Friday, 28 March 2008

A Sense of the Ridiculous

The question of how and why you rarely, nay never, see a French person struggling down a ski slope has been bothering me.

I ask La Belle Belle-Fille, who is a prime example; as elegant and beautiful on the piste as she is off it; think raven-haired Grace Kelly on skis. Irritatingly, she does it - including black runs - without any apparent effort or single drop of sweat. She says: "In France, you either learned to ski when you were young or you didn't. Those who did, ski. Those who didn't, don't." Blindingly obvious really.

It is not a cliché but a cultural truism that the French have a horror of being or appearing ridiculous. To be "ridicule" is about the worst thing you can say of someone; worse than insulting their mother. It is, again not a cliché, one of the reasons why many French people who can speak English well pretend they are unable to utter a word. Well is not good enough; unless they can do it perfectly they fear attracting ridicule and would prefer to remain silent, silence being, in this case, less "ridiculous" than making a mistake or having an accent. I once suggested to La Belle Belle-Fille, then studying English, that it might be a good idea if we spoke English for ten minutes at the dinner table once or twice a week. Once or twice a week there were ten minutes of pin-dropping silence. I swear, she uttered not a single word. I knew her written English was almost faultless and challenged her reluctance to speak it. "You cannot pass notes when you are in London," I admonished. She admitted finally she was afraid if she spoke English people would find her "ridiculous". I said: "Listen. You are tall, thin, young, very beautiful, elegant and you speak English with a French accent. "Believe me; the last thing anyone, especially young English men, will be thinking when you open your mouth is 'ridiculous'."

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