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.