“What sort of soup is that”? Why the French can’t do small talk
Anglo-saxons have a reputation for mastering the art of small talk, and I for one am no exception to this rule. Put me in a room with strangers and I will start prattling on about the weather, or the delay on the metro, or any other topic that allows me to avoid real meaningful conversation with people I barely know. It has therefore been a difficult lesson for me to learn on arriving in France that French people aren’t really interested in topics of conversation that aren’t really, well.. debatable.
Some months ago, I sat down to join a colleague (an American) for lunch. As fellow native English-speakers, we were both well-versed in small talk, and as such our conversation veered in a natural direction. I asked him a question about his meal: “What kind of soup is that?”
“Pea and ham,” he replied.
“Oh really, I love pea and ham!” (note the over-enthusiastic reaction to the soup-flavour newsflash, which only a native-English speaker could produce). “But hang on, aren’t you vegetarian?”
Another colleague (French) had been hovering around the kitchen heating his food. As if sensing the sudden controversial potential of our conversation, he chose that moment to join us at the table.
“You’re vegetarian and eating pork?” he enquired eagerly, with a ravenous look in his eyes that is uniquely brought on in French people at the prospect of debate.
What began as an innocent question about soup quickly spiralled into a discussion about vegetarianism; flexitarianism; and their respective semantics and social implications.
In France, conversation is much more direct than other countries I have lived in. At times I would even classify it as adversarial. French culture is very individualistic, and you are expected to have a unique opinion about everything. And the more controversial this opinion, the better.
Furthermore, you are expected to voice it. I can’t describe to you the amount of times I have been asked eyebrow-raising questions by French people I hardly know: “Who would you have voted for today if you had the right?”; “Do you believe in God?”; “Have you ever filmed yourself having sex?” (the last one was just another happy lunchtime conversation in the office :/). I was once innocently asked if I liked raclette, before proceeding to be told that one’s affinity for raclette was directly correlated with their partiality for orgies. (For the record I responded that I don’t like raclette because it smells bad. Make of that what you will).
Not only are you expected to voice your opinion, you are expected to hotly defend it. In Australia, arguing with people about everything will earn you an instant reputation as a wanker. In France, the ability to vigorously argue your point is considered a sort of badge of honour. Debate is a good thing; agreeing with something - or worse, remaining neutral - is insufferably dull. I mean, I guess it kind of makes sense - this is the country that gave birth to such revolutionary thinkers as Rousseau and Simone de Beauvoir, after all. I can’t really imagine them chatting about the weather over their morning cigarette and coffee.
Don’t get me wrong, I love a good philosophical discussion as much as the next person. And what’s more, claiming to be a vegetarian who sometimes eats pork is clearly preposterous, and went on to earn my colleague much subsequent ire from my side. But sometimes don’t you just want to have a conversation about soup?
Living in France has taught me to be more assertive, more opinionated, and even more honest. I actually think it’s quite healthy to be able to voice your opinion, and engage in some intelligent discussion every once in a while without fear of social recrimination. But I do admit that sometimes I yearn for those safe, banal conversations about the weather. Or even just smiling politely when it turns out that your vegetarian colleague is eating pea and ham soup.
Do you think the French can do small talk? Do they even need to? Let me know in the comments...