Monday, 8 December 2008

Lass mich bitte ausreden - s'il vous plaît

No fears, you've clicked on to a post written in English, even if the headline is a German-French mix.

It's all about manners - and how difficult it can be sometimes to get a word in edgeways (or edgewise if you like) when trying to add one's own two centimes to a conversation.

In particular it's a look at the different way we have of expressing ourselves, especially when confronted with someone from a different cultural or linguistic background.

Apologies in advance if it's a little on the long side. It's the weekend after all, and there's always the alternative of "zapping" along to the next post.

Let's begin with a question.

Have you ever wondered how world leaders manage when confronting each other and being separated not just by politics and national interests but also the lack of a common language?

When for example, the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, met the German chancellor, Angela Merkel recently in Paris for a tête-à-tête, how on earth did they both manage?

After all neither of them really speaks each other's language, and they're not that inspiring when they try to parler l'anglais oder sprechen englisch.

All right so it's obvious they had interpreters, but in a sense their decisions and those of other world leaders in such high level meetings are very much in the hands (or mouths) of that elite band of men and women diplomatically ironing out linguistic differences and supposedly "getting it right".

By any stretch of the imagination, that's some responsibility.

It's also not a job made any easier by the fact that it's far from always being a done deal that when two people talk to each other using the same mother tongue, they'll necessarily grasp what the other is trying to say.

Factor in the cultural baggage one brings to a conversation with someone in another language other than one's own, and there's a sure fire recipe for some classic misunderstandings.

Let me take you on a momentary diversion that'll hopefully serve as background to what comes afterwards.

As I sit at the keyboard merrily bashing in a four-fingered touch-typing frenzy, I'm having more than a few problems finishing a sentence.

You see on a French "clavier" as they call it here, the layout of the letters is from the top left AZERTY rather than the English language QWERTY, and that can present something of a challenge to the user.

As the "A" and the "Q" are reversed the simple sentence
"the cat sat on the mat" (for want of imagination) becomes
"the "cqt sqt on the ,qt".

Ah yes, did you notice that the comma on the French keyboard is where the "m" is on the English one.

Makes life easy huh?

But more fascinating (to me at least) is the positioning of the full stop or period.

All right so it's in the same place (third from the right on the bottom) but to use it, you need to remember to hit the "shift" button.

Where's that full stop?

Now returning to the main theme of this post though (manners, just in case you had forgotten), perhaps the layout of the keyboard and the peculiarity of using the full stop shouldn't come as a surprise when, as a non-native French speaker, you find yourself in conversation with someone here.

After all it rather illustrates to the outsider the way the French could appear to think and other words in one endless sentence, full of clauses, interspersed with marathon length "errrrrrrrrs" and leaving little room for a true dialogue.

Such was the case this week during a dinner party at a friend's rather swanky apartment in Paris.

Ignoring the old tenet of not talking politics, religion or sex during dinner, I asked (what I thought) was a rather innocent, almost innocuous question of my neighbour as to what he thought of the future of the Socialist party.

After all it has been the subject of a fair bit of media conjecture in past weeks with the battle for the leadership and the narrowest of victories for Martine Aubry.

I was then treated to more than five minutes of polemic (the French love that word) of almost Herculean proportions as one sentence stretched out to infinity with no recognisable full stop in hearing range.

The only time he paused was to take a sip of wine - an opportunity I used to respond, but even before I had begun warming up, he talked over and took over the conversation once again, proceeding merrily with his train of thought.

Now maybe I was being just a little too British about the whole thing. But I thought - and still think - that conversation was supposed to be just that - an exchange of ideas and a level of social interaction which doesn't just consist of one-way traffic but is also composed of bodily signals that act as encouragement to join in - a dialogue.

Gaps, breaks, pauses - call them what you will - combined with gesture are an invitation to participate - at least that's what social convention would suggest.

Not so in France it would appear, where quantity seems to be as important as quality, and any "discussion" resembles something along the lines of "here's what I have to say, and if you dare try to interrupt, I shall just talk and talk until there's no air left in the room."

Filibustering supreme.

At some point of course, he did stop, but by then I had lost any impulse I might have had to continue the discussion and was rather ruing my decision to have asked a question in the first place.

Besides my neighbour on the other side was "talking food". This was a dinner party in France after all.

Similarly - and here speaks the voice of experience - trying to hold a conversation in German with a native speaker can sometimes prove more than a little frustrating for Mr-Perhaps-just-a-little-too-polite Briton (oh yes bring on the stereotypes).

It's a language of course full of mammoth sentences with the longest words imaginable, but native speakers tend to be less demonstrative in terms of gesticulation and more measured (read deliberate) in the way they speak than their French-speaking counterparts.

Once again for the well-behaved Brit, enthusiastic to jump in and participate, it can be something of a shock to be pulled short and told "Lass mich bitte ausreden" or quite literally "let me finish speaking".

I mean, at face value it's really just not polite is it? In fact it could appear downright insolent.

But actually is that the case? Are either the French, or in this case, the Germans being rude?

After all they're just using their own language in the way they've been taught and in the manner in which it allows them.

The problem of course is how that actually comes across and in the way in which we see perceive each other.

Here in Europe - a continent of 730 plus million people with a breadth of languages, there's an apparent desire for closer co-operation with each other. The 27-nation European Union is an ongoing work in progress for economic, political and social integration.

But what is surely more than clear to all of us is that, while the United State and Britain are often described as two countries divided by a common language, the EU amounts to 27 nations rendered apart by a whole slew of tongues and traditions, trying to achieve unity of sorts.

When Sarkozy and Merkel get together (with interpreters) do they speak in never-ending sentences never allowing the other to have their say? Probably not. But do they actually listen and understand each other in the process?

Add some more world leaders into the equation (George W, Gordon Brown, Silvio Berlusconi et al) and how on earth do they ever manage to find linguistic common ground? And perhaps let's not even get started on the United Nations or the endless round of international gabfests.

There you go, just a couple of thoughts to leave you with this weekend.

"Right enough already," I hear those of you who've struggled to the end of this post shouting.

I'm off to have a chat with someone I know holds exactly my opinions, will understand every muddled and confused concept I'm trying to express and would never dream of interrupting when I'm in full flow.

Yes, that's right, I'm going to chatter away happily to myself.

Bon Dimanche und schönes Wochenende.

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