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English humour vs. French humour

22 Mar

During these bleak times, through the recession and dark longish  nights…I thought I might cheer you up with a bit of lightness and…humour….

Humour is by definition an Anglo-Saxon concept i.e. the equivalent in French would be “esprit”, farce (prank) and humeur (a state of mind, or mood), but not humour. Only in 1932 did the French Academicians give their approval to the noun “humour”!!! (Economist 18/12/2003)

As quoted in the movie Ridicule by Patrice Leconte: “the French have jokes but do they have a sense of Humour ?”…

I asked a Brit living in France what she thought about French humour and her answer was: “only a couple of words..!!”…typically British dry reply I assume..!

French esprit is unique in the sense that it can be described by the Anglo-Saxon as ‘Grinçant’ a concept typically French where the object of the humour is usually somebody else …(cf le diner de cons). The main aim of la “derision” consisting of mocking someone else’s weak point or naïve attitude.

Where British humour has a lot to do with self derision – which is perceived as demonstrating low self-esteem in France. However I’d like to point out that when one does mock oneself it does avoid others mocking him or her …!!! One can therefore set the limit to the extent of self derision which they are prepared to reach…

French humour is usually under the belt and fairly straightforward known as “l’esprit Gaulois” It is a licentious humour one would describe as visual and according to David Trotter in l’Esprit Gaulois: Humour and national Mythologie “a form of coarse humour characteristic of the lower orders of society, and thus inevitably concerned with the baser instincts”. My own perception of French Gaulois humour is that it can be as naughty as English humour, the only difference being…in the way it is laid out!!! (er…so to speak!!!)

French version is usually quite literal (we call a spade a spade!!) and situation based (cf all Feydeau plays based on a “quiproquo” ie situations being mixed up, the lover being taken for the husband and the servant for the mistress etc… Whether British humour possess (equivalent) several levels  : the first level which is quite literal, second level usually a bit more complex to understand …however…fairly naughty and finally a last level that one would not dare even think about…as it is far too shocking…!!! But everybody…eventually… works it out !

Contrepétrie is another form of French humour: where one changes one letter for another and it becomes fairly salacious…; the fun part being creating “contrepétries”: ie mixing letters so it becomes witty. Making an innocent remark such as: “nous avons convenu de la date…”if you reverse the C for the D, then things becomes somehow… more interesting!

The goal of the contrepétrie game is to banter with colleagues or friends without the audience understanding how cheeky the sentence can really be…in this sense this form of humour is similar to Cockney slang i.e in the way it is structured…by association of ideas.

English humour is somehow more subtle: it comes at several levels and in different shapes.

For example Pantomimes at Christmas times are one of my favourite entertainments ever… as I come from another culture… it becomes the d challenge of a few days to fully understand the different messages delivered…hence making my enjoyment bigger when I finally get it !.

Traditionally performed at Christmas, with family audiences consisting mainly of children and parents, British pantomime is now a popular form of theatre, incorporating song, dance, buffoonery, slapstick, cross-dressing, in-jokes, audience participation, and mild sexual innuendo. There are a number of traditional story-lines, and there is also a fairly well-defined set of performance conventions. Lists of these items follow, along with a special discussion of the ‘guest celebrity’ tradition, which emerged in the late 19th century. Panto story lines and scripts typically make no reference to Christmas, and are almost always based on traditional children stories, including several written or popularized by the French pioneer of the ‘fairy tale’ genre, Charles Perrault. Plot lines are often ‘adapted’ for comic or satirical effects, and certain familiar scenes tend to recur, regardless of plot relevance. (Wikipedia – the free encyclopedia)

The first level of the humour developed in the panto is for the children and the more subtle one is usually salacious …geared to the adult’s tastes.

Potter called humour an “English inherent reaction” and considered this as one of the pillars of the English society. It was cherished by the upper social class but has now spread to the whole society.

It tends to analyse a given situation and extract the most absurd sides in order to highlight the ridicule of the situation. This allows the person to distance him or herself from the situation, thus enabling them, in some cases, to take an objective decision. This nonsense approach forms the art of developing absurd ways of thinking based on a logical approach!!! Absolutely fantastic for imaginative personalities as it brings one to unkown territories of fantasy …one can banter indefinitely …

To summarize : English humour or French esprit?? Of course I will give you a twisted answer as I believe both have their defined role to play in their given culture. According to Pierre Desproges in Les étrangers “ Comment reconnaitre l’humour anglais de l’humour français ? l’humour anglais souligne avec amertume et désespoir l’absurdité du monde. L’humour français se rit de ma belle-mère ».

My personal choice would go for English humour with a French je ne sais quoi …! and I do not hesitate to use humour in large doses during my training sessions and in my coaching practice when I need my client to relax slightly before starting the hard work !

The art of making a mistake: French or British way?

17 Mar

The art of making a mistake: French or British way?

An error according to Wikipedia has different meanings and usage relative to how it is conceptually applied. It is a deviation from accuracy or correctness or can be an involuntary act adapted to a given situation.

To the contrary of an illusion, an error can sometimes be dispelled through knowledge i.e. knowing that one is looking at a mirage and not at real water does not make the mirage disappear.

However a mistake has a different meaning. It is, for example, failing to stop at a red light and getting a ticket for it by the police. Well, you should have known better. So how can we turn our mistakes into positive experiences by drawing upon the knowledge we gain from them?

In England, many successful entrepreneurs interviewed mentioned the fact that they failed many times, to the point of bankruptcy several times, but still they came back with a revenge and eventually became successful.

A combination of both success and failure is essential to an entrepreneur according to the article: diving back in: what second-time entrepreneurs learned from the first time around.

In British culture, ‘practice makes perfect’ is commonly accepted and one learns from their mistake. Creativity is, therefore, much valued.

In France we tend to follow procedures, leaving few gaps for creativity. However I noticed that the French spirit comes on board and creativity is developed rather fast when trying to cut corners or dodge the heavy procedures that ‘theoretically’ need to be followed.

A mistake is, in French culture, viewed as a failure. However the perception of being courageous for having tried tends to come to light.

This approach puzzles me as France is one of the most advanced country in experimental Research and Development and “the notion of error in science is not “a mistake” but rather a difference between a computed, estimated or measured value and the true, specified or theoretically correct value”.

According to an article published by  l’atelier pédaggogique “everybody agrees that you learn from your mistakes. However not everybody has the same attitude towards the result of making a mistake. The teacher, in France, acts as a judge who gives a good or a bad grade. Therefore it is not stretching the learning capabilities of the students.

“Making a mistake is perceived as positive and an integral part of the learning procedure. It’s the correction by the student in order to reach the result forecasted by the teacher “according to Jean-Luc Force.

Trying -> mistake -> correction = experience

The perfect teacher, according to JL Force, would know how to create a positive structured environment in which the student would dare try new avenues.

An English friend of mine teaches drawing and she kindly explained to me that rubbers are forbidden in her classes. I was most intrigued by this way of teaching until she specified that making mistakes when sketching builds the scaffolding of the piece of art being produced. I find that methodology really positive.

But how many times can one try and make mistakes before reaching the decision to finally give up or try one last time ?

An article published in the Australian businesswomen’s network written by Robert Kiyosaki “The magic of making mistakes” stipulates:

“The first thing that happens after you make a mistake is that you become upset. At this point of upset, you find out who you really are”. This article then describes the cast of characters who are brought to centre stage when upsets from mistakes occur:

The liar – : I did not do that

The blamer -:  It’s your fault, not mine

The Justifier – :well, I don’t have a good education, sot that is why I don’t get ahead

The quitter – : I told you it would never work

The Denier – : No, there is nothing wrong. Things are fine

Robert goes on to mention a good piece of advice : “If you want to learn and  gain wisdom from this priceless mistake, you have to let the responsible You, eventually take control of your thinking and apply the following mental Attitude Quiz :

What are your attitudes to risk, making mistakes, and learning?

And if you are upset with someone else or yourself, what lesson can you learn and be grateful for being courageous to have taken a risk and maybe learnt something?

In other words, it is taking responsibility for your error and once the disappointment is over and the situation accepted, finding the courage and the ability to spring back and try a new path.”

The art of making mistakes is neither French nor English. In my opinion it is the ability to assess the risks involved in an objective manner, establishing a plan A and a plan B, both viable, leaving an exit door within easy reach. Thus still leaving the possibility to change direction when required and adjust the decision making process to the given situation.

Applying the ‘no rubber available’ methodology.

June 2010


My recruitment week…

17 Mar

My recruitment week…

I used to go out in the morning really excited to meet lots of new extraordinary people and …believe me I did that absolutely everyday!!!! I’ll let you guess my job: I serve a lot of glasses of water, visit a lot of different hotels, ask a lot of questions, observe a lot of different behaviors, have to dress immaculately, be charming and smile a lot!!!

Now I can imagine you SMIRKING…You got it wrong…I am a PROFESSIONAL….double wrong!!!…I worked in England as an independent assessor on large recruitment campaigns!!!

Here are a few mishappenings that usually sent me to the water cooler pretty quick (YES…more water!!!). Stress makes you act in really weird ways from time to time..!!

Candidates unable to speak any English…and using every trick in the book to save themselves time, in order to be able to grasp what the question actually means: “could you repeat that please?? …what you mean is …” then he repeats exact wording of the question….is that correct? I usually repeat the question once more, and then rephrase the question in Pidgin English: You…preparation for this interview??? And… after all this effort, does not answer it!!…

Demonstrating how to count different travel zones for a test…Showing my three fingers in front of the face of the candidate and asking how many zones he can account for….4 was his response. Tried it again during another test: answer was two this time!! I guess arithmetic was not on top of their agenda…

During a role play,ie a situation given to the candidate who has to prepare himself for a specific scenario happening… the candidate took the brief so seriously and literally that he wrestled the assessor to the floor shouting: DON’T MOVE… I’ll call an ambulance!!! It was so entertaining that the second assessor (another lady who serves glasses of water and visits lots of different venues…!) observing the exercise, let it proceed for a while before calling for a halt when it became…too dangerous for the assessor’s health!!

Closed body language: pen and finger pointing…feet inwards pointing…arms crossed. I even interviewed a candidate who had kept his anorak on (it was July…) and… , I realized when I took him back to the reception room….his backpack (which by then had become fairly flat…!) on during the whole interview!!! He was obviously keen to run away as soon as possible!!!! I must have been terrifying…

Body odor: candidate who obviously had never met (let alone been) in a bath and was getting excited …waving arms…result obtained: I.., choking to get some fresh unpolluted air and wishing candidate had no arm….!!!

During a particular role play, the candidate was supposed to call my daughter to let her know that I am running slightly late but will be with her shortly. This is the candidate’s interpretation of the scenario when asked: “but what are you going to tell my daughter???  Candidate (candidly):” that you are her mother”….Me (absolutely stunned): “But …she knows I am her mother!!!” A Vaudeville scene as my uncle would say (I am French by the way).

Cabin Crew candidate afraid of flying and thinking this was an opportunity to beat their flying phobia…or the trade union rep for the baggage handlers turning up for an internal hearing straight from work, all dressed in white…I don’t think he had ever touched a piece of luggage in his life…!!

Another tool used in an evaluation centre was an evidence based questionnaire: When asked to discuss a situation when someone was proving difficult to work with, candidate answered: cannot think of any situation as I have never had people disagreeing with me….!! Always useful information from the point of view of an assessor…

Another candidate who obviously had understood the competency based interview questionnaire! asking if the fact that we were asking probing questions would play against him…

One of my colleagues (that is a chap serving glasses of water (yes yes!! You got it this time…) ran into my assessment room one day and breathlessly described how he had called for a “Sharon Smith” in the reception area unable to identify a lady waiting, when a deep raucous voice answered that she was Sharon. He was so shocked that he could not establish the sex of the candidate and was asking for my help!! His chosen criteria were that the candidate had…small feet and a handbag so she was a lady for sure…!!!

And the skills I have acquired you may ask??? Mastering the art of holding several glasses of water at the same time…I am also an expert at tuning in to thousands of different accents and way of speaking…when in the beginning a candidate kept on referring to “we” I was confused about how many brothers and sisters he must have…now I am used to the royal “we”.

I have also learnt to never make assumptions (which believe me can be absolutely nearly impossible sometimes…!). People are amazing is my own conclusion to this fun hobby/job I held.

On a more serious tone, competency based interview help the assessor to determine in an objective manner if the candidate is suitable for the job…i.e. all the questions asked are based upon the skills required for the job.

For example, when recruiting for a famous airline company, it was paramount to be able to establish if the candidate was customer service focused. So rather than asking the candidate: are you customer focused or do you place your customers first?? I would ask a situation based question such as: can you remember the last time you provided exceptional customer service?? I.e. you went the extra mile for one of your customer?? In that instance the candidate would provide a situation when they thought they really had gone the “extra mile” for the customer. And in analyzing the situation, I could determine if the customer was top of the candidate’s agenda or not. Therefore I could then match the demonstrated skills with my client’s requirements of exceptional customer service…

This work technique enables the assessor to work in an objective manner and in a consistent way by repeating the same technique. Through giving the same chance to each candidate!!!

This competency based technique is now starting to make its way in France. Let’s hope it will become common knowledge throughout the French recruitment world quickly and efficiently!!!!

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