La diplomatie

France has a longstanding diplomatic tradition. Sadly, the French language has lost ground to English in recent years as the official ‘lingua franca’ of diplomacy. While English is obviously more widely spoken, there is something about the phrasing of French that facilitates diplomacy: the indirect question, the polite probing rather than the direct yes or no question. But you have to be able to read between the lines – something which is challenging for a second-language learner.

I am not the most diplomatic of people, even in my native tongue. I tend to be blunt, often rushing in where angels fear to tread. Living in France has taught me to mind my p’s and q’s. Especially the q’s (which letter rhymes with ‘cul’ – a catch-all word for sex).

“Remember that time you told the doctor that our son ate shit off the floor?” husband likes to remind me. Just to even the stakes, mind you, as his English is so often the butt of family jokes. I reminded him that ‘connerie’ sounded almost the same as ‘cochonnerie’ and I was only trying to explain why our child might have picked up pinworms.

“Ha, ha…or when you first met my grandfather, and called him ‘pipi’ instead of Pépé.”

“A slip of the tongue, when I barely spoke French. And as if ‘fart-fart’ is any better!”

Our family’s sense of humour is often in the toilet bowl.

Thankfully over the years I have picked up a trick or two. And I am not the only one who makes bloopers and blunders across the cultural divide.

I remember once, shortly after we’d met, having dinner with my husband’s parents at a fancy French restaurant in Toronto. The service and food were classically French, but the wait staff were a little rough around the edges. One server, with an accent that rang of Québec, stepped up to the table with an open bottle of wine and asked my Belle-mère bluntly: “Tu veux du vin?” That lady may have choked before discreetly laughing into her napkin.

I didn’t get what was so funny.

Husband explained that not only had the server used the informal ‘tu’ form of address rather than ‘vous’, but he had effectively asked: “You want some wine?” Admittedly, “Would you care for some wine?” or even, “May I refill your glass?” would have been more appropriate.

This week’s official visit by the French presidential couple to the US bears all the signs of a well-orchestrated diplomatic coup. The bromance between Trump and Macron that began last July has been largely played up by the media. This paper’s version of events cracked me up.

I am convinced that our presidents’ mutual affection has been intentionally exaggerated by the two men. I can just imagine their conversation behind closed doors:

Trump: “You know the media say you’re gay, right?”

Macron (shrugging his shoulders): “Yes, but you know some of the things they say about you?”

Trump: “Fake news!”

Macron: “How could anyone believe such things? We both have such beautiful wives.”

Trump: “Yeah, about that…Brigitte is really in pretty good shape.”

Macron: “Thanks, Don. I’ll tell her that again. She really appreciated it last time.”

Trump: “But hey, Emmanuel, let’s give them what they came for.”

Macron: “I’m sorry, not sure I understand. Don?”

Trump: “Let’s really show the media some love. You know they eat that stuff up!”

Macron: “Ah, bonne idée, Don! It’ll take their minds off of all the little troubles we have brewing at home.”

Of course, we all know that none of this is ever decided by the leaders themselves. Such encounters are planned months in advance. Dozens of diplomats and their underlings negotiate details about who wears what, says what, eats what. The fact the both first ladies wore white at the official greeting surely involved a great deal of negotiating. Perhaps it was agreed that both should wear white as some sort of bridal symbol, or expression of hope. Certainly it would not have worked in Japan, where white is worn to funerals.

Fortunately, behind all those orchestrated outfits and overly cordial entente, French diplomacy can still pack a punch – or perhaps be the velvet hammer. Macron’s speech to congress yesterday took direct aim at America first, proving that even best friends can share some hard truths.

Perhaps Donald should read my post on how to charm the French.  He could sure use some of that French diplomacy.

What do you think?

S’entendre

Beautiful Madeline and Humphrey

‘Entendre’ is one of those French words that effortlessly brings together different concepts and blends them into one. It means both to hear and to understand. Employed in its reflexive verb version, s’entendre, it also means to agree and even to get along with someone.

There is no understanding without hearing. And if you do hear someone, and I mean really hear them, you are halfway to understanding. Which is the basis for every agreement.

Perhaps this wisdom is one reason why French became the language of diplomacy.

Diplomacy never having been a strong point, I struggle daily with this.

Several years ago I lost all of the hearing in my left ear. The diagnosis of the problem that led to this was a perfect example of one doctor who neither heard nor understood my complaint and another who did.

Thankfully, my right ear remains fully operational. The resulting lopsided hearing, however, can be painful. It means that my good side often gets an earful of unwanted sound such as music or conversation. This can make me miserable in restaurants, for example, where the next-door table is a bit loud. Conversely, it makes it impossible to hear anyone on the left side. Generally I avoid sitting with anyone on my left (other than husband, whom I know well enough to guess what he’s saying or can comfortably ignore). At parties or crowded events of any kind, I must constantly perform a strategic repositioning to catch important information, turning me into a sort of whirling dirvish.

It can be comical. I have no ability to pinpoint where sound is coming from, so will turn my head like a radar when someone calls me on the street. People who call themselves friends and even family have been known to have fun with this.

What I’ve gained in return for the hearing loss, however, is considerable. Selective hearing, the ability to tune out unwanted noise, is essential to understanding. It is a skill I’ve been forced to learn, one that I haven’t yet mastered, but is beginning to serve me well. Je m’entends.

I am literally learning to tune out unwanted noise to better understand my world.

And the magical, wonderful thing that happens when you do this is that you begin to read the subtext, the real message that lies beneath the surface.

Getting along with anyone, be it family, friends or work associates, is challenging. No matter how much you appreciate someone, there are times when you just can’t share their point of view. With family, at least with mine, there are times when you would cheerfully gag them to shut them up. But if hearing is the basis for understanding, then not hearing is also a strategy. At times like these, it helps to turn a deaf ear.

Do we understand each other?