learned that to be taken seriously, I had to act at least somewhat serious.

But mainly, my smile subsided as a gradual part of fitting in, of acting like the people around me.

And this all makes me feel rather sad.


Jennie said...

I know what you mean! It makes me sad too that no one smiles in France. I'm sure I still smile too often for French standards, but at least I've got the angry, uninterested teacher glare down when I'm in class so the students know to shut up and work. I hate how the French think you need to be happy to smile. You don't need a reason, just do it! It's nice!

Betty C. said...

Well, I wouldn't go so far as to say "no one smiles in France." One of my caveats to this post is that I think French people are smiling more. I notice this with my students and younger colleagues.

Also, as I have gotten older and there is more age difference between my students and me, I am trying to put back a little more of the smiling effect, or at least the cheerfulness.

I think when I got my dual nationality, I figured it was safe to start acting a little more American again.

Alison said...

One of the things that struck me in France was that no one smiles for ID photos. I played along until I got nationality too; my carte d'identité has a photo of a smiling me!

La Framéricaine said...

Good morning, Betty C.! Good afternoon in France, and I'm smiling as I type my salutations!

I am fortunate, in that I have lived with and was married to a man from Japan in one of my incarnations and have, at the very least, thought about "the smile" from 3 vantage points rather than the two in question here today.

That helps intellectually, but not much emotionally. The Japanese smile when they are mortified and embarrassed. Not quite the same reason that Americans smile.

My husband has been in the USA for 21 years and has never given me any grief for smiling. He can, however, be--or appear to be--a grouch in the USA precisely because he does not smile.

I think that it is very courageous of you to have begun to adapt your smile strategy as you have aged, in the context of your teaching.
Speaking of which, we just saw "Entre les murs" yesterday and believe me that gave lots of fodder for culture-centric conversation.

I can do Tu/Vous but if I were an adolescent student, I would be insulted that teachers could tu me and I was supposed to vous them. As a product of American culture, it seems to me that the use of tu/vous between students and teachers inspires abuse of power by definition. My husband and I, naturally, see things differently on this subject. Back to Japanese culture, it reminds me of the use of honorifics. I am not big on superficial respect. I prefer a more egalitarian form of mutual respect. I'm afraid that my impending life in France is going to resemble the Chines curse, "May you live in interesting times."

Keep smilin', ma chère! I'm right there with you.

Betty C. said...

Alison, I think it's forbidden now to smile for French ID and passport photos. No kidding!

Loulou said...

Sadly, as Betty says, one is forbidden to smile for passport and ID photos now. You should see my sour faced expression on my 10 year carte de Résident! So awful!
I still smile for photos of the non official kind though.

Nadege said...

It is very sad but it is so true Betty. My brother in law (born in Aveyron) always made fun of Parisians in the metro who are not very pleasant, but I noticed that in Rodez, people are not smiling either. I remember walking in a small street and there was just an older gentleman and me. When he passed by I smiled at him and of course he didn't. Hurray for Americans for smiling, and being who they are! Also Americans show their teeth when they smile for pictures, in France, they rarely do.

Anonymous said...

Interesting. I hadn't really ever thought about smiling here. Although, I always thought that people were awfully unhappy, but I chalked it up to living in Paris. Here in the country, people seem to be pretty happy. But then it's been years since I've been to the US. Hard to compare.
Really, really interesting.

Angela in Europe said...

Hi! I like your blog, followed expat's link to yours.

I miss the smile too. I actually miss smiling and have not yet grown accustomed to not smiling. Sometimes on the metro I find myself smiling at something and boy do I get some strange looks. I bet everyone thinks I am 'touched'.

spacedlaw said...

A big cultural difference indeed, which I noted back in 1983 when I was an exchange student in NC.
We smile also in France, but - for most people at least - only when we have something to smile about.
So when as a kid I went to NC and was faced with a wall of smiling faces at school, it was a surprise to find that the smiles there where mostly empty, i.e. not backed with a serious reason to be happy (note the "serious" there). Mine was not an uncommon surprise. Later on, I read books by Julien Green where he recorded, in a similar situation although in the early 60's, being taken aside by fellow students and told to make an effort to be more polite. When he exclaimed that he was saying "good morning " and "how are you?" like a well brought up boy, he was told that he might well do that but he did it WITHOUT SMILING.
I on the other hand was surprised to see that school friends asking "how are you?" (or rather "how're you doing?") when passing me in the corridors of the school were obviously not expecting an answer to that question, whereas I did (otherwise I would not have bothered to ask).
Small differences. You do get used to it in the end. Little quirks you put down on the "cultural bits" list.

But you can get yelled at in France for smiling at people with no reason, because the person might think you are making fun of them.

Betty C. said...

Franaméricaine -- Very interesting about the Japanese smiles. I had no idea of that.

spaced -- Get yelled at for smiling? Well, at least it hasn't happened to me. That's a good point on the "Bonjour" and "How're you doing?" I think that may even fuel another post ...I've really been thinking about a lot of things here.

Rebecca Ramsey said...

When we lived in France I learned to keep my smiling in check since it seemed to make people nervous or confused--but this depressed me at times.

I remember our first week back in South Carolina (after four years in Clermont) I went to the grocery store and kept wondering if I had my sweater on inside out or what...what was everyone smiling about? Ha! It had made me nervous and confused as well! I'm happy to be smiling like an idiot now--I'd missed it so! Smiling really does do good things for the mood.

poppy fields said...

It is forbidden now to smile for the ID cards.
I smile as much as those around me...more with Americans, and less with French. So in 2 weeks, I should have one big smile...I'll be in the USA for a quick, unexpected but happy trip back :)

L Vanel said...

I find it quite strange that people can't smile for i.d. cards, for heaven's sake why?! I never much thought about it except that I do find myself taken aback when neighbors and people I see regularly smile at me. I have found that in the country people are more smiling than they are in the city in general.

Jann said...

oh my~ one time I told a friend of mine who was traveling to France, who spoke NOT a word of French, if she was lost, stumped or whatever, just to act friendly and smile.....crap! What was I thinking. But you know, this is probably why so many confused Americans, those who say nasty things about the French,think the French are snobby~it is just a cultural trait and I totally understand.I did not know about the i.d card rule~is this really true? Now, if you enter a bank around here, you must remove your sunglasses~I suppose the smile will be next! Cheers to you.....have missed reading and writing, but hope to be active once again. Getting ready to head back to France the first of April and I will leave my smiles back here!

franswazz said...

I am French and have lived in the Us for 40 some years.
Most of the comments are sensible however here is mine:
When back in Paris I smile sometimes at people walking in the streets and most of the times I get strange looks but I COULD NOT CARE LESS!
And if they think that I am some sort of idiot, I DO NOT MIND, may be I am:)
Sometimes I get a smile back, YES, people I do and that is just worth the whole thing above!
so :)

The Duchess said...

I too feel like my smile is received by thoughts of 'she must be an idiot' sometimes. It's just not in my nature to have a sour face so often. And also think of the frown lines!lol
But I would definitely agree with the idea that over smiling here will definitely make you stick out. I think it's one country where a smile isn't contagious! c'est bien dommage...:-)

vicki archer said...

I am sure your smile is always there underneath ready to shine when you need it, xv.

Nicole said...

How funny. It is true about the smile I suppose. I would have been quite terrified as a young shy child if I did not have a teacher that smiled.