Blog: My Unusual Road of Life....
by kerminator

How to get a yes from a string of No's

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Date:   8/9/2019 12:58:48 AM   ( 15 mon ) ... viewed 345 times


Business School professor Erin Meyer identifies eight scales to demonstrate how different cultures relate. The first scale addresses context’s role in communication. Countries like the US and Australia are low-context cultures where people generally say what they mean and mean what they say.

However, France, like Russia and Japan, tends to be a high-context culture, where “good communication is sophisticated, nuanced and layered. Messages are both spoken and read between the lines,” she writes.

Meyer suspects one of the factors leading to this divide can be found in the numbers: according to her book, there are 500,000 words in the English language, but only 70,000 in French. This means that Anglophones are more likely to have the exact word to say what they want, whereas Francophones must often string together a series of words to communicate their message. This not only forces the French to be more creative with language, it also allows them to be more ambiguous with what they want to say. As a result, ‘non’ in France does not always mean ‘no’.

France tends to be a high-context culture where communication is sophisticated, nuanced and layered
This reliance on the word no doesn’t mean the French are a fundamentally negative people, either. In part, their approach starts at school. French children learn to argue a thesis, antithesis and synthesis when preparing essays, which teaches them to argue their point, argue against their own argument, then develop a summary. Meyer writes, “Consequently, French business people intuitively conduct meetings in this fashion, viewing conflict and dissonance as bringing hidden contradictions to light and stimulating fresh thinking.” In fact, the French ‘no’ is often an invitation to debate, engage and better understand one another, which has encouraged the development of a bouquet of different nos, used in various situations.

The first and most important no is the one that really means ‘je ne sais pas’ – the ‘I have no idea’ no. Barlow and Nadeau estimate that nearly 75% of the nos they encountered were to conceal a lack of knowledge. This likely comes from the terror of ridicule for being wrong. It is a fear French students first encounter in elementary school where individual grades are shared in class, setting the stage for an environment of humiliation and vulnerability.

The fear is compounded when teenagers sit the Baccalauréat, a series of exams at the end of secondary school. Grading is fierce, with a score of 12 out of a possible 20 earning an honourable mention and a full 20 being virtually unheard of. The results are posted online for the world to see, leaving students open to comments about why they didn’t get an honourable mention, and if they did, why they didn’t get higher honours. After 13 years of anxiety, survivors of the French academic system are relieved to offer a debatable ‘no’, rather than an erroneous ‘yes’.

Perhaps the easiest no to handle is the flirtatious no. Accompanied by a wink and a smile, it is an invitation to dialogue used by anyone from a butcher playfully making her clients beg for a desired cut of meat, to a young child hoping for a treat. At its most innocuous, the flirtatious no can seduce customers back to the same café every afternoon for a chat with their friendly waiter. Other times, like all games, it gets tiresome.

The authoritarian no is more difficult to manage. Barlow and Nadeau suggest that the no used by many French people comes from an obsession with not getting blamed for being wrong. And while this is true in all walks of life, the fonctionnaires (bureaucrats) of France have turned it into a complex system that seems archaic and inefficient.

When going to the Tribunal d’Instance to apply for citizenship, for example, I was handed a pen and a blank piece of paper as the clerk dictated a list of required documents. While an online document to be reviewed in advance would seem more effective, this lack of an official list empowers the clerk to say no at various stages throughout the application process. In fact, organised French citizens don’t need a list to know that for any administrative issue, they had best arrive at their appointment with copies of their birth certificate and proof of permanent address issued in the last three months, as well as proof of their identity and banking information, all photocopied in triplicate. While this sheath of documents does not guarantee success, it is considered a reliable shield against countless nos.

The reflex no is perhaps the most intimate of all the no, common among friends and life partners. In the early 2000s, I met cultural consultant Polly Platt, author of French or Foe, to discuss raising a family in France. From her apartment in Paris’ upscale 7th arrondissement, Platt shared her strategy for getting a yes from her French husband. For summer holiday plans, for example, she would suggest a destination she was not interested in and knew her husband would never accept – perhaps somewhere too hot or near the in-laws, like Marrakesh or Philadelphia. The second suggestion would pose another set of problems. Suggesting a place like the Hôtel Negresco in Nice would start him on a rant against crowds and high-season prices. By the time she suggested her first choice of going to their second home in the Dordogne, his ‘oui’ would come easily. She knew if she’d started with the idea of staying close to home, he would have said no before giving it any consideration

Hoping the booking agent had used the reflex no on me, I re-explained my need for a flight the following day. She replied that the airline required one day’s notice to exchange tickets. I asked if that was 24 hours or one calendar day. Since that was not a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ question, she was able to tell me it was a calendar day. “When is the very first flight the next day?” I enquired. It was five minutes after midnight – exactly 35 minutes after the flight I had been trying to book for my trip.

At last, I had my yes.

Why We Are What We Are is a BBC Travel series examining the characteristics of a country and investigating whether they are true.

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