Thursday, September 16, 2004
it's not polite to be polite
I say "Bon soir", I say "S'il vous plait". I say "Merci" and I say "Bon soirée". Before I leave a shop I try also to remember to say "Au revoir" with a smile on my face. These are the rules of transaction in Toulouse and they might sound like very pleasant and polite rules. But sometimes it isn't polite to be polite.
According to anthropologists, there are two different forms of politeness - positive politeness and negative politeness. Positive politeness seeks to tend to our need for inclusion and openness, whereas negative politeness is concerned to maintain our desire for privacy and distance.
One of the things I hoped I was going to find in Toulouse was more inclusion and openness than I usually found in the UK. I had been a student here for a year and certainly remembered this city to be a friendly place where people were more free to approach and befriend strangers.
But I have concluded that the Toulousain are a very closed bunch, who interact with you only through the fixed forms of negative politeness. In the shops or with people at parties it is always the same thing. Distance is always maintained by the repetition of a finite list of acceptable questions including, "Where are you from", "Where do you work", "How long have you lived in Toulouse", and depending on the season "Do you ski or snowboard?".
During the tedious pretence of exploring these dull platitudes there is always a little moment of mutual reasssurance about how wonderful we are to have chosen Toulouse to live in, "Well we are so lucky, we have everything here. We have the mountains not far away, and then of course we have both the Mediterranean and the Atlantic coast".
I have heard these exact words repeated so many times that I could easily enjoying shocking people by saying something like, "Yeah that's very true, it's just a shame about all you cold and snobby local people".
Myself and my friends who went away on holiday this summer all experienced this reserve strongly upon our return, and it has caused us a little frustration. Coming up against continual interpersonal barriers when you are are positive politeness person is always going to pique.
Strangely enough, when I popped into London for a couple of days this summer on my way back to France from Sri Lanka, I found the Londoners to be much more open minded, approachable and spontaneous than the Toulousain. This is clearly a reversal of what I thought when I left the UK, and makes the cartoon above need a redraw.
If I ever get a moment I would sketch a smartly chique lady wearing dark Gucci sunglasses and a knee length skirt, walking along the Garonne with her groomed designer dog being carried in her handbag, too busy making sure everyone could see her with her model boyfriend to bother with the drowning foreigner, unless he had the common courtesy to request her assistance in French.
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