Sunday, October 3, 2010

A little sugar helps the medicine go down...

I love coming across one of those Aha! moments. One of those, but of course! moments. And such was the result of much back and forthing this week concerning friends at the school.

Meetings, language, cues, nuance, diplomacy. How fascinating to have opposing views on such important subjects.

The situation in question concerns an English family and the school, but it could be a replay of numerous meetings held between teachers and British/Anglo-Saxon parents over the past few years. Our school, the only Rudolf Steiner/Waldorf school that goes through to high school situated in a particularly attractive location in Europe, attracts many internationals. And, of these, there are a number who contemplate/dream/plan to settle permanently in la belle Provence. You can put whatever spin on this you choose. Is it the English reconquering a land they've coveted for centuries, more than a millenium? Is it simply the new sunbelt of Europe? In any case, with computers and flexible working conditions, housing prices being a bit more reasonable on this side of the channel, this option has tempted a number of families over the years.

There've also been a number of visiting families from other English/Anglo countries: Americans, Canadians, Australians. But in general, they are visitors for a set time period, and then they return home. It's a family adventure, no more.

Our school welcomes with open arms these families. The teachers accept the children who manage minimally the local language, and we all pitch in to make it work. But what happens when the parents don't know and have difficulty learning French? What happens when that Provence dream turns a bit sour when they realize that the job market here is supremely difficult? It's not always as easy and smooth as one might wish. How much can the school help?

I digress. I have set the tone, but truly what I want to consider is how bad news is presented during a meeting. It is dawning on me that the French and Anglo-Saxon viewpoint are opposed in this delicate situation. From my personal experience -- and that of a few friends -- it is clear to me that we Anglo-Saxons need a bit of sugar with our medicine. Face it, we were many of us raised with Mary Poppins as an important cultural icon. We need to be reassured that all is not evil, that there are redeeming character traits (in our child for example) or that there is hope for improvement, or that this meeting is simply a chance to inform and plan future collaboration towards a solution.

I know that I (and I believe many others of my culture) simply shut down and panic when bad news is dished out first. It's rather terrifying, I'm not ready, what? hunh? but when? for how long? whoah.... isn't there anything positive you could say to soften the blow? For us diplomacy is defined by the art of couching/framing/preparing the negative information with a bit of the positive. We are thus reassured (in this case as a parent, but this could be a business meeting, job discussion, the list is long) that our child is seen as a whole and complex being.

By contrast, a few of my French (particularly Parisian) friends have a tendency to avoid what they see as sugar-coating as being dishonest and simply putting off the inevitable. They distrust and are wary of such tactics -- that's how they see them. Get to the point, why have you called this meeting? Diplomacy is deemed being brutally honest.

Or, as a (French) friend astutely put it, what do you want the person in front of you to walk away with? Do you begin with the bad and end with the good? and thus hope that the lasting impression will be better? or do you begin with the good and end with the bad, and your partner thus walks away depressed?

Curiouser and curiouser. And so, I am seriously contemplating more discussions on this topic and making a proposal to the school to I hope, more adroitly welcome and manage what is clearly a growing population for us.


Airelle said...

if there has allways been an antagonism between the French and the Anglo-Saxons, it's not for nothing, no? there is a deep difference in culture in relation to discussion, negotiation and I think even thinking. we Scandinavians tend to be closer to the Anglo-Saxons than the French and so I understand the problems these mentality differencies can occasion. I hear same sort of remarks many times from my countrymen.

Vagabonde said...

My daughters were schooled in Georgia and my husband was the one to talk to the schools as I did not like to go. I went once and with my French accent the teacher did not seem to understand (or wish to understand) me.

I did not know there were so many English people moving to France. I am surprised because when I went to school in England I could tell that they did not like France that much. Actually it could be like the Americans, they like France but not the French. I have been surprised to find so many blogs in the US with French names, but in English, like Fou Paris , French Brocante, La Blogue de Paris, French Bleu, Chez la Vie, etc. They are all about how Paris is beautiful, the monuments, the food, the décor but never about the people. I wrote several comments on their blogs and none of them ever came to mine. I wonder, since you are in France, do you find that many, or any, French people have blogs on the US as they do on France here? I’d like to find some, but so far have not found any. When I go to France I have a hard time finding French music on the radio, as a lot is in English, the same with tee-shirts, and I was told they even have majorettes now in schools. So since they like the American culture that much I don’t understand why I can’t find French blogs on America – and I have looked hard.

Nathalie said...

Vagabonde I suggest you look at
It's a website dedicated to French expat blogs. I'm sure a few of them live in the U.S.
Looking at their blogs you could probably find more through their blogroll links.

Nathalie said...

Madeleine you've got a point here.
I remember attending Toastmasters for 2 years in Australia and the rule when you did an evaluation of someone's speech was always "the sandwich" : a slice of ham (criticism) in between two slices of bread (compliments and appreciation).

I attended one Toastmasters club in Paris and was astounded to see how harsh the criticism was. Forget about the sandwich, keep the meat and keep it raw! Gasp, I think all my Australian friends never would have attended twice had they received that sort of feedback about their work. But then the Parisians said if they were there to learn then ways to improve were what they needed to hear, not sweet lullaby singing.

So yes, I'll second your comment that we definitely aren't on the same track here.

Nathalie said...

And Vagabonde again, perhaps another way to start is to have a look at Tomate Farcie's blog in San Francisco.
Although she hasn't posted anything since July I know she still comments occasionally on friends' blogs and if you leave a comment on her blog I'm sure she'll read it and will answer. Perhaps she can give you more links or clues.

Madeleine Vedel said...

Thank you Nathalie! good ideas. There's also a blog by a friend who was doing research in Texas... it is quite amusing discussing the cultural issues, social wierdnesses etc., that he encountered:

And oh, the idea of the sandwich. Is it so Anglo-Saxon? And I am absolutely of the ilk that requires a bit of tenderness with her criticism. However, I've survived this far in France, I suppose I'll manage to adjust just a wee bit further, hm?