Why are the French? (Part I)


Do not make soufflee for French guests

This soufflée wishes the French didn’t but it’s too late now

I have lost count of the number of times a friend has come up to me and said “Polly, you grew up in France. Can you explain to me why the French are so, well, you know.”

And indeed I do.

Obviously, this is not going to be answered in a single blog post. Some of the great minds of modern times have pondered this problem and come up with no more than a Gallic shrug and a few platitudes about cultural differences. Taking a more formal approach, I am going to break the broader question down into smaller, more manageable parts. Yes, I know that you are going to say that the French are an emergent system and that to look at individual subsystems of the phenomenon is to lose sight of the fact that the whole is qualitatively different to the sum of the parts, but that’s research for you. You have to make a few baseline assumptions or you just never get off the ground.

Today let us address the issue of punctuality. The foundational observation is that your French friends arrive consistently late to dinner parties. Naturally, you have tried the old trick of telling them that the party begins at 6 rather than at 6:30 in an effort to get them to arrive on time but you have discovered, as have we all, that moving the time forward makes no difference whatsoever.

After many years of experimenting on my good friends Bnick, Byves and Bisabelle (for ethical reasons, researchers cannot reveal the real names of experimental subjects), I have determined that previous studies based on the underlying lateness of the French are fundamentally flawed. Consider the following data points: I have invited my French friends to my house for dinner at times ranging from 5:00pm to 7:30 in increments of 15mn. In every case, the guests arrived between 7 and 7:30pm.

I propose that in fact, it is not your French guests who are arriving late, but you who are inviting them at the wrong time. There is a time allotted (by whom? This could be a very fruitful area of enquiry for future researchers) for the consumption of the evening meal and that time, ipso facto, is sometime after 7pm.

You are looking perplexed because of course, your French friends always say “What time should we come” and based on this, you have (erroneously) assumed that they desired to know what time they should arrive.  My research indicates “What time should we come?” (as uttered by a French person) is semantically vacuous and requires no answer, much in the same way that “How do you do?” is vacuous in British English.

While the data speaks for itself, let me illustrate the concept with a little anecdote. Recently, I took a French friend out for Happy Hour drinkies. This is San Diego and the only reason to not drink a cocktail at 4pm would be that you have plans to celebrate the arrival of the dinner hour with a micro-brew. Bictoria (again, that’s not her real name) was courteous about participating in the event, but as she sat nursing her glass, she said “It’s a bit strange to be drinking at 4pm.”

And there you have it. Drinking at brunch is fine. Likewise, drinking before, during and after meals is tickety-boo. A little nightcap before bed?  Probably recommended by doctors. But drinking at 4pm? Bictoria was game to try something new but her discombobulation was patent. Her expression seemed to indicate that while it may not be actually illegal to drink cocktails at 4pm, it’s just a little bit, well, wrong really.

The purpose of this study is not to elucidate every aspect of what I conceptualize here as an example of French Exogenous Cultural Entropy Scheduling. This work is a proof of concept and I now lay it out in public so that other researchers can investigate the actual internal timing of meal events in the French psyche.

Beyond the theoretical aspects of this ground breaking work, I wish also to provide the community with some simple solutions for enjoying the company of their French friends without undue stress. Here is a list of strategies as elaborated by myself and my research associates. These solutions are still in the research stage and have not yet received FDA approval so please proceed with all due caution:

1) Organize your dinner parties to start between 7 and 7:30

2) Invite your French guests to a late High Tea. Naturally, they will hate the idea because they are totally unused to getting themselves ready and out of the house by 4pm. This will cause them to arrive horribly late for tea but at just about the right time for a nice early dinner.

3) Start eating without them.

Naturally, I wish to thank my research subjects for contributing their time to this research which has not, regrettably, been funded by any government agency.






The Kicked Puppy: prevention and recovery

A Kicked Puppy looks almost exactly like this

“Why are you so mean to me?”

This is the second part of our special series on under-studied life skills. The first part, The Poor Baby, a research based approach, was immensely popular and confirmed the need for this type of elaborately well-crafted but transparently pointless pseudo-academic discussion. Indeed, our research has shown that the Kicked Puppy is second only to the Poor Baby as a subject of panicked texts between close friends (“I lost it and kicked the puppy. I am so screwed. Can I come over?”)

What is the Kicked Puppy?

The Kicked Puppy is a member of your household who has been (in their view) undeservedly berated and looks at you with sad and wounded eyes, thus inflicting copious, even crippling, amounts of guilt.

Is the Kicked Puppy larger than the Puppy Kicker?

If you kick a real puppy, or some other entity incapable of defending itself, you deserve to feel like crap. The Kicked Puppy applies only in cases where a demeanor of ill-used innocence is incongruous with the size, strength and general cussedness of the kickee (the recipient of the kick) relative to the kicker (performer of the kick).

Is the kicker always female and the kickee always male?

No, the gender of the persons involved is unimportant. Both participants in the kick event might easily be of the same gender. Because women tend to be smaller than their male partners, Kicked Puppies are common in straight relationships.

Standard form

Ironically, the kicked puppy occurs most commonly when a woman has been particularly patient. Over several days, possibly weeks, she has asked her SO (boyfriend, husband, sex slave, ex), for something relatively minor, perhaps to take out the trash or do the laundry. Saintlike, she has even done the chore herself once or twice but then things start mounting up again. Eventually, she will come home from a particularly bad day at the office and find that the refrigerator is empty and the trashcan full, and before she can restrain herself, she will execute a short sharp (metaphorical) kick to the puppy.

The kicked puppy will immediately look severely ill-used and say “If you had just said something, I would have done it.” You can apologize all you want. The kicked puppy has the moral high-ground and he knows it. By being patient for too long, you devalorized the urgency of the task and the abrupt escalation is seen as disproportionate to the wrong-doing. There is nothing more to do other than to feel guilty about your ill-nature until the Puppy finds something better to do.


There is no known method of prevention.  The Kicked Puppy happens specifically because you tried too hard to be nice and reasonable in the first place.  Mean and unreasonable have their own drawbacks.


Kicking the puppy is the worst way of getting something you want. Nothing but time can get you out of it and the severity of the event is not mitigated by the number of times you asked nicely before eventually snarling savagely. In this case, prevention is better than cure.

Variant form

I was under the impression that the Kicked Puppy is pretty much a universally defined behavior but I was wrong. A friend recently told me about the Wounded Dog. While the actual kicking event is technically similar in both cases, the Wounded Dog has aggrieved and angry eyes and is liable to bite back. I’m not an expert on this form but apparently, the guilt is less because the Wounded Dog is sure to do something stupid (like accuse you of something unconvincingly trivial or shout back) that loses him the moral high-ground.

Further research 

If you have any information on how to deal with the Kicked Puppy (prevention and/or recovery), please let the rest of us know.






Schrödinger’s grilled cheese sandwich

This cat is in a state of indterminacy

This cat is in a state of indeterminacy

We have all been confronted by the Grilled Cheese Indeterminacy, or as it is more commonly known, Schrödinger’s Grilled Cheese Sandwich.  Like other natural phenomena such as rainbows, it is such an integral part of the human experience that we sometimes cease to question, though never to wonder. Of late, less preoccupied by other scientific endeavors, I have bent my not-inconsiderable intellect to more ample consideration of this issue.

1. Definition

The fundamental observation is that if you eat one grilled cheese sandwich, it is never quite enough. However, and this is the crucial issue, if you eat more than one, you will be overly full. Therefore, we can say that that the event horizon bifurcates after the first sandwich, leaving the consumer in a state of indeterminacy. At that second in time, before the decision is made to order, or nota second sandwich, the probability field collapses and both realities exist simultaneously as entropy approaches infinity asymptotically (I have a truly marvelous demonstration of this proposition which this margin is too narrow to contain).

2. The axiomatic grilled cheese sandwich

A grilled cheese sandwich, by default and by popular consensus, is composed of two slices of  sliced industrial bread, butter and Amurikan cheese.  Butter is applied to the outer surfaces of the bread while the interior is loaded with exactly two slices of cheese. The resulting pap is fried on a griddle or frypan till crispiness ensues on the outside and gooey yumminess on the inside. Note that if the sandwich does not conform to this recipe, the indeterminacy may apply only inconsistently. For example, some people, and we have to accept some diversity of opinion so I will just call these people “misguided” rather than “ungodly”, feel that a grilled cheese should contain a slice of anemic tomato. Naturally, this is up to them but the belief that adding a couple of vitamins and a tad of roughage to the sandwich will improve the healthiness of the resulting product is laughable. Correspondingly, the sogginess imparted by the tomato may be such that satiation can occur with less than a single sandwich. Shocking but true.

3. Is the grilled cheese sandwich the only food for which Schrödinger’ indeterminacy applies?

That is an excellent question and I’m glad you asked. My husband, something of a cynic regarding my scientific endeavors (the rat), has suggested that both hot dogs and cheesecake are subject to a similar rule but this is clearly not true and I can prove it by using my words. Firstly, there is no slice of cheesecake served that is not sickly by the third  mouthful (± 2 mouthfuls) and as for hotdogs, it is demonstrable that they define two populations of consumers: those who can eat any number of hotdogs and those who, ravenous, give in to temptation and eat one and then, remembering what the hotdog is made of, hate themselves for the rest of the day. I’m not saying that the compulsion to eat unhealthy amounts of cheesecake and hotdogs isn’t interesting, just that it is not an example of indeterminacy.

4. Do you have to eat an entire second grilled cheese sandwich before remorse sets in?

No, often a bite or two will suffice. Don’t say you weren’t warned.

5. Are scientists exploring the quantum physics that underpin the grilled cheese indeterminacy? Will we ever have a definitive answer?

Naturally, when we think of indeterminacy we think of Schrödinger’s cat. As the cat is neither alive nor dead, so is the consumer of a single grilled cheese both unsatiated and sickened. Happily, since the discovery of the Higgs-boson particle, the Hadron super-collider has been freed up and research is now actively ongoing. It’s not clear that we will have an answer in our lifetimes, but I think that, given sufficient resources (and cats), our grandchildren will gain insights into one of great mysteries of the universe. I suspect that it has something to do with the Mayan calendar.

Today’s image is filched from here.