This past Tuesday I went to “La Cave” (a foreign dinner exchange thing) and got into a conversation with a French friend about his shambled love life. He, a Frenchman, had been dating an American girl, but they ran into a major problem: distance.
Now, I mean distance in multiple senses, even if he didn’t. I’m going to touch on a few differences.
1) To say “I love you” in French you say, “Je t’aime.” To say that you like someone would be “Je t’aime.*” Now, you don’t have to speak French to see the interesting similarity here. In fact, the French, famed as the people of romance. Don’t have a different word for “like” and “love.”
2) Americans come from two traditions that combine to make Americans generally more physically distant than the French.
A) The first culturally American people (basically the people who were not Natives) were Puritans. This has instilled several basic aspects of American culture still in place today: temperance (aka not drinking alcohol), abstinence (leave room for the Holy Spirit please), individualism and a hard work ethic. For the moment, the most important of these for me is the “abstinence” bit. Because (at least on some cultural level. Argue about the ’60’s sexual freedom thing all you want, America is still pretty “abstinent”). this means that Americans are much more tentative to interact intimately with other people**.
B) America is freaking huge. In fact, America is about 14.5 times the size of France. Look at the difference in space between Aix and Indianapolis, Indiana.
All this combines into an interesting dilemma for my French friend: his girlfriend is distant in a very physical and American kind of way. She feels close to him mentally, so she is fine. But he, being French, feels that physical proximity is necessary. That’s how you show affection and you learn that from being in close contact with your family.
It’s an interesting dilemma to hear, although unfortunate for my poor friend.
*So really you would say “Je t’aime bien” which means “I like you well” and gives the French some means of differentiating, but the central point is still accurate. To make their meaning clear the French have to use the modifier “bien” to make the difference clear.
**Obviously I just way overgeneralized, but I think you could still say the culture in America is very abstinence-oriented, even if sex has become a lot more accepted. This part of our culture is developing and changing, but it’s not nearly on the French level and I don’t think they’ll be comparable for a while yet.