On this theme of "doubles", last night Georges and I went on a really fun double date with a good friend and her new fella. While we were walking to meet our friends, I said to Georges, "This is fun... a double date!"
Georges laughed and said he thought that was such a funny -- as in funny ODD, funny STRANGE -- term, "double date". In his mind, it conjured up a very different reaction for him than it did for me. For me, a double date is a totally normal thing, just meaning two couples hanging out together somewhere. And for Georges -- because the French don't even "date" in the way that we Yanks think of it -- it just sounded rather bizarre to him.
Which made me think, and not for the first time, of the similarities as well as the differences in our two cultures with regard to how couples become couples. My friend (the one we were meeting for dinner) and I have often discussed this, because as women over 35 who have either married later in life ore are not yet married (although I suspect for my friend, her relationship status on Facebook is about to change significantly... wink, wink), we've got a lot of dating experience under our belts -- in America. Then, we came to France, started dating here... and found that the rules and expectations were quite different, and quite confusing.
In America, the usual dating M.O. is that one person asks another person "out" -- to a movie, coffee, lunch, dinner, a drink, a concert, or whatever. You might ask what makes it a date versus two friends deciding to go out somewhere together or two colleagues meeting for lunch, dinner or coffee? It's INTENTION, of course. When it's a "date", there is generally a romantic overtone in place. One or both of the parties is hopeful that there will be a romantic spark, some sort of "chemistry" between them, and they believe that the way to discover this is to have some social ritual or interaction -- hence the need for a "date".
So, they meet up as arranged. On that first date, the one who invited may or may not offer to pay, and of course the "rules" have changed over the decades, but more often than not, the guy might offer to pay or the girl might expect him to offer (and if she expects, and he doesn't, there's a problem right there!) If it goes well, there will most likely be a suggestion of a second date. There might be a kiss, or more than just a kiss, depending on the people involved and the circumstances. If the second date goes well, there is more physical affection shown, and it leads to a third, fourth, fifth date. Somewhere in there, they will decide whether or not to keep "dating", and if they do, they segue into becoming a couple. They are now "going out" (or what in the 50's or 60's would have been called "going steady" -- not dating anyone else) or they are "together" or they are "in a committed relationship". There will most likely also be a conversation about their "relationship" and "taking it to the next level" as they establish "where they are" and "where they are heading". This can take anywhere from a couple of weeks to a couple of months, on the average.
In France, from what my American friend and I have experienced and observed, as well as from our conversations with many of our Anglophone girlfriends who've "dated French", there are some differences in the entire ritual, some subtle and some significant. For one thing, there is no word in French for "date" or "dating" as we Americans tend to think of it, because that concept doesn't really exist in France, but the initial rendez-vous is often set up in much the same way: one person invites the other person to go somewhere and do something so they can get better acquainted.
However, one significant difference in France, especially for younger people, is that the two people might be doing the "getting acquainted" part in groups instead of one person "asking out" another; they are hanging out with other people socially, and they have an opportunity to observe each other, to talk and decide if they like each other. If they do like each other, they just seem to become a couple somehow; they just ARE.
For more mature people who are out in the world living and working, the couple in question might meet at their common workplace, where they have the same opportunity to observe each other and to interact in a way where they can determine if there is mutual interest. And given that, in France, flirtation in the workplace is NOT a sin or punishable by firing or a lawsuit, one can see how even in a work setting, this can be a good way for two people to hook up. If they're not meeting at work, they might be meeting through some common interests or sports, or even via the Internet (ahem... don't scoff -- it works, even in France).
In whatever way it might happen, the two people are spending some amount time in each other's company and there is some mutual flirting going on. But another difference is that in France, by the time the two people get around to the stage where they are "asking each other out", there may already be an implicit expectation on the part of one or both that they are simply going to be a couple. They don't seem to want or need weeks of "dating" or a lot of preconceived social rules or expectations in order to go from single status to "in a relationship". And the amount of time between meeting and that first interaction -- what we Anglos would call the first date -- and becoming a couple seems to be significantly shorter, on average, than with the American way of doing things. (Not that any of this is scientific, but in my discussions with friends, this is what we all have noticed since coming to France.)
This seems to be what happened with my older step-son and his current girlfriend, because we never heard a word about her from him, never knew she existed or that there was even a girl he was interested in (he had broken up with another girl some months earlier and as far as we knew, he hadn't been "dating" anyone)... until he informed us, with about two days notice, that he was bringing her along on our family summer holidays last year! And when we saw them together, they were clearly just a couple already, totally into each other. They already seemed to know what the other one liked to eat or drink, she would do little things like smooth his hair, he pointed out the pretty dress she was wearing and said that he'd bought it for her, and so on. But at the time, he'd been living with us and we had not had one single clue there was a potential girlfriend waiting in the wings somewhere. Over a year later, they're still together and seem very happy. But how it all came about? We still have no idea other than they met somewhere through mutual friends (we're guessing at a party or something, since they go to totally different universities). But rest assured, they met and didn't waste much time deliberating about it... they liked each other and voila! Instant couple.
Dating in France, for the Anglophone, can present some interesting dilemmas if you're romantically interested in a French person. YOU might be expecting that the guy will ask you out a few times and that things will gradually escalate through the familiar ritual of holding hands, kissing, and whatever else eventually leads to sex -- but as prudish as some of us Anglos can be about sex, I don't know that we necessarily expect (nowadays) that sex with a new partner automatically guarantees instant "committed relationship" status. Whereas it seems that, to the French, once there is sex involved, you are definitely a couple! I've had a number of friends tell me stories about French men they'd met and dated, and how they quickly got rather possessive and just assumed they were an exclusive couple once there was anything more going on other than a little casual kissing. And this was very surprising to the women in question. I suppose, in our culture, maybe we see dating as a way of "test driving" a potential committed relationship BEFORE the actual commitment is entered into, and in France, perhaps they are quicker to commit. Perhaps they feel they know their own minds and hearts well enough to be willing to take the risk of being in a relationship with someone they really like? I don't really know, I can only guess, but something is definitely different in the cultural thinking on this point.
Naturally, one can't always generalize because there will always be exceptions -- Georges and I were definitely breaking every rule in the book on both sides, culturally, when we met, and frankly the fact that OUR relationship progressed at warp speed had nothing to do with him being French and more willing to jump into a relationship (in fact, he wasn't looking for a serious relationship at all when he met me!) -- but by and large, this is how it seems to work here. You can imagine how the differences in expectation and intention might put you in an awkward position: you're American, let's say, and you meet an attractive Frenchman. He seems to think you're nice and he suggests you meet for a drink. You're assuming he's going to pick up the tab because to you, it's a "date" and that's what men are "supposed to" do... but he doesn't, because to him, you're just getting acquainted and there are not the same rules as far as he's concerned. You then wonder if he's not interested in you (after you're done fuming about him not paying), but the date seems to be going well otherwise, and then he suggests you meet again. If he uses the words "Je t'invite" (I invite you), then in general he WILL end up paying, because in France when you invite someone, you intend to pick up the check (but not always). So, you meet again. If he starts showing physical affection, then you know he's really interested, but the French, for all their reputation as being so amourous, are actually quite socially reserved, so if he's NOT trying to climb all over you, that doesn't necessarily mean he's NOT interested, either (see what I mean? Confusing!) So you're enjoying getting to know him and probably thinking, "Hey, this seems to be going well, wonder if he'll ask me out again for next weekend" but HE could already be thinking, "OK, now she's with ME and that's that", and he might start acting accordingly. Which can come as a bit of a shock when you find out he is expecting you are not dating anyone else... but the two of you never even DISCUSSED whether or not you want to be exclusive.
Here's the thing: according to my friends who've dated (and perhaps even eventually PACS'd or married) French men, they all say pretty much the same thing -- that there just seems to come a point, often unexpectedly (to the Anglo woman) where they realize that their French guy is just ASSUMING they are a couple. There is not always some discussion about "are we or are we not an exclusive couple/in a committed relationship" like we might be used to, but all of a sudden before you know it, he's thinking you're just THERE, in that couple's space.
And because you've been "dating French" and the rules are different, you might not be at that same place he is. The French seem to go from zero to 100 very quickly in relationships, once their minds are made up. They don't appear to have the same need to drag it out because of some societal rules. When they meet someone they really like and are attracted to, then why not simply go and be with that person? What's to talk about?
Georges has often told me that he thinks that Americans (and Anglos in general) are more explicit in how they communicate, while the French are more implicit, and I think this is definitely one of the situations where this cultural difference comes into play.
Well then... there you have it: one Anglophone's perspective on cross-cultural dating and how relationships get started. And you've been subjected this long rant about it simply because I said it was going to be fun to go on a double date! (Which, by the way, it really was! We liked the new guy very much, and they really look like they fit together. And I'm just happy to see my friend so happy.)
Of course, in my friend's case, with her new guy, she probably won't have quite the same difficulties as I've been talking about... because her sweetie isn't even French (or American, either)!