At the ‘height’ of cultural differences

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By Nora Swidler

Upon encountering a stranger, the first aspect that one notices is the stranger’s physical attributes. Generally, Americans do not tend to comment on the physical features of a stranger, unless it is to compliment the stranger. This was not the case during my semester abroad in France.

I fall just short of 6’3”. I am not trying to be hubristic when I say that I am frequently on the receiving end of many compliments regarding my height.

When I meet an American for the first time I usually hear, “Oh my, you are so tall!” But that statement is almost always followed by: (1) “You must be a basketball player!” (2) “Are you a model?” or (3) “You must love being that tall!” These statements are generally polite conversation starters meant to be sociable.

I spent the fall semester in Rennes, France and am an avid lover of the French language. However, just as with English, French has many words with two or more meanings. The word in French for “tall” is grand.  Unfortunately, grand also happens to mean “large,” “wide,” “heavy,” and “big.”

The first time I was approached by a stranger in France, a fellow in his mid-twenties, he came right up to me, gasped-as if in shock-and said, “Tu es très grande!” Then he walked away before I could respond. I was slightly taken aback at his blunt approach (particularly because the phrase has a multiplicity of meanings—among them, “You are very wide”), but I decided to build a bridge and get over it.

This man was not alone in his brusque mannerisms. I was stopped dozens upon dozens of times in a very similar manner. With each passing time, I became less and less patient. The statement was not being used as a social mechanism to get to know me better or to make small talk.

With the help of my friends who were abroad with me, I eventually discovered responses that were slightly humorous and not rude. Whenever I was hit with a “Tu es très grande!” I began to respond with “Et jolie aussi, j’espère!” (“And good-looking too, I hope!”) or “Vraiment? C’est peut-être la raison pourquoi mes pantalons sont ne jamais suffisamment longue.” (“Really? That may be the reason why my pants are never long enough.”)

Perhaps the French are just more blunt culturally. Perhaps they feel more comfortable commenting on others’ physical attributes without offering a comment afterwards.

It is also possible that they were genuinely concerned that I did not realize how tall I am and sought to inform me. Regardless, it was an interesting aspect of culture shock that I had not anticipated would transpire, particularly because I was unable to change the underlying facts that precipitated their comments.

While I love French culture, there were moments when I missed the average American stranger.

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