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PARIS — In 2009, when I was writing “La Seduction,” a book about seduction as the key to understanding France, I interviewed the nation’s former president Valéry Giscard d’Estaing. I eased into the subject gently by asking him to imagine he was dining with Americans and that one of them asked, “Mr. President, could you explain to us how we can understand your country?”
Mr. Giscard d’Estaing, now 94, turned cold, as if delivering a diplomatic démarche at a NATO summit. “You cannot,” he said. “I have never met an American, never, who has really understood what drives French society.”
His message — grim, extreme — was a reminder of the enduring cultural divide between the Old World and the New, the sophisticated Frenchman and the clueless American.
And as I have spent the last week watching the latest iteration of the clueless American — Emily Cooper, a social media whiz assigned to a French marketing company, in Netflix’s new series “Emily in Paris” — I have been reflecting on my long and complicated relationship to France.
From my arrival in 1978 as a foreign correspondent for Newsweek, to my posting in 2002 as Paris bureau chief and now a contributing writer for The New York Times, I have learned that there is a disconnect in customs, not unusual in any foreign country, but a particular hazard for Americans in France. French rules regulating interpersonal behavior are a complex maze.
To be overly “familiar” is to invite scorn; to laugh too loudly is to solicit disdain; to take seconds on the cheese course is to jeopardize future invitations. Then, of course, there is the historical fear of the stranger, which penetrates deep into the French soul. At my local cafe, after months of haughty silence from the server, who barely tolerated my presence, I was finally greeted with “Bonjour” and a smile. The secret? A French friend at my side. I needed a local to fit in.
And that brings me to “Emily in Paris.” Within the clichés were grains of truth. A few of them:
The smile: “Stop smiling,” Emily’s boss, Sylvie, commands. “People will think you are stupid.” Americans smile at strangers; Parisians do not, which helps explain why some Americans find Parisians rude. In his best seller “American Vertigo,” the writer Bernard-Henri Lévy railed against the “emotionless” smiles of American strangers. The smile is too fraught, too deliberate to be bestowed as a mere pleasantry in France, he later told me.
The voice: “Why are you shouting?” one of Emily’s French colleagues asks when she makes her first presentation. Yes, Americans tend to speak much more loudly than the French. As a journalist accustomed to yelling on international calls, I had to be reminded by my two daughters to lower my voice on the Métro.
Perfume: Emily confesses that she is “not usually a perfume girl.” It’s true, perfume is integral to French ambience, and to the identity of many women here. “I want to get to know you better,” a female French friend said, after asking me what perfume I wear.
Work: “Are you crazy,” Sylvie tells Emily when she talks business at an evening reception. We are at a “soiree,” not on a “conference call,” she adds. In Washington, where I was once The Times’s chief diplomatic correspondent, cocktail parties and dinners were thinly veiled excuses to buttonhole sources and get scoops. In Paris, evenings are for relaxation and social discourse. Work, if it is done at all, has to be sneaked in and barely noticeable.
The coronavirus has upended many of these rules, of course. Masks force you to talk louder (and you can’t show your smile even if you want to); social distancing makes the double-cheek kiss forbidden and perfume less important; there are no soirees these days.
When life gets back to normal, perhaps some of the old codes — increasingly outdated for young Parisians — will fade.
But one lesson is sure to endure: To navigate Paris as an American is to be forced to slow down and embrace the process, ideally with a sense of humor. A playful spirit (in French, if possible) can neutralize a brusque response, draw the other party into a dialogue and create a pleasurable “partage” — a sharing. Seduction à la française, after all, is nothing but a conversation that does not end.