Friday, September 18, 2009

Indigestion and other French Conversation Starters

The French like to talk about their bodies. They unabashedly discuss, analyze and share their body's functions with the world. They are only too happy to report on the current state of their bowels, talk about their level of water retention that day or how well they slept last night.

If you have dark circles under your eyes or have gained a bit of weight, chances are someone is going to ask you about it. On the flip side, if you have just returned from vacation and you are looking tan and rested, I guarantee you someone will inquire about your bonne mine which translates to your physical glow. In most cases the person is neither criticizing nor complimenting you, they are simply trying to strike up conversation.

When you wake up in the morning in France one of the first things you will talk about is what kind of shape you are in that morning. As soon as you arrive at the breakfast table someone will ask you how you slept last night? At first I thought this was one of those hollow 'How are you? Good. And you?' type of questions but the answer I received when I asked, and you? was a full on report about how they woke up covered in sweat because of the weather or how they had a hard time falling asleep because of the spicy dinner they ate which had given them indigestion. This level of information often leaves me speechless, uncomfortable with the amount of information I have received I am both uninterested in posing follow up questions and uninterested in talking about how much or how little I sweat last night.

That fact that you are unwilling to offer unsolicited updates on a rash that is bothering you or the wart on your toe, does not discourage others from sharing this kind of information with you. During one of my first days at the design agency I greeted one of our account executives and asked how he was doing. His answer was, "Not great, I just ate Chinese food for lunch and am feeling really bloated and gassy. Don't you find greasy food like that impossible to digest? Always gives me the runs!". At this point I did not even know this person's name and I certainly did not need to know this level of detail as to how he was processing his lunch.

As the weeks progressed at work, I got used to hearing this kind of insider information on the physical conditions of my coworkers so I decided to try sharing a few details of my own. Last week I had diarrhea...see...evening typing this to you blog fans makes me feel I come in to work and when my coworker asks me how I am doing, I answer à la française and say, "Oh, I am not doing too well. My stomach is feeling a little unsettled." My colleague was disappointed with my vague terminology and genuinely interested in my condition. She replied, "Unsettled? Unsettled how? Did you throw up? Do you have gas? Is it diarrhea, and if so how many times have you pooped today? What do you think caused it?". Woah woah woah. I instantly wished I had never brought it up but since I initiated the conversation I had to finish it, "Yep, unsettled, must have been something I ate, anyway how are you?"

These conversations do not just come up between friends and colleagues. If you missed the story about how bluntly the immigration doctor commented on the gas that showed up on my x-ray be sure to skip back and read it. Turns out his comment is par for the course in France. Not long ago I had a gynecological visit. The doctor was a lovely sophisticated lady in her late 50's. She preformed a traditional ladies exam which in this office includes an ultrasound. She was looking around, showing me on the little screen what my ovaries look like, and then she scrolls over to my bladder and says, "Oh oh oh! Somebody has to go pee pee!". She was right and despite my gut reaction of surprise and horror I reminded myself she is just trying to be chatty so I replied trying to sound french and said something like, "Oh yeah. Isn't coffee the worst? Runs right through me".

At the UW I had a French Professor who presented a theory about this subtle but distinct cultural difference. He says it all comes back to religion. The French are a historically Catholic society while America is traditionally Protestant. When you enter a French Catholic church you see a large cross with a dead or dying Jesus on it. Jesus usually doesn't look that good (understandably so) his head it hanging, his body is limp and blood is dripping from his head, hands and from the slash on his side. When Catholics look to the cross they see a mangled body. Now, when you enter a American Protestant church the cross is usually bare and is often represented in a more abstract way, like a cross shaped window. Professor Collins argued that these two different crosses illustrate the two cultures different philosophies about the human body. Catholics are focused on the flesh in all its glory and sinfulness. Protestants prefer to ignore or suppress the body, hiding or ignoring it's sinful and dirty nature.

So while books like "Everybody Poops" may help the next generation to more openly and loudly discuss their gas and bodily functions, I guess I am just an old-school American Protestant kind of lady.


Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Jeannette said...

Interesting how the French aren't too keen on openly sharing things about their lives, but they don't mind so much talking about their bodily functions. I also love the protestant/catholic theory, it makes a lot of sense!