‘Je ne sais quoi’ of French Communication

As I get the opportunity to live abroad, I once thought that it is normal that I would eventually get accustomed to all of the cultural aspects of that country. At this point in the journey, I would say that that is only mostly* true. As I spent my time in France, I got to know and have gotten used to many things such as interacting in French, the Paris metro system, eating dinner at 9PM, not being able to drink iced coffee, grocery stores closing at 1PM on Sunday, time slowing own, etc. These activities that once was a cultural shock became my new habits as time passed by, and eventually I got accustomed to that new culture because those new habits became my new normal. However, one aspect of the French culture that has yet to be engrained within me is the French communication style. I would describe the communication style of the French to be quite low-context, meaning that there is a lack of detail in their message, leaving more things to be implied and up for interpretation. The nuance that I pick up from their unclear style of communication and expression is what I interpret as the ‘Je ne sais quoi’ of conversational French. As you may know, ‘Je ne sais quoi’ is one of the French phrases that is popular and stereotyped in American popular media, such as ‘Voila’, ‘Oh la la’, and/or ‘bon voyage’. In French, when translated directly, ‘Je ne sais quoi’ means ‘I don’t know what’, which can be interpreted as the ‘unexplainable quality of something or someone’. Therefore, when I refer to the French conversation style as having a ‘Je ne sais quoi’ to it, I am pointing to the unknown factor or unclearness that gives other people a hard time interpreting what they are trying to communicate.

In the ‘every day’ environment with the host family, I value communication because I am welcomed into their home and I want to make sure that I am respecting their spaces and the common areas. One instance of the French ‘je ne sais quoi’ conversation was when I was cooking in the kitchen, the host mother was trying communicate to me to cook less with oil by not saying directly to cook less with oil. When I was cooking, the host mother sparked up a conversation in French about how foreigners generally cook with more oil than the French and it is healthier to cook without oil. At this point, I was not connecting the dots that she was refering specifically to me, but she continued to say that the floors become slippery when the oil flies and it is dangerous for the babies and the children that come to the house. Then she moved on to complimenting me on my character and thanking me for following her directions. This was an interesting and amusing experience because that was one of the first times I learned and experienced the low-context communication style of the French, leaving me with a big question mark on my head.

In the work environment especially, one aspect that I am still trying to overcome is the ambiguity and the non-specificness of the directions given by my internship supervisor. When facing and given tasks that involves the entire business organization such as creating a new LinkdIn, Instagram, and Facebook page, the only instructions I had received is to complete that desired task by a specific deadline. That is one of the non-specific qualities of the ‘je ne sais quoi’ of French communication style. A great opportunity that comes from being an intern is being given an opportunity to learn how* to do things, but he non-specific aspect of the French communication style already assumes the interns know what we are doing without having to articulate every step of the way. Although this was an uncomfortable experience, I have interpreted this communication style in a positive way. In the United States, we are coming from a different country with a different work culture where being specific and having a clear direction leads us to increased efficiency and productivity, which are indispensable values in the

business world. Therefore, it is normal that when we are placed in a different cultural environment where efficiency is less at stake, the ambiguity in the direction leaves us with confusion. However, being left with confusion is not necessarily something that is negative. If they are not specific, that means there is room for the work to be interpreted through your own lens and forces the intern to figure it out on their own. For me, this cultural difference, increase in ambiguity and unclearness of direction was a positive lesson for building patience. In an environment where directions are clearly given, you rarely have the opportunity to ‘figure it out on your own’, which is where true learning comes from. The ambiguity gave me and continue to give me an opportunity to figure things out on my own and fully in the moment, but also gives me headspace for my creative and imaginative interpretation.