Wednesday, October 08, 2008

The Language of Conversation: U.S. presidential campaign underlines French passion for discussion

It was the first round of U.S. presidential debates that reiterated a ‘fundamental difference’ between North Americans and the French. Standing upright behind podiums better-suited for speech-giving than dialogue, the candidates had an easier time addressing the moderator, the live audience and the TV viewing public at home than one another. Eye contact between opponents was minimal, and on several occasions journalist Jim Lehrer gently reminded the two senators to stop addressing their rebuttals to him. “I’m just trying to get you gentlemen to talk to each other,” he joked. Politics aside, even the casual observer has to admit that the physical configuration of the set encouraged a courtroom-style ambiance rather than one of spirited debate.

The French toyed with the same format during the 2007 presidential elections, but convention won out. Traditionally, French politicians sit across from one another, forcing participants to engage in a tête à tête. Eye contact is unavoidable, as is real discussion, which not only makes for more interesting banter, but when the candidates are particularly skilled, some historical TV moments as well. While the final debate between Ségolène Royal and Nicolas Sarkozy didn’t prevent the former from being any less wooden or the latter from spouting fewer platitudes, it remained much more captivating than anything we’ve witnessed across the Big Pond so far this fall, whether the debating has taken place behind podiums or in the form of a town hall meeting.

What’s interesting about all of this is what a nation’s debating style says about its philosophy on discussion in general.

In France, soccer may be the most popular sport, but discussion (or, depending on the subject, conversing, arguing or debating) comes in close behind. Anglophone professionals that work for French companies lament just how much discussion takes place: meetings that would last 20 minutes back home risk running an entire afternoon. The traditional French meal is structured with discussion in mind: if a French person invites you to lunch, you had better pencil in a good three hours. You don’t even have to know each other that well – if you don’t want to get personal, you can stick to the world’s problems and there’s plenty of subject matter to fill the time between apéro and dessert.

While the French may not be the only ones to sit back and contemplate the fate of the world over dinner and drinks, one notable difference between the two cultures is the nature of the discussion itself: in France, if you disagree with someone, you’re just chatting; in North America, if you’re opposed to what someone is saying, you’re often regarded as difficult.

“After a while, when you go back home you find yourself holding your tongue a lot,” observed an American journalist who has lived in Paris for 12 years. “Otherwise, you wind up getting in conflicts with your friends.”

“I have to watch myself whenever I’m home,” confirmed an American photographer who has lived in Paris on and off over the last eight years. “If I get too excited about the conversation, I come off as being aggressive.”

An American-born writer who recently moved from Paris to New York has had similar experiences. “In Paris, you can go to a party and meet someone, and if you don’t share their opinions that just means that you’re going to get into a big discussion,” she said. “Here it’s weird: sometimes people get offended.”

While politics may be the exception to the rule – it doesn’t do Obama or McCain any good to agree with one another on everything – French political wives aren’t afraid to demonstrate their disapproval of their husbands’ methods. Ex first lady Cecilia Sarkozy and Carla Bruni, the French president’s new spouse, have both admitted to not voting for Nicolas Sarkozy. This may have provided the public with a couple of chuckles, but it wasn’t such a big deal: in a society where disagreement leads to some great conversations, husbands and wives aren’t expected to hold identical sets of beliefs on everything.

In 2007, Resolved – a documentary on the university debating circuit in the United States – won the Audience Award at the Los Angeles Film Festival. In the movie, filmmaker Greg Whiteley depicts students employing what’s referred to as the ‘spread’ method, a debating strategy that focuses less on persuasive and eloquent speaking, and more on fitting as many facts and as much academic research as possible into an allotted time span. The result: debaters employ jargon – a sort of verbal shorthand – that enables them to cram up to 400 words into a minute, in between pants and gasps for air. Only those fluent in the spread method can understand what the speakers are saying; to a casual observer, the debaters resemble geeky versions of rappers hopped up on dangerous doses of speed.

In the end, one might conclude that while Barack Obama and John McCain may be rehashing their platforms rather than engaging in real debate, at least what they are saying is comprehensible.