It was mid-morning in the Luxembourg Gardens, and our class stood among leafless grey trees gaping at a couple kissing on a park bench. Our whispers and shouts announced to each other when the couple contorted themselves into a new, more intimate position. The group distanced itself, but Kat Trout and Bérengère Sim bravely approached the entangled duo. Bérengère explained in French that Kat was investigating the French kiss. “Would it bother you if we asked you a few questions?” she asked. The couple laughed slightly. “Un petit peu,” they replied. “A little bit.”
The delegation of which things are public and which private tends to vary culturally. Though even the French among us seemed surprised at the couple’s daring public intimacy, our collective amazement and horror gave us away as a group of Americans. The country’s puritanical roots have left Americans exceptionally prudish.
Today, French people took advantage of public space in the Luxembourg Gardens. Students sat at chess tables eating and chatting, a man practiced martial arts against a tree, children played with their grandparents and babysitters. Joggers made their way slowly down the straight-line pathways, and one man even filled a sandbag for his gym with grains from a public sandbox.
Later in the day, I left an interview at the Argentinian embassy deeply embarrassed by my outfit. I had entered the office wearing linen pants and a maroon blouse, and I felt shabby immediately when I saw the Argentinian diplomat’s smart suit and spacious office. I realized that I often assume informality—it makes me feel more comfortable in any given situation, both physically and socially.
This is not the norm in France. Bérengère, a young half-French, half-Scottish Parisian, told us she would never go out in sweatpants. Florent Masse, a French theater professor, told us, “You would never put on your sneakers and teach a class. Jamais. Jamais.” (“Never, never.”) He explained that there is a code in France. If you want to wear jeans, you have to balance it with a nice blouse on top. “We’re kind of conservative in this way,” he said, “and Americans tend to be more, much more relaxed.”
Rebecca Graves-Bayazitoglu, Associate Dean of the College at Princeton and Director of the McGraw Center for Teaching and Learning, explained that in France, “There’s a much greater distinction between private space and public space.” She continued, “When you’re going out into public that affects how you present yourself; it’s not just this kind of continuation of your private space in the same way.”
Dean Graves explained that American informality is linked to a false egalitarian narrative that tries to erase the reality of race and class difference. We all must look alike because we all are equal. Yet in France, who you are is deeply related to where you come from. “There is much more definition of your path from the path of your family,” she said.
Professor Masse agreed. People are very connected to the town they grew up in. This is exacerbated by the fact that children live with their parents through college. There is no assumption that one will move out after age 18, like there is in America. The importance of background in measuring someone’s “French-ness” also contributes to racism and xenophobia against non-white, non-Catholic, immigrant French people.
The distinct ways Americans and French navigate public space comes from different cultural values. Formal public presentation emphasizes heritage and background, whereas informality reinforces egalitarian norms. The French couple’s mad kiss in the park affronted both sensibilities. It was a radical act opposing to the public-private divide.