A little bit of courtoisie, s’il vous plaît

The day after Trump’s inauguration Philippe and I took the metro to the Place de Trocadero to join the Women’s March in Paris. It was a joyous hodgepodge of young and old, women and men, Americans and French and a sprinkling of other nationalities.    I was standing there holding my poster before the march began when a French man came up to me and asked the following question:  “Why is your poster only in English?  You are in France!”

“Yes,” he huffed, looking at my uncomprehending face.  “France is not an American colony.”  And having delivered his parting shot, off he went, leaving me stupefied.

It was obvious, at least to me, that since the protest was about Trump and since most of the participants were Americans, the posters would be in English.  Non?

But the fellow’s comment got me thinking:  Am I a nasty American imperialist, one of those people who doesn’t give a fig about the country she is in? You know the kind of people I’m talking about. They are the ones who wouldn’t consider learning the French or Spanish or Italian word for “hello” or “thank you” when in France, Spain or Italy. They figure that everyone in the world speaks – or should speak – English just like them.

This being said, as far as the Paris march is concerned, I can understand why the majority of posters were in English. Many of the American participants were visiting Paris, passing through.  Others  may live in France but don’t speak or write French for whatever reason.  But what about people like me who live in France permanently and speak and write French with no problem?

I had to ask myself why the thought of making a bilingual poster never even crossed my mind.

The answer is simple: I figured it was an American protest against an American President.  That’s basically true.  However,  I didn’t take into account where I was – in France, walking down French streets, showing a poster that would be read not only by other Americans, but by the French who just happen to live in this country!  The harm Trump can and will do affects the entire world, including the French. They too are the victims of this election.  So they should at least be able to read my sign!

OK, I was culturally insensitive which is rather ironic for someone who has written three books on the subject of being culturally sensitive.  A slap on the wrist to me!

And a  little reminder to all Americans abroad: keep in mind that a little courtoisie goes a long way.  Now that we’ve got Trump, we need as many ambassadors on the ground as we can get.

So, excusez-moi, Monsieur.  La prochaine fois j’écrirai mon poster en français!  (Excuse me, Sir. The next time I’ll write my poster in French!).

8 thoughts on “A little bit of courtoisie, s’il vous plaît”

  1. Very thoughtful piece, Harriet. I have another story to recount. As we gathered for the march at Trocadero, I was chatting with a young American woman, a new arrival expat in Paris. We were approached by a young Algerian man who came over and spoke to us. He asked us all sorts of questions about the march, the U.S., Trump, etc. and then said he understood that Trump was against Muslims and that’s why he was curious and came to the march. My young American friend and I assured him that WE were not anti-Muslim or anti-Algerian and that we thought most of the people in the march believed as we did. He seemed very interested in our sign”Black lives Matter, Women’s Rights, No human is illegal “etc. poster and took a photo of us holding it, saying he would cherish it.

    1. Hilary, Thanks for writing and sharing. Your story illustrates that misunderstandings can be corrected simply by encountering and conversing with people like this Algerian fellow who believes that since Trump is against Muslims, all Americans are. Just think what that one conversation did to change his view. He was able to see that we’re not all like Trump! Harriet

  2. Harriet,

    Thanks for this post. Like you, I am usually strongly on the side of thinking “when in France…” (or wherever), and I believe in the importance of learning the language of the host country, and using it. However, I think this was a different kind of a situation, and that in this case the criticism (which is often perfectly valid) was inappropriately applied.

    Interestingly, I had basically the same criticism of my signs pointed out to me by one of my American (in the US) friends. And I answered that I thought in this case, it made more sense for the signs to be in English than in French, since the main audience we were aiming at was an American one (to express solidarity and support); and an international one, in which the number of anglophones would probably outnumber the number of francophones. I also said that there were quite a few French people in the march, for which we were grateful. And that (for the most part) their signs were in French.

    Having said ALL that, you’re right: maybe bilingual signs would be nice too. (PS: Was the man who criticized you participating in the march? I doubt it. There was a wonderful spirit of multinational, multicultural, multilingual cooperation in that march. What a wonderful day it was!

    1. Janet, I liked your question: was the man who criticised me participating in the march? He told me he was a photographer and I think that he was most probably frustrated at not getting more photos of Americans bearing signs in French that would mean more to a non English reading French audience. I took his criticism with a grain (a bag?) of salt but did integrate his point about bilingual signs – a simple courtesy! Thanks for writing.

    1. Tom, it was a pleasure to represent you. Anytime you want me to step out to represent you at an anti-Trump function, I’ll be there! Harriet

  3. Nice to read your writing again Harriet. I like your point of view on love your manner of expression. I can feel your singularly personality that evokes the very joie de vivre of which you so write so wonderfully .

    I m very much not a Trump fan (and miss my dear friends Marcia and Sandy with whom I could have engaged in a wonderful intellectual venting process.) but I am consumed by some other factors at the moment. What he did today; essentially defunding organizations that allow for aid for abortions in countries where it otherwise might not be avoidable, staggers me. Yet, it is the theme of your blog and the underpinnings of what has made my country so enviably great upon which I am focusing. There must be a respect for our system and the orderly transition of power when the people have spoken (irregularity of the electoral college to the side). This man will undoubtedly engage in as many impeachable offenses as his time in office allows. However, he has not quite done them yet. I will stay the course however I will be responsible for a razor focus on what is real and what is being generated by those in power. I will try to connect the dots and speak out earlier rather than later

    I am reading/listening to a series of books published a number of years ago by Ken Follett. It is a trilogy that is 80 CD’s long and intersperses fiction and nonfiction over a century with interwoven tales of families that manage to cross pollinate. I love that genre (Eric Larsen and Jeffrey Archer are also favorites of mine utilizing that form of storytelling). In the third of the series, Edge of Eternity, Follett takes us through the turbulent times which saw dissension expressed by the murder of prominent leaders ( King and two Kennedy’s ) as a means to seek to resolve fundamental philosophical, cultural and political differences.

    Yes, we are instructed to take the lessons of history and recognize the similarities of the rise of Trump to the rise of Mussolini and Hitler. However, we must also not miss that expressing our differences by violence and disrespect makes us only BECOME violent and disrespectful as a people. It is our hardest test now because there is so much inherently wrong with his beliefs, his mistreatment of other humans, and his arrogance rather than being open to learn. We must protest as the Woman’s March did in the traditions of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, with Civil Disobedience peacefully and respectfully presented.

    There is so much more power and grace to that process. It is not the expedient solution of course and requires us to surrender into the frustration. We must pause and be patient while not backing down from fully expressing our views and even taking heroic stands if need be to make the message heard even louder.

    There are those who have preached for the demise of this man by WHATEVER means is necessary. Yet this is what leaves room on this earth for the people of different cultures (who believe just as fervently in their principles as we do ours) to express themselves violently. This terrorism threatens to thrust us into giving up our greatest gift; that of being part of a culture for which one can arise each day and know that they are free to live their lives, express their views and live among rich and varied cultures.

    I stand ready to fight the fight of overthrow, if that is what it must be, by complying and working with the laws and principles established by people for whom serving the people as legislators was an honor and a duty. They are few and far between now and I do not believe our congressmen now honor their values. Our forefathers built a program of checks and balances designed to protect against the breakdown of the democracy of the system. Now we have to pay incredible attention and be the most discerning we can be so that our vision is never obscured. We need to become less apathetic and more engaged. we need to become a culture not lost in our texting but engaged in respectful conversation and sharing of ideas; even if divergent from one’s views. The hopeful part is that I believe this can invest the power back in the people. We simply need to remember that we can only be responsible for ourselves and he others that we can inspire by our behaviors.

    My prayer is for people all over the world to listen, to care deeply, to respectfully share ideas (not just to reaffirm one’s long held beliefs but to try on others views). In this way we can actually crystallize our own point of view from knowledge.

    We have begun a journey that will require unity in the face of divisiveness, solidarity in the face of disarray, and compassion in the face of unconscionable ignorance and disrespect. I know this will be an uphill battle but I think it is best fought by honoring our values and continuing the dialogue.



    1. Kerry,
      Thanks so much for your thoughtful response. I agree with your position. As hard as it can be, we need to resist by, as you say, “honouring our values and continuing the dialogue”. It isn’t an easy path to follow as it is so much easier to remain rooted in our anger, the result of which basically is to see our wheels spin as nothing gets done. You are a wise man! Cheers, Harriet

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