New cultures mean more than funny clothes, and I still find it fascinating to watch elements of francophone culture at work. Of course, as you live somewhere more permanently you lose the sense of surprise at seeing many things. But every now and again your curiosity shoots back up when you find something you realise back home would be very bizarre.
I recently joined the managing committee of my church in Abidjan. This Sunday I witnessed a fascinating scene – a good hour of the monthly meeting was spent going through the PV (Proces Verbal i.e. the minutes) of the previous meeting. I’ve been on various leadership committees and formal meeting settings back in the UK but I’ve never seen the previous meeting’s minutes given any more than a cursory nod of approval. Here the entire thing was rewritten to the embarrassment of the secretary. There were fierce debates about the correct verbs, tenses and sentence-structures to employ.
The irony is that our recurrent problem is that the work in question (agreed in the meeting) doesn’t get done. This though is of far lesser concern than the fact that the PV is written in perfect French. We’re not talking about ignoramuses. The principal discussion was between a leading medical doctor and a senior lawyer. I couldn’t even begin to imagine the equivalent scene in the Anglophone world – the only question would be: ‘Did what we agreed should be done, get done’.
Part of this is the strange nature of the French language. I was once told that very few French people could write a page of A4 without at least one grammatical mistake. It’s surely a major fault in a language when it can’t be used easily by ordinary educated speakers (I realise I risk you all pointing out hundreds of grammatical mistakes in this blog post!). Many French people have books on how to write every type of formal letter under the sun in the correct way. When Ivorians ask me the correct form for a formal letter in English, I usually say – ‘decide what you want to say and then say it, don’t worry too much about form, because you’re reader probably won’t’.
A related matter came up on a recent training session I attended (for film-making). Most of the training session consisted of definitions. I’ve come across this a lot in francophone teaching; the teacher asks ‘what is the definition of X?’ You make the mistake of thinking the teacher wants you to explain what X is. No. What they want is for you to give the official textbook definition. If you don’t recite the correct sentence you’re as good as wrong, whether you’ve understood the concept or not!