Pas Mal…Where’s the Enthusiasm?

by | Jul 5, 2015 | Life in the Village | 0 comments

Pas Mal…Where’s the Enthusiasm?

[NOTE: This column was originally published in 2004. Read the Post Commentary below.]


Imagine sitting down to a beautifully set table and the hostess serves a delicious, mouth-watering meal fit for gourmet food critics. Everyone is eating and drinking with delight and appreciation and when the hostess can no longer contain herself, she asks, “What do you think? Is it good?” And with an indifferent nod, the common response is, “ah, oui, pas mal.” Pas mal, literally translated as not bad in English is a phrase I often hear in all aspects of French life to express approval or enthusiasm. When the hostess asks me what I think, I respond in my usual enthusiastic manner, “C’est absolument delicieux! Je l’adore! C’est super, super, super bon!”

Flabbergasted by their response, I asked Jean Luc (my husband), “how can they say pas mal? Don’t they like the meal? Are they being rude?” With a smile on his face, he said, “no, pas mal really means good, very good.” I said, “Yah, but it was better than very good, it was excellent. Where’s the enthusiasm?” Over time, I have learned that as a culture, French people (not everyone, of course) tend to be more subdued or subtle in how they express themselves which is neither good nor bad – it’s just different.

My idea of enthusiasm vastly contrasts with that of my French family. Not only am I an American who is outwardly expressive by nature but I was a cheerleader in high school. I’m not sure cheerleaders exist in France – they don’t have them at my step-children’s school. So, being a professionally trained queen of rah-rah, I come to the table with expectations, not only in expressing compliments to others but in receiving feedback as well. If I knock myself out and create a delicious meal or rearrange the furniture or clean a messy closet – I need a whole lot more than pas mal – I need to hear “great job” or “excellent” at the very least. A simple pas mal does not suffice.

Pas MalCultural compromise is modus operandi chez moi. What’s “normal” to this mid-western former pom-pom girl is to EXPRESS what I feel – if I like it, I’ll let you know that I LIKE it!! Whereas, if my family LIKES it, they say not bad. One level of compromise involves managing my expectations and allowing people to communicate in their style – whether it be rah-rah or subdued – and when the urge to physically shake a little enthusiasm into the conversation arises, I keep my hands by my side. My family is learning how to spice-up their vocabulary with words like: Cool, awesome, and excellent! As the kids count down their last days of school for summer break, they put their hands in the air, dance around and shout “YAAHHH” in true cheerleader style. This warms my heart!

We learn from each other. What starts out as a complaint or a minor irritation can be the beginning of self discovery. Sometimes the differences we observe point out where we’re stuck, where we have deeply ingrained expectations and can provide an opening to see the world from a more enlightened view. When I observe my French friends around the table, I do pick-up on unique cadences and rhythms which express enthusiasm – they simply don’t use pom-poms. Once a cheerleader, always a cheerleader – I have no intention of subduing my nature – yet I embrace the differences with acceptance and APPRECIATION.

© 2004 Jennifer Blalock, Life in the Village: Reflections of an American Living in a Small French Village. Published in The Courier by the American International Women’s Club of Geneva.

Post Commentary:

This was the first column I wrote for The Courier magazine. I can remember on more than five occasions British women saying to me that what they hated about Americans was their over the top “rah-rah” enthusiasm. At first I was affronted but quickly learned to claim this aspect of myself. When looking at a behavioral preference like expressing enthusiasm, it’s easy to see that personality differences also come into play. For example, my enthusiastic mode of speech may be off putting for Americans who are more introverted. Obviously I do not represent all Americans nor are all Americans enthusiastic. Stereotyping and generalizing are hazards in this field.

In an international arena, this one difference was both literal and symbolic for how I began to see and unfurl the cultural characteristics. French people are beautifully enthusiastic in their own way. What it required of me to receive their unique enthusiasm was the ability to disengage from my own preconceived notions about self expression. This sounds easy but my preconceived notions about the rules of social engagement are hard wired into my sense of self and being able to objectify my own bias was and continues to be a learning curve.

Reality is much larger than the point of view of JenniferJenJenny at any given point in time. Making space for multiple ways of being and expressing creates a more nuanced way to experience life. One of the gifts of living in France was learning how to objectify and see my personality traits and my American traits. I didn’t pay attention to my American traits until I lived with French people. Being immersed in our own culture can create a blindness to this type of self-awareness. The process of adapting to living in a different culture involved large doses of self-awareness. Sometimes the process was welcome and freeing and other times I found it tough to look in the mirror and embrace my biases.

What are your thoughts and experiences?