Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Guest Articles/Thoughts on Enthusiasm

Pas mal…Where’s the enthusiasm?

Imagine sitting down to a beautifully set table and the hostess serves a delicious, mouth-watering meal fit for gourmet food critics. Everyone is eating and drinking with delight and appreciation and when the hostess can no longer contain herself, she asks, “What do you think? Is it good?” And with an indifferent nod, the common response is, “ah, oui, pas mal.” Pas mal, literally translated as not bad in English is a phrase I often hear in all aspects of French life to express approval or enthusiasm. When the hostess asks me what I think, I respond in my usual enthusiastic manner, “C’est absolument delicieux! Je l’adore! C’est super, super, super bon!”

Flabbergasted by their response, I asked Jean Luc (my husband), “how can they say pas mal? Don’t they like the meal? Are they being rude?” With a smile on his face, he said, “no, pas mal really means good, very good.” I said, “Yah, but it was better than very good, it was excellent. Where’s the enthusiasm?” Over time, I have learned that as a culture, French people (not everyone, of course) tend to be more subdued or subtle in how they express themselves which is neither good nor bad – it’s just different.

My idea of enthusiasm vastly contrasts with that of my French family. Not only am I an American who is outwardly expressive by nature but I was a cheerleader in high school. I’m not sure cheerleaders exist in France – they don’t have them at my step-children’s school. So, being a professionally trained queen of rah-rah, I come to the table with expectations, not only in expressing compliments to others but in receiving feedback as well. If I knock myself out and create a delicious meal or rearrange the furniture or clean a messy closet – I need a whole lot more than pas mal – I need to hear “great job” or “excellent” at the very least. A simple pas mal does not suffice.

Cultural compromise is modus operandi chez moi. What’s “normal” to this mid-western former pom-pom girl is to EXPRESS what I feel – if I like it, I’ll let you know that I LIKE it!! Whereas, if my family LIKES it, they say not bad. One level of compromise involves managing my expectations and allowing people to communicate in their style – whether it be rah-rah or subdued – and when the urge to physically shake a little enthusiasm into the conversation arises, I keep my hands by my side. My family is learning how to spice-up their vocabulary with words like: Cool, awesome, and excellent! As the kids count down their last days of school for summer break, they put their hands in the air, dance around and shout “YAAHHH” in true cheerleader style. This warms my heart!

We learn from each other. What starts out as a complaint or a minor irritation can be the beginning of self discovery. Sometimes the differences we observe point out where we’re stuck, where we have deeply ingrained expectations and can provide an opening to see the world from a more enlightened view. When I observe my French friends around the table, I do pick-up on unique cadences and rhythms which express enthusiasm – they simply don’t use pom-poms. Once a cheerleader, always a cheerleader – I have no intention of subduing my nature – yet I embrace the differences with acceptance and APPRECIATION.

© 2004 Jennifer Blalock, Life in the Village: Reflections of an American Living in a Small French Village. Published in The Courier by the American International Women’s Club of Geneva.

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