To start the school and sports year off right, I decided while sitting at the sidelines of a soccer tournament last weekend, to engage my closest and most patient French friend with compiling a list of names, of my boy's teammates and their families. It still amazes me that last year, I managed to faire les bises (kiss cheeks) with people multiple times a week at youth sport practices and matches yet I barely learned anyone's names. It's like these weren't important. I never even learned the soccer coach's last name last year. In contrast, in the U.S., we have rosters and lists with the contact information, for sports teams, classrooms, schools, clubs, employee groups. And, when we greet each other with handshakes, at least the first time, we almost always exchange first names. In the first week of any U.S. course that I teach face-to-face, I memorize all of my students' names, to create more direct connections between me and them and to facilitate more active student participation during the course. (I really do! I do not however retain the 40 names in my head beyond the quarter, as I have new names to memorize and limited cerebral capacity.) Here in France, upon meeting someone new, I have taken to introducing myself by saying my first name while exchanging kisses. I think though that in that side-by-side motion of les bises, rather than with the direct gaze that comes with facing someone and speaking one's name while shaking hands, the French person is not really understanding the pronunciation of my Finnish name, and I certainly can barely make out the mumbled response. (Did he just say Laurent? Vincent? Or did I hear a different sound at the end; was that Florian? Julian? Lucien?)
I later realized that the list wasn't actually complete because we had forgotten to list the coach and his daughters. I also realized that no one had thought to ask the names in my family. Did the others not care about our names? Why was this such a novel thing, to compile a list of names? Nadeau and Barlow in their insightful book, Sixty Million Frenchmen Can't Be Wrong: Why we love France but not the French, suggest that the French conceptions of public and private spaces, behavior, and information differ from those of North Americans and I would say, of many northern Europeans as well. The authors relate an experience which in a North American context amounts to a fairly intimate exchange, a visit into someone's home. In France, such a visit has different implications, and it does not automatically imply that the names of the visitors or hosts will be exchanged. Imagine visiting someone's home without learning their name! Nadeau and Barlow suggest that exchanging names and occupational information in the French context amounts to a very private, intimate exchange, whereas having someone over for aperos (drinks) is a public, social activity that does not require the exchange of personal information. The same must be true of sports events; the French families spend hours and hours together, eating together, and watching the children play their hearts out together, sometimes with great emotion, but to them, we are not in a social setting, or participating in a social activity that requires us to know the names of the people around us. Clearly there are some different understandings and perspectives of what is private and intimate information and behavior, and what is fairly public or open.
Given my bicultural upbringing, I have had lots of experience switching between cultural contexts and with changing behaviors to match those contexts. I'm sure those experiences have helped me and my family 'go local' here in France. We can follow the customs, but sometimes we haven't immediately understood why the customs are the way they are. It helps to remember that people see their social worlds in different ways for all kinds of reasons. After all, it's partly the sociologist in me that makes me need to figure out people's identities. I want to know where they are from, what social groups they are a part of, and what they do. Knowing people's names helps me sort them. I do understand why that soccer dad does not mind being nameless, or maybe even prefers it, given the social world he lives in. My world though is highly colored by my sociological perspective and my multicultural life; in that world, I need to know who this father is!