Can You Manage?
For every Thomas Jefferson, there is a glutton for Freedom Fries. For every workaholic American that scoffs at the idea of the limited-hour workweek, there is a Michael Moore, who, in his documentary Sicko, lauded the French healthcare system, complete with free nannies that fold your underwear and make your newborn carrot purée.
Where in our history did this idea of the lazy, contrarian Français and the liberty-loving, hard-working Americain begin? I wish I had an answer, because it seems that despite the way in which the two cultures influence each other, a substantial population on both sides of the pond carry with them severely misinformed stereotypes. But, one thing has always been for certain, at least in my experience.
An American who wants to criticize the French always relies on the age-old conception that work is a measure of success in this country, quickly labeling the Frenchman who works only 35 hours a week or goes on strike as lazy and lacking ambition. If any of my American friends gets sick, for example, they martyr themselves, taking Vitamin C and hacking up phlegm in the corner cubicle rather than admitting defeat against a lowly cold virus. By contrast, at the first sign of constipation, queasiness, or “something bumpy on my tooth,” my host mother was one of many sitting in the doctor’s office ready to rid herself of whatever ailment she had (or thought she had).
Now, as tempting as it is to turn this article into a grammar lesson, I will resist. I have to say, though, that we need to give the French more credit than we think they deserve. I learned a very valuable lesson about attitude through a pair of nuanced French verbs.
In the States, if we can’t do something, the verb “to be able to,” or “can,” dominates our lexicon. You either can, are able to, cannot, or are not able to. You can’t sleep. You can’t write an essay. You can’t believe something. You can’t carry a heavy bag.
Of course, we can also “manage” to do something but we use this verb rarely in comparison to the two I just mentioned. When was the last time you told someone you couldn’t “manage” to write a paper, to sleep, or to believe a rumor?
However, in France, the verbs arriver and pouvoir (roughly translated, “to manage” and “to be able to”) are used often and delicately change the meaning of a statement. For example, using “pouvoir” in French to say you can’t hear something may lead one to believe you are literally incapable of it (you don’t have the mental capacity, what’s being said is in a foreign language, etc.) Replacing this with “arriver,” however, one would presume that, try as you might, you are capable of understanding, but the concept is simply too complicated and should someone be kind enough to offer further explanation, you’d have your a-ha moment.
Transferring this back to English, we would be correct to say a 5-year-old cannot understand Calculus. But, a frustrated high-schooler who repeats that they can’t understand certainly can, but is simply not managing to grasp the concept with the tools at their disposition. This made me wonder: Has my use of the English word ‘can’t’ for so many situations handicapped me into thinking that I really can’t, or was it rather that I simply don’t manage? Maybe I’m not trying hard enough? Maybe I’m not seeing things from a different perspective?
I admit – “Yes, we can!” has a certain ring to it that “Yes, we will manage” doesn’t. But next time you’re in a dispute with your cheri(e), think twice before saying you can’t come to an agreement. You can. Both of you just need to arrive there.All images Oscar Brenifier, Delphine Duran