"None of [Parisienne's] explanations have given me any confidence. The client cannot make the simplest of functions work. A task-force needs to be formed immediately."
This is taken from an email I got at work yesterday, paraphrased and translated. It was copied, of course, to a sundry list of mid-level managers, most of whom I don't know. It wasn't the first mail of this nature I've received recently, but at least this time I had the honor of being directly included in the list of recipients and not have it land on me indirectly after a chain of forwards.
Yesterday I was hopping mad, scream-about-it-to-any-sympathetic-colleague mad, and it was the main subject of conversation at the dinner table. But by the end of the day today, I had talked to the author of the email on the phone, designed and implemented a solution to his problem, and deftly and diplomatically (I hope) demonstrated that another large part of his pain came from errors in his data and not design mistakes in my code. And I left work feeling pretty damn happy, because we'd all made progress. I find I can mostly shrug off these dings to my ego these days, at least compared to how I would have reacted not so long ago.
"So tell me. How are the kids doing in French school?" asked a American friend of mine recently. She's been living in Paris for years but has no kids yet. "Is it true what they say?"
I know what "they" say, and I'd say it is mostly true: from an American perspective, French schools seem rigid, one-size-fits-all, and more concerned with applying an old-fashioned method than boosting children's self-esteem. Starting in nursery school, kids are given standardized evaluations on subjects from motor skills to showing proper respect to elders. In CP, the equivalent of first grade, Le Petit started bringing home letter grades, and although for the moment they're almost entirely As and A-s, I doubt it's just to boost his ego. At three years old my kids both brought home coloring exercises with a little legend in the corner containing three schematic faces -- a smiley face, a frowning face, and an ambivalent straight-line face -- one of which the teacher was to choose and circle. Grading starts with the pre-K set, and it gets the message across.
My friend wanted to know how I felt about this. "I love it," I said, but then I had to qualify my enthusiasm, since my own kids are doing well in school, after all. Le Petit seems to rise to every new challenge, and there are plenty of challenges. He was introduced to cursive to in kindergarten, and by first grade was expected to write exclusively in script. All his work, including math, must be done in ballpoint pen. Starting this year, which is the equivalent of second grade, he has to prepare a weekly dictation.
I think it works, I told my friend, because everyone eventually gets taken down. If you make a mistake -- and ample opportunities to do so are provided -- the mistake is called out and you get a bad grade. 10 out of 20 seems to be the middle of the bell curve. Naturally, everyone learns to pick themselves up and start over again, and that's a valuable lesson for life.
When I was growing up in the US, good students like me were expected to get perfect grades and were given all the tools to do so. When we were graded on something, it was only after we'd been given all the preparation we needed to do succeed. Being smart meant getting it right the first time. Conversely, not getting it right the first time proved you were incapable. It didn't exactly encourage one to take risks. I am probably an extreme case, but in college I actually dropped classes when I wasn't certain of getting an A.
After I arrived in France and landed a job, I spent many months terrified that my manager hated my work. "But he doesn't say anything!" I fretted to my husband, to which he replied, "He doesn't say anything? Keep up the good work." A compliment of sorts finally came when my boss asked me to help another colleague with something because he insisted I understood what I was doing and she didn't.
And thus turns the French working world: compliments are few and far between, but criticism is freely shared. Start with what doesn't work, complain about it thoroughly, and take it from there.
"Reality check: Is it just me, or is this obnoxious?" With that I forwarded the above excerpted email to my husband, because I know I can be a little bit touchy, and I needed his culturally informed opinion. "No, it isn't just you," was his quick reply.
This didn't keep me from spending two hours on the phone helping the person who wrote the mail, and though he seems a bit prickly, a little bit (ahem) old school French, I actually mostly like his attitude now. He seems to know what the customer needs, and one can't accuse him of not getting straight to the point. I'll give him 12 out of 20 on intercultural communication: Needs Improvement. And me? I dunno... maybe a solid 15?