Times Insider explains who we are and what we do, and provides a behind-the-scenes look at how our journalism comes together.
PARIS – In 2009, when I was writing La Seduction, a book on seduction as a key to understanding France, I interviewed the former President of the nation, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing. I responded gently to the subject by asking him to imagine he was dining with Americans and one of them asked, “Mr. Mr President, can you explain how we can understand your country? “
94-year-old Giscard d’Estaing went cold, like delivering a diplomatic demarche at a NATO summit. “You can’t,” he said. “I’ve never met an American who really understood what drives French society.”
His message – grim, extreme – recalled the lingering cultural divide between the Old and New World, the sophisticated French and the unsuspecting American.
And since last week I saw the latest iteration of the unsuspecting American Emily Cooper, a social media expert assigned to a French marketing firm, on Netflix’s new series, “Emily in Paris,” I heard about my long and complicated one Time considered relationship with France.
From arriving in 1978 as a foreign correspondent for Newsweek to being posted in 2002 as head of the Paris office and now as a contributing writer for the New York Times, I have learned that no country has unusual tariff segregation. but a particular danger to Americans in France. French rules governing interpersonal behavior are a complex maze.
To be too “familiar” is to invite contempt. To laugh too loudly is to beg contempt; Spending seconds on the cheese course puts future invitations at risk. Then of course there is the historical fear of the stranger that penetrates deep into the French soul. In my local café, after months of haughty silence, I was finally greeted with a “Bonjour” and a smile by the waiter, who barely tolerated my presence. The secret? A French friend by my side. I needed a local who fit in with it.
And that brings me to “Emily in Paris”. There were grains of truth in the clichés. Some of them:
The smile: “Stop smiling”, orders Emily’s boss Sylvie. “People will think you’re stupid.” Americans smile at strangers; Parisians don’t, which explains why some Americans find Parisians rude. In his bestseller “American Vertigo”, the writer Bernard-Henri Lévy railed against the “emotionless” smiles of American strangers. The smile is too full, too intentional, to be perceived as just pleasant in France, he told me later.
The voice: “Why are you screaming?” A French colleague of Emily’s asks when she will give her first presentation. Yes, Americans speak much louder than the French. As a journalist used to screaming on international calls, I had to be reminded by my two daughters to lower my voice on the metro.
Perfume: Emily admits that she “isn’t usually a perfume girl”. It is true, perfume is an integral part of the French ambience and identity of many women here. “I want to get to know you better,” said a French friend after asking me what perfume I am wearing.
Job: “Are you crazy,” says Sylvie Emily when she talks about business at an evening reception. We’re at a “soiree,” not a “conference call,” she adds. In Washington, where I was once the Times’s chief diplomatic correspondent, cocktail parties and dinners were barely disguised excuses for getting buttonhole springs and shovels. In Paris, the evenings are used for relaxation and social discourse. Work, if at all, must creep in and barely noticeable.
The coronavirus has of course changed many of these rules. Masks force you to speak louder (and you can’t show your smile even if you want to); social distancing makes the double-cheek kiss banned and perfume less important; There are no soirees these days.
As life returns to normal, perhaps some of the old codes that are increasingly out of date for young Parisians will fade.
But one lesson is sure to endure: navigating Paris as an American means being forced to slow down and embrace the process, ideally with a sense of humor. A playful mind (in French if possible) can neutralize a brusque reaction, involve the other party in a dialogue, and create a pleasant “split” – a sharing. After all, seduction à la française is nothing more than a conversation that never ends.