Reading one of the blogs I follow the other day, I came across the link to this article, published to mark the occasion of “Be Nice” Day, which was recently launched in France by Psychologies magazine. The article gives a whole range of statistics about how many French people admire kindness as a quality, how many don’t, and why so many of them find it hard to exhibit themselves in their day to day lives. (Reasons included lack of time, a fear of being used and the belief that people don’t respect you if you are nice.)
What I found particularly interesting, however, was the statement by a psychologist at the end that “the main obstacle (to kindness) is a lack of self-esteem”. It has long been a theory of mine that, while the French may appear rude and arrogant on the outside, many of them suffer from a huge lack of confidence on the inside, largely stemming from being part of a society that demands high standards in just about everything and never stops reminding you that you probably don’t live up to these standards.
Many mother tongue speakers in France do not believe that they speak French. What they mean is that to words which come out of their mouths are not the same as those which you read in a textbook or which are set down on paper by the Académie Française. (Listen to any French person reading aloud and you will understand the difference.) At school, it’s common for children to receive negative marks in tests, which are marked out of 20 but with one point being taken off for every mistake. If you’re French, you’re supposed to be slim, elegantly dressed, intelligent, highly educated in every subject, witty and capable of sophisticated conversation at all times. You’re supposed to achieve everything your job demands of you in a 35 hour week, serve delicious dinners accompanied by the perfect wine at weekends, enjoy several perfectly-organised holidays per year in all the right places and have a circle of friends who are able to sustain the same high standard of living to accompany you. If you fail, not only is your own life crap, but you’re letting down the whole of French society as well.
It’s no wonder that a large percentage of French people lack the self-belief to reach out to and empathise with those around them. The rest, of course, simply don’t have the time.