In France, a proposal of marriage consists of nothing more than a man asking a woman a simple question. The man can pop the question whenever he likes, point-blank or after lengthy deliberation, by moonlight or with a towel around his waist as he steps out of the shower. Because this crucial instant, however weighty and emotionally freighted it may be, is governed in France by no special socially codified set of rules.
Such a laissez-faire approach to marriage proposals is unthinkable in the United States. Here men orchestrate this solemn moment as if they were supervising the production of a Hollywood blockbuster.
No American male would dare to propose without a diamond ring in a velvet box, which he will humbly proffer at the chosen moment and in the perfect romantic location, whether that’s a ferryboat under steam or a balloon wafting through the clouds. He’ll make sure to have a photographer lurking in the wings, ready to spring into action and immortalize this magic moment.
The more complicated the logistics involved in staging this romantic tableau, the more stringent the security requirements. It is crucial to an American man, after all, that the girl of his dreams have a specific succession of expressions on her face: delighted surprise, followed by joyful acceptance. The performance anxiety that accompanies the American’s marriage proposal is unlike anything experienced by his French counterpart. The French male cares about one thing only: is the answer oui or non?
But if the pressure is on for American men, the constraints on American women are even more spectacular. The coming-of-age obstacle course begins at a tender age, with such traditions as the sweet sixteen birthday party or prom night, where young women must not only be pretty, innocent, and pure, but also sufficiently cool and popular to be elected prom queen. Frenchwomen experience nothing comparable in France, where a more flexible set of customs allow girls to go through the miseries of puberty in blessed privacy, and then to choose their own time to appear in the spotlight.
But it is unquestionably the American wedding ceremony that literally takes the cake, in terms of getting everything just so. There is a series of highly stylized rituals to be navigated, such as choosing the bridesmaids, assigning them tasks, selecting their outfits. The tension mounts with the money and expectations, ultimately fostering the uniquely American figure of the “bridezilla.” Here, too, the demands placed upon American women are unknown to their French counterparts. A much more flexible set of traditions in France allows them freedom to choose a gala wedding ceremony or a small, intimate service, a march down the aisle of a church or a stroll over to town hall, the participation of all their friends or a small private ceremony restricted to close family.
Some American women have so completely incorporated these rituals into their lives that they would never dream of trying to avoid their requirements or tampering with the details. The environment they live in is so competitive that they see no alternative to succeeding in everything they take on. They do more than just try to fit together family time and professional obligations, the way most women around the world do. They also try to be fashionably dressed, athletically accomplished, perfect hostesses, politically engaged, model citizens in their communities, loyal friends, committed parents, active at their children’s schools, and of course ideal parents, devoted neighbors, and faithful churchgoers. They lavish the same energy on every aspect of their lives, striving for some ideal, unattainable goal of perfection.
A Frenchwoman who has observed this particular type of American women at close range, then, is hardly surprised to see how hard it is for them to free themselves of a certain sternness or rigidity. Those qualities are more hindrance than help in realms that actually demand—first and foremost—a lighthearted, carefree approach, such as fashion, food, and interior decorating.
Perhaps this is an area where Frenchwomen might have some useful advice to offer their American girlfriends. It is their good fortune to be able to restrict their ambitions to certain chosen domains: choosing fashion and turning their back on cooking, for instance, or opting for love over family life. And the fact that Frenchwomen can choose simply not to succeed in certain areas gives them the confidence needed to overcome performance anxiety in their chosen fields of endeavor, giving free rein to their wishes and desires. This can be tremendously seductive, as we have seen in the realm of fashion, where Frenchwomen, in tune with an unpretentious style, dress according to their own personality, ignoring abstract ideals of perfection. Think of Marion Cotillard, Audrey Tautou, or Clemence Poesy.
This ability to have fun, to take pleasure, is a product of the absence of obligations, the feeling that nothing serious is at stake. And that sense of playfulness is the basic building block of Frenchsavoir-vivre. We Frenchwomen fail to see the point of wearing ourselves out on things we don’t care about. Why cook a Thanksgiving turkey at all if we hate to cook? Why play party games with our children if what we’d rather do is read them stories? Once we accept that it’s up to us to make the choice, then we can select the things that actually give us pleasure. That pleasure tends to become contagious, and we can spread joy so much more successfully than if we allow ourselves to be plagued with anxiety and a wrongheaded sense of duty.
But creeping globalization, making its way through social networks like Facebook and Twitter or television series like Sex in the City and Girls, is already transforming French society. The French have started to celebrate Halloween, for instance, and in the past ten years we’ve begun to adopt internet dating. This has profoundly shifted the rules of the game for the French approach to seduction. In short order, we can expect Frenchwomen to be challenged by the same pressures that affect their American counterparts. Frenchwomen have no idea what is coming their way. They will need all the advice and encouragement that American women can offer them.
Cécile David-Weill, author of The Suitors, is French and American. She published her first novel,Beguin (Grasset, 1996) under the name of Cécile de la Baume, which was released in an English translation, Crush (Grove, 1997). She is also the author of Femme de (Grasset, 2002). The Suitorsis her third novel. Cécile is also a regular contributor to the online French news magazine Le Point, with a column entitled “Letters from New York.” She was born in New York, where she currently lives.
This article originally appeared in the February 2013 edition of the Other Press newsletter.