For many years now, we Christians have been talking about earning the right to speak (i.e. the right to have a conversation about someone about their faith). While this is understandable in American culture, where being blunt about anything without first having some sort of rapport will sometimes get your permanently shut out of someone’s life, it is an even bigger point of life in France. Now what I am about to tell you is still a little mind-boggling for me as a chatty American whose idea of privacy is more based on pride and fear than anything else: in France you are ONLY allowed to discuss 2 things with strangers: the weather and food - anything else is considered private and therefore out of bounds. You CANNOT ask someone that you don’t know well how they are or how their day/month/year/family/job is. In America we say “How are you?” as a greeting. I think that alone might clue you in to some cultural differences.
How am I supposed to get to know anyone without knowing everything about their life while at the same time keeping my own personal distance? Here people are, for example, prone to covering their books so you can’t see what they’re reading. In America, we might read something for appearance’s sake! They close the shutters on their windows (gasp, what if someone might see into your house??), really like tall hedges around their houses when possible, though fences also work in a pinch, and take great pains (or so it seems to us) to keep others out. BUT what they lack in American-style openness, (which often is matched with a lack of personal openness) they make up for in warmth, once you get past the personal security checkpoint. Sometimes all it takes is joining a club, being introduced by a mutual friend, or anything that builds a sense of camaraderie. It’s sometimes still slow-going but here everything is built on relationships. Here, it really IS who you know. Trust is king. French people are wary of strangers, but love a good friend. Who doesn’t?
What we as Americans have to ask ourselves is are we capable of being a good friend here. It can be an uncomfortable thing, letting someone else take charge of your day, your need, and even your perceived need without asking or being asked. But to a French friend, your need is important and they will do their best to help you meet it. In fact, if you do state a need but it’s not something immediate, you have to explain that too or they might set straight to work on it, even if it means ignoring their own needs and plans. Am I capable of doing the same in return? Will I pick up on their hints when there is a need I didn’t already see? (They will rarely bluntly ask for something.) I’ve lived with a bit of this already with ministry life, but I must admit that sometimes I complained or even felt frustrated when things popped up if it was something I didn’t want to help with (or for Greg to help with!). In God’s sense of humor and the need for me to be more flexible, this is exactly what I’m going to be facing but perhaps on an even more personal level. And maybe even more importantly, there are little ears and eyes who follow me everywhere now`so it’s time for me to set an example of love in action rather than one of complaints.