The French are famous across the world for their love of debate (some say, their love of arguing). So let me explain how to think (and argue) like the French.
Let us start with an example of how the French take a compliment. Person A says to person B “Your hair looks lovely today”. Person B’s normal, expected reaction is something like “Oh thanks, it’s ok really, but I have to have my roots done soon, really”. In other words, person B dismisses person’s A compliment. This is not modesty; this is antithesis.
You see, every day in school, French children are taught to think according to the format “thesis – antithesis – synthesis” (thèse, antithèse, synthèse). Arguments for one side of a debate, la thèse; then arguments for the opposite side, l’antithèse; then a creative compromise forged in the battle between the two, la synthèse. This is the truth, subtle, carefully nuanced. It brings reconciliation.
This format governs not only school compositions, but almost every time we use language to seek connection with fellow humans: pleasantries, not practicalities. If person A’s compliment is the thesis, person B’s dismissal is the antithesis. The synthesis is usually implicit: the correct appraisal of B’s hair, in my example, with added mutual care – human connection. A went out of their way to make B feel good about themselves, and B made sure A didn’t feel overshadowed, inadequate by comparison. In short, thèse-antithèse-synthèse is the French recipe for peace and love.
This recipe feeds into all types of interactions. Work meetings may surprise a non-French participant – it is ok to contradict somebody, even the boss. Antithesis and counterpoints, expressed well, are seen as constructive, introducing nuance, new perspectives. They are therefore useful in getting closer to a balanced view, and an appropriate decision.
But the French art for conversation unfolds in its full glory between friends and at night. From a French point of view, the best evenings are spent “à refaire le Monde”, literally “re-making the world”. That is to say, arguing amongst friends, debating on how to put the world to right. Coffee, wine and cigarettes are not compulsory, but common, and the topics and arguments flow into one another. The best battles of wits and words forge the strongest of friendships.
Respect between participants is key. The exchanges are sometimes heated, and that’s ok. A frank exchange of views is a good thing, in France. What is not ok are ad hominem attacks, when the arguments become personal. They usually signify the end of the debate; it is a matter of self-respect for the person attacked. In those cases, nobody has won, but the attacker, who played the man not the ball, has definitely lost.
You don’t have to be Jean-Paul Sartre or Simone de Beauvoir, to sit in the Café de Flore, in Paris, to smoke Gauloises or drink wine. You don’t even have to speak the language. All you have to do to enjoy the French art of conversation is find a good discussion partner, whose respect you value, and find something to argue about.
As a last point, this thèse-antithèse-synthèse has been so re-hashed, that it is sometimes made fun of and twisted into “thèse-antithèse-foutaise” – the last word I would translate as “bulls**t”. But I can’t think of a better antithesis…
PS: Have you seen, heard, overheard or taken part in conversations following this pattern? Have you found this post useful in making sense of the French way of thinking and being? Or do you disagree? I would be fascinated to know, so please share your experiences and perspectives in the comments below.