Some Thoughts About Culture

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Our IPMH group has been having an extensive and interesting discussion about culture on email. I have been traveling and it has been hard for me to follow all of it on my blackberry, but I thought I would offer some thoughts. It refers to caregivers in that we often forget to figure in culture to our caregiving practices and aspirations. Recent writings in the popular press about Chinese and French child rearing have made many American parents doubt themselves. Of course, every path chosen in life leaves another untaken, and every advantage that a particular culture offers also has a price. 

I just returned from Normandy, where I attended the wedding of the son of my best childhood friend. It was like stepping out of my life and into a French movie and then back into my life again. I got the thrill that I often get when I am part inside and part outside a life that is not my own. One of the visual memories I have of this experience is that of looking across a room of 82 people, gathered around one big table and several smaller ones, talking. There was something in their animation that struck me, and in the fact that whereas the group included young intellectuals in academic and professional careers, middle-aged tradespeople, retired teachers, one nun, one very old grandmother in a wheel chair, and about a dozen children, I had the impression that they were all leaning forward in their chairs and talking happily. Of course, this was a lovely group of people, and it was a happy occasion, but they were also French, and the French love to talk. They love their language. I would say that is probably the anchor of their culture. 

There were several other observations that I made about culture during those two days of the wedding celebrations. The first was about children. The children were quite noisy during the ceremony at the church. They talked and squawked, and no one seemed to care. But what was remarkable was how the children behaved during the dinner after the wedding. The dinner began at 8:00 pm., and there were many children at the dinner, including an infant and several preschoolers. A not quite 3-year old was sitting next to me. He maybe was the one exception to my previous description of people talking happily. At the beginning of the dinner I wondered how long he would last. I tried to make friends with him, but he shrank away from me. Later (just to underscore what I said about language) someone explained to me that his initial rejection of me was probably because of my accent. He was doing little provocative things like poking the straw from his drink into each piece of bread in the breadbasket on the table near him. His parents were all over him about it, correcting him, telling him to be good, but they didn’t seem very upset. They just kept telling him to behave over and over again, in a way that punctuated but didn’t seem to interrupt their conversation with their friends. Finally he just stopped doing little naughty things and started to amuse himself in various innocuous ways. By the end of the dinner at 1:30 am, he was sagging a little, but he was still awake.  When people were saying good night, at the coaching of his parents, he even offered me his little fat cheeks to kiss goodbye. We were not necessarily friends, but not enemies. 

The second observation I made was the next afternoon when we all came together again for lunch. I noticed that the first thing everyone said in greeting after hello was, “Did you sleep well?” (“T’as bien dormi?”) Now, that isn’t surprising, since we all had been up very late the night before. I noticed that it wasn’t just that people were speaking simply to me because they didn’t know the extent of my French, because they were asking one another the same question. It seemed that there was something facilitating, even comforting about the convention of asking this question, as if it were part of a song that we all knew. Again, language was key. 

The last observation was about the goodbyes. Probably many Americans have remarked on “the French goodbye”. It seems to us as if it goes on forever. I guess it shouldn’t be a surprise that the French, who value their language so highly, should use it to soothe the pain of parting. As an American, you have to be prepared, you have to realize that when a French person first says goodbye, he doesn’t really mean goodbye. He means that he is beginning to say goodbye. 

How do all these observations come together into a more general consideration about culture? I realize that my comments are coming from a naïve point of view and that many have surely studied this phenomenon and written about it more knowledgeably, but I would guess it has something to do with the place of language in French culture. And as we know, language development begins very early in a child’s life – not necessarily words and symbols, but the aspects of language I am talking about. That is, the tones, the rhythms, the “sense” of communicating and probably even the “sense of what is being communicated”, through the matching of affect and actions with the words. So that when the parents of the 2-year old persistently corrected him verbally without ever giving him the impression that his leaving was an option, they were teaching him how to stay at the table. I am not suggesting that his parents were teaching him patience; I do not necessarily consider patience to be a French virtue, but staying at the table is. I am also not suggesting that all French 2-year olds could stay at the table that long and that late, but since they have been immersed in that culture from birth or before, many can.  To return to my original point about culture, I suppose that the advantage of being able to stay at the table carries a price too, but I can’t for the moment think of what it would be.   

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