One of the more difficult realizations after having spent some time in France is that I am quickly losing time to establish the friendships that I’ve made here to be lasting ones. With the language barrier contributing to this during the first portion of my stay, I’m now having to face another, subtler barrier to the type of friendship that I am more used to. I find myself wondering how I define myself as a friend to others, and how that might have to change to accommodate the relationships I have made with these amazing people.
Before coming to France, I was put through cultural training (as all MISTI students must do). One of the topics which was discussed was that of relationship building with French people. We were told that there are some marked differences between causal conversations in the USA and in France. For example, the French are more reserved than Americans when it comes to mixing personal and professional life. Often times Americans will discuss family with someone they have not known for very long, whereas the French will reserve this and stick to matters that are more consequential to the setting at hand. Additionally, Americans tend to avoid much conflict during conversations, especially with strangers. And while the French don’t actively seek out arguments (in my experience), they are definitely willing to have an engaging and borderline-controversial conversation early on. One such example was someone who, out of the blue, asked me “Ah j’ai oublié! Que penses-tu de Donald Trump?” Which means “Oh I forgot (to ask)! What do you think of Donald Trump?” This sparked a rather long discussion about politics, which was definitely odd for me to do with a complete stranger.
The difficulty in separating “personal” and “professional” lives, from my perspective at least, is that I tend to gauge the deepness of a friendship by how much I know about someone else’s personal struggles and experiences. I would argue that this sentiment is shared by many Americans. However, the French don’t seem to have the same gauge; they seem to have their familial friends and their professional friends, and each set has a distinct role in their lives. This distinction forced me to re-evaluate how I could make a lasting impact on my colleagues.
What I ultimately decided to do might have been somewhat backwards to the French culture: I brought some of my personal stories to work and made myself a bit more vulnerable to them. I didn’t want to just be the American intern who came for 3 months and then left, who was hopefully pretty interesting but ultimately forgettable. And I didn’t want to leave having only seen my colleagues as vessels to alleviate my loneliness and boredom on the day-to-day. So I opened up as I would to my American friends, and accelerated the “getting-to-know-you” process by sharing what I was passionate about, and about my family, and perhaps more “philosophical” things going on in my head. These usually happened during the 45-minute coffee breaks after lunch. As the days progressed, I became closer to these people.
The response I got was definitely positive. And while my stories weren’t reciprocated to the same depth, they were always met with thoughtful comments, genuine interest, and the extrapolation of greater “life lessons.” It made me realize that my “identity” as a friend, and my idea of the basis of friendship at all, is simply different than theirs. I value my position as someone who can impact people, hopefully for the better. I realized that my deepest friendships are based on being more and more open to reflecting on experience, and using that experience to help others. I am overjoyed that they have accepted me into their lives and I feel that I am not going to forget the experience.
In an odd way, this experience overall has been a sort-of “rebirth,” not to be too cliché. Like an infant, I was placed into a world in which I had to learn to navigate the language, which was something I reflected on in an earlier post. After having mastered the language to a decent extent, I then had to put it to the test by developing relationships with other people. All over again I’ve had to come up with the most accurate way to present myself. This time period also presents an interesting dilemma: how do I present myself to total strangers in a meaningful way in a period of under three months? Am I the reserved midwestern white male who grew up 10 meters from a cornfield, am I the openly homosexual guy who can always crack a joke when the mood is dying, or am I the quiet observer and careful listener, who is genuinely interested in knowing what makes you tick by building upon layers of trust and compassion? Usually I’m a mixture of all three of these and more. In fact, I’ve almost never had to think of them as separate identities because they all just worked for me, you know? But after having spent weeks just getting an adequate vocabulary (plus a decent amount of confidence), I wonder which of these I want to leave with the people that I now consider friends.
Many French people take a few weeks’ vacation during the month of August. A few of the people I became closest to left for vacation a few days before I am writing this post. As a parting gift, I wrote each of them a handwritten note saying thank you and good bye. I realized the impact I had had when they came up to me before leaving work and gave me a hug (for those of you who don’t know, French people do NOT hug). It was one of the most validating things that has happened to me since being here.
All-in-all, I found that I didn’t have to change my approach to friendship, but my view on what both sides of the friendship can look like for it to work. I maintained my openness while simultaneously embracing my colleagues’ desire to be engaged. I hope now that, when I leave, I can maintain these relationships for as long as possible.
Thanks for reading (:
David Rich is a senior studying chemical engineering with a concentration in materials science. This summer, he is working on the characterization of micro-needles for applications in more efficient drug delivery mechanisms in Grenoble, France.