Thursday, May 6, 2010

Glaring is Caring

Sitting in cafés and people watching is a national past-time here in Paris and a sport that visitors quickly pick up on. There are slight variations to the rules to people watching in France when compared to people watching in America. The principal differences are that in France blatant staring is permitted and smiling is considered to be amateur and is unacceptable in the major leagues.

Parisians not only play people watching while sitting in cafés or in parks, they play while moving around the city. Players walk the streets in their own personal bubble, not greeting the people around them, not smiling at anyone. This technique helps them avoid over-stimulation and frees them up to stare at passersby more openly since they feel somewhat insulated from the rest of the field. I would compare this phenomenon to the 'car bubble' that most Americans are familiar with. Drivers often pick their nose, inspect their teeth or openly stare at fellow drivers as if their windows were one-way mirrors and the others couldn't see them.

I highly suggest visitors to Paris try their hand at people watching, if you are nervous about staring at strangers you may want to start off by wearing dark sunglasses. As you begin to feel more comfortable, take those glasses off! NOTE: Do not stare and smile. Only stare. Smiling will add an addition level of meaning to your stares that could get you in a whole load of trouble.. more on that another day.

At times, people watching in Paris is taken to the next level. Parisians may not merely stare at you, they may in fact glare. This is a technical aspect to the game that alarms most foreign players so I would like to spend some time talking about it. If a French person glares are you do not be alarmed mon ami! These are not anti-American glares! These are not glares of hatred! No, they are glares of interest, of concern and of care for your well-being. Allow me to illustrate...

It was a cold spring day. The sun was out, but there was a chill in the air. Assuming that  things will heat up later in the day, I stuck to my original plan of wearing my new red espadrills sans socks and added a scarf and coat to my ensemble to keep warm on my way to the office. Admittedly my outfit was a little disjointed, winter on top, spring on the bottom, but I decided to go with it anyway. As soon as I arrived at work all three of the ladies standing next to the coffee machine stared/glared at my feet. "Isn't it a little early for espadrilles?!", said one. "Your feet must be freezing Mary, that's a little irresponsible don't you think? Especially for a woman in your delicate condition!" said the other. The third just shook her head, stirred their coffee and glared at my offensive and dangerous choice of footwear. Now all of this glaring should not be misinterpreted to mean that these ladies do not like my cute red shoes, oh no, these glares really translate to concern for my well-being and health.

As we have learned, the French firmly believe that being cold can give you a cold and that nothing increases your chances of falling ill more than exposing your delicate neck skin with a scarf or uncovering your fragile ankles too early in the season. A similar incident occured last fall while leading a tour last year with my friends Ritzy and John. We received more than one glare from the Parisians around us. Ritzy picked up on this and assumed people were glaring at us because we were tourists being too touristy. "No no no Ritzy, they are not staring at us because we are tourists", I explained, "they are staring at ME because I am wearing this boat neck dress with no scarf in September and they are concerned that I will get a cold. So while it feels like those nasty looks are filled with distain or dislike, really they are filled with worry for my health and disapproval of my reckless wardrobe choices.".

These caring glares are not limited to clothing (or the lack their of), Parisians also freely glare at people's food and beverage choices. For example, I had a business meeting in a café recently with a fellow American travel writer (who specializes in Eastern Europe... not France). He ordered a café au lait and a citron pressé. The server hesitated, looked to me to make sure that the person I was sitting across from did in fact just order what he think he ordered, furrowed his brow at my nod, spun around and glared at us as he prepared our drinks. My friend stirred his coffee and asked me "Wait, what just happened there Mary? Did my terrible accent offend him?!". "Well... a number of things are going on here, none of which have to do with your accent. First of all café au lait is a breakfast-only beverage and it is 5 o'clock in the evening. Secondly, the French rarely order two drinks at the same time. So while the server might find those two things odd (hence the glance at me to make sure he understood you correctly) the glaring is casued by concern for your digestive system. The French only drink café au lait in the morning because they believe that amount of milk is too difficult to digest later in the day. On top of this milkly mistep, you ordered an acidic lemonade that may curdle the milk in your stomach making digestion even more difficult for you. So the reason he stared at you is because he cares about you and your little tummy. See? It's that sweet?".

Glaring is caring in France. Give it a try.


Anonymous said...

This is very humorous and informative info for the tourists who visit France. The cultural differences between us Americans and the French never ceases to make me laugh. Thanks for such great hubs!

lazy susie said...

My French husband has been glaring at me for 18 it really just care and concern????

Pete said...

Same for English folk like me. Just got back from a week away in Normandy where there was a lot of staring going on. The French love a good stare! They do it everywhere, in the street, in the bakery, in the supermarket, in bars...everywhere! I thought it was because they'd overheard my group talking in English. Guess we must just be highly attractive/interesting to look at...!!!