Saturday, 4 November 2017

National characteristics of the French and English show that words matter

You’ve got to be careful with words, haven’t you?

In my youth, a depressingly long time ago, the person who managed workshops at conferences was a ‘chairman’. It wasn’t a satisfactory title: not gender neutral and perhaps too redolent of direction or even authoritarianism. The attempt to address the gender problem with the term ‘chairperson’ never took off properly, and wouldn’t have addressed the autocratic side anyway.

That left the situation unsatisfactory. It was, therefore, interesting to discover at a conference I attended recently, that the new accepted term is ‘moderator’. That’s not bad since it suggests that the job is to make sure everybody gets their say, that the discussion remains open and courteous, and that excess is avoided. The only trouble is that it seems to imply that the discussion at such events tends to be highly animated and therefore requiring moderation. The reality, in my experience, is that quite a few of the attendees are dealing with emails or checking text messages, when they’re not catching up on sleep (many conference folk are really there fore the extra-curricular activities, and they tend to be well-lubricated as well as long drawn out).

As often as not, the chairman – sorry, moderator – finds no takers when asking for questions at the end of a presentation and has to move on to the next speaker or come up with a question her or himself.

Curiously, the French use the word ‘animateur’ in this context, which seems far more appropriate. They’ve apparently understood that it’s more animation these discussions need, not more moderation. The French seem far closer to the nub of the problem, in other words.

France and Britain: so much in common down the centuries
But some differences in temperament
Odd, though, isn’t it? The French are looking for more animation. The English for moderation.

Is that a reflection of national temperament, would you say? You know, garrulous over-excited English people need to be calmed down. Unlike their French counterparts, well known for being self-effacing and phlegmatic.

I don’t know. Something about that explanation feels wrong to me. Perhaps I need to work on it a little more.

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