I don't know why I ever imagined that I'd be the same person when speaking French as I am when speaking English, but I'm coming to find more and more every day that I am two very different people depending on the language i'm speaking.
I was thinking about this yesterday (and last week), because this is really the first year of my life in France where I haven't been surrounded by expats at every turn. I'm no longer working in an agency where everybody is foreign or has lived abroad and come back, and I'm not even seeing my Anglo-Friends that much anymore, due to life being as it is once you have a job, kids, etc etc.
Last Thursday, we had a cocktail party after work followed by an after party in Lille. I spoke English most of the evening at the cocktail because that's sort of my job -- I create an international atmosphere wherever I go, trying to encourage people to speak and make it as easy for them as possible. At the after party though, I decided to loosen up a little bit -- if I'm actually going to make friends with somebody here, they might get tired of speaking a foreign language every time they see me. To the shock and awe of everybody in the room, I actually spoke French. Then, I went from being the English teacher colleague, to being a novelty. Regardless of which language I'm speaking, there's always something that affects the way people view me.
During the cocktail hour, I had my audience in stitches, telling stories, doing my accents, basically just being myself which felt pretty good since most of the time I have to choose my words so deliberately. It was great to see everybody hanging on my every word, following my tales to the end. After I switched to French, I saw an immediate change in the way I spoke, and also in the way I captivated my audience. No longer were they following along, waiting for the punch line. Instead, they were dissecting my speech (or so it feels, sometimes). "It's so charming!" the guys say (and not "charming" in an "i'm charmed" kind of way -- charming in a condescending kind of way). "I wish I could speak so well!" the girls say. I just blush. I like being the center of attention because I'm making people laugh, and not because I want to sit on a pedestal and be picked over. Most of the time when I'm in a room full of natives, I do a lot of standing back and observing. I rarely interject things into the conversation. I'm no longer charming because I'm intelligent or funny; I'm "charming" because I make mistakes and talk with an accent. It feels so juvenile, and often like an insult to the person that I am in my native language.
A few weeks after Victor was born, I also decided to venture into the world of French social activities, and signed up for a dance class that I've mentioned a few times on my blog. At first, I felt like an idiot because the language of ballet is French (which is actually false) and sometimes I had a hard time understanding. As with all things in this country, over time it got easier and the girls did a really great job of making me feel like I was a part of the group. Still, I can tell that I'm somewhere inside the circle, yet towards the outside, because I just can't make conversation in the same way. I can't be myself, I can't charm or wow them with my stories, even if I know the right words to use and how to string them together. It's just not who I am "in French". My French persona is a big shy, a bit quiet in social settings. I really felt like I was having a hard time getting people to listen to me in class yesterday, and that my ideas were very quickly dismissed. I stewed in frustration (not really my style) but well, what else could I do? These are my friends, so I have to just be patient and try to speak up for myself when I can. I have to be careful with the people I want to build relationships with though because when i'm not shy or quiet, I am loud and aggressive.
One of Jeremie's biggest critiques of my language skills is my "aggression". I think the French interpret something as aggressive any time it can't be classified as "passive". As soon as you show a hint of a negative emotion -- BAM! You are aggressive, and the "calmez vous madame"s start flying. Jeremie hates that, but I've found that it's actually more effective for getting your work done than playing into the passive game and standing back. For instance, on Saturday we decided to call a new phone provider to get our internet hooked up because our previous one was taking too long. J asked a few questions and was then ready to hand over our bank information so that they could withdraw the deposit.
"Hold your horses!" I shouted, insisting that he pass the phone over and get more details. "Yes but I have to give the bank information, otherwise we won't know when they can come and hook up the internet." This sort of "logic" is lost on me. I don't trust it, and I don't buy into it. I then took the phone from the woman and started a very basic line of questioning -- what services were available? How much on average per month? What was the average wait time before a line could be connected? "No sooner than..." and that's where I got the answer. I never handed over any bank information, I just started questioning until she started answering. I didn't accept her speech about "well first we have to sign you up, and then we'll see...".
In the end, I chose another provider who was able to tell me what I wanted to hear, rather than dispensing our account info all across the country.
So I don't know. I can get the job done, but I can't make people laugh from humor, just my silly mistakes. I think after five years here, my personality is pretty much what it is and I'm not sure how much it will change. I'm ok with that too, but it is surprising to see how much weaker my French side is. I don't know if that's just because it's more "French" and less "American", or if I just haven't quite found my voice, despite my ability to speak the language. I guess we'll see in another five years if I still feel the same.