Confusion Corner: Etiquette is not always universal

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November 10, 2011

10:01 PM

People always ask me, “Jason, do you miss the United States? Do you miss your beloved College of William and Mary?” And I respond, “Of course I do! Every single day!” And then we share a laugh, make plans to hang out, and call each other later.

Okay, this never happens (God, I’m so lonely). But I do get asked if I miss the Tribe. And naturally, I really genuinely do. You can’t spend the last three years of your life someplace and compiling some of the memories I have without noticing and lamenting such a place’s absence from your life.

That’s not to say I’m not loving the hell out of my time in Paris. Quite the contrary. I’ve been to the top of the Eiffel Tower and seen the lights of Paris. I’ve had wine and cheese at cafes along the Seine. I’ve seen my favorite rapper at the Moulin Rouge, and today, I will be at the Stade de France cheering on USA soccer against “Les Bleus.” No, I’m having the time of my life in the city of lights.

However, I’ve also begun to notice some parallels between life on campus and life in Paris. Certain cultural phenomena that either manage to hold true universally, or else seem to represent polar opposites of ideology. Follow me here.

One glaring difference I notice is with regard to politeness and hospitality. Imagine the absolute worst party guest you can at William and Mary. A drunk freshman girl stumbles into your room. Well, into your doorframe, then your desk lamp, and then your room proper. She doesn’t ask your name, but instead slur-garbles, “Can I grabbabeer?” Grabbabeer here being vomited out as one word. You exchange “Is this bitch serious?” glances with your friends, but before you can tell her no, little Shirley Yates-McBarrett has already grabbed your last Natty, chugged it, shouted “Winning!” for some reason, and left. Bewildered, you take note of her drunken visage and vow never to allow her in ever again.

In France, while perhaps a little tactless, such eager acceptance of hospitality is the proper polite response. If you’re offered wine, you drink wine; if you’re offered cheese, you eat cheese. Presumably the same would hold true for vodka and Four Loko (rest in peace, sweet prince), but I’ve yet to test that theory. In America, we’re taught to impose as little as possible upon our hosts. In France, you’re taught that if they’ve got it, chug it.

Another fun little Venn diagram of cultural dissonance concerns seduction. You know, the bow-chicka-wow-wow. The slurp-slap-what’re-you-doing. The attraction of the same-or-opposite sex (Ne pas demander, ne pas dire). In the Glorious States of America two star-crossed young lovers lock eyes across the room. She smiles shyly and brushes the hair away from her eyes. He grins despite himself and hopes she will come over. It’s adorable, it’s harmless, and it’s as American as apple-flavored condoms.

In France, if you make eye contact with a dude on the Metro, you’re functionally giving him the green-light to breathe heavily down your neck with cheese-breath perspire all over you while inside your head you scream, “Why GOD does this train not stop already?” Parisian women avoid eye contact like the plague in public. Further, to actually speak to a stranger of the same or opposite sex is tantamount to sticking your genitalia in their face and doing a little dance. I have no idea where these preposterous ideas of sexual license originated, but you had better believe I keep my eyes, hands and junk to myself on the train.

Living abroad, you expand your horizons. That’s what all the brochures in the Wendy and Emery Reves Center for International Studies say. More importantly, though, you learn that the way you were raised is neither right nor wrong, and the way someone else was raised is neither strange nor smarter. It’s difference. It’s beautiful, soaring, polychromatic difference, and damn if life isn’t all the brighter for it.

Jason is a Confusion Corners columnist and is continuing to expand his horizons with Parisian hospitality far away from Yates-McBarretts.

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