Monday, October 6, 2008

Vous / toi

I've been aware recently of how we Americans have different privacy zones from our friends the French. Nothing brings that home quite as clearly as a visit to the doctor; more specifically, visits to the gynecologue and the mammographie clinic. Just annual checkups, folks, no cause for alarm. At least, no cause for medical alarm; a general sense of disorientation would, however, not be out of order.

A visit to my American gynecologist goes a little something like this: I check in, fill out the lastest version of a privacy form and offer up my insurance card, and then, after an indeterminate waiting period, a cheerful, motherly nurse in a pastel uniform,maybe with some baby animals printed on it, with white nurse's clogs and a practical, wash-and-wear hairdo, opens the door into the waiting room and calls my name. I follow her; as she weighs me there's some chitchat, traffic or weather or the flu or the kids or maybe all of the above. We walk by a bulletin board covered in photographs of newborns that my doctor has delivered. The nurse puts me in the examining room and, apologetically but with an attitude of resignation that we share, hands me a cotton robe and sheet. I undress, wrap up in my new outfit, and my doctor comes in for the exam. More talk about: traffic, weather, flu, kids. My American gynecologist is a woman who is about my age, and her kids are the age of E and G, so the playing field is level. We talk about our daughters, their schools, our neighborhoods. All very familar and, at the same time, all very covered up.

It was time--past time--to see a gynecologist here, so my friend S and I agreed that we would both make appointments with Dr R, who was referred by both the hiking ladies and our family doctor. Here is how that visit went: I was able to make an appointment within two weeks of the day I phoned (already that's different; did I mention the six month wait for an appointment Stateside?). When I arrived, I filled out a form: name, address, profession. That's all; no insurance files, no privacy forms. A few minutes later, Dr R himself summoned me. We shook hands. We spoke English; his wife is from the next town over from mine in America. Sitting behind his desk, he asked me a few questions--all the standard ones--and then took me into the examining room and showed me where to put my clothes. Then he did the exam, and we talked about...well, not a whole lot. But it was fine.

Did you notice the missed step there? The one with the robe and the sheet? Good. Just making sure.

Dr R sent me to have a mammogram--I am of the age--and, again, no robe; no maternal nurse. No pastels, no duckies. The mammography technician was a young man in his early twenties who was working on maybe growing a beard someday, very professional, very experienced with all the (ahem) equipment. Once I was arranged, he would step behind the screen to press the radiation button and call out: Respirez pas! Bougez pas! Don’t breathe! Don’t move! There was precious little risk of either. This young man who had just finished lifting my hair off my shoulder so that he could have a better vantage point from which to place me against the machine—he addressed me with the respectful, formal vous.

And that's what really strikes me: in America, it's all about covering up, modesty, pretending that what’s being examined isn’t on the one hand--and familiarity, intimacy on the other. My American doctor and her nurse's attitude is that we are all women together and understand each other just because we're of the same gender, and isn't all this medical stuff uncomfortable, don't we wish we could avoid it? While my French doctor and his équipe are nothing but frank and straightforward about the medical work they have to do, but would never dream of treating me familiarly, as a peer. Of course, we're not peers; I'm female, they're male; I'm American, they're French.

Sometimes I forget just how American I am. In America, what's private to the French (family life) is public (at least, it's something you talk about with semi-strangers while they take your blood pressure). In America, a medical exam without a sheet and robe would be an invasion of privacy, a lack of respect--and that's just what it would be here for the doctor to treat me as a peer, to tutoyer me. The zones are different. Not better, not worse. Just different.

1 comment:

  1. This dynamic is the most difficult for me to explain to Americans. We do have such different expectations of what is private and what can be talked about with perfect strangers. For the most part, I have a sense that French relationships tend to delve a little deeper than Americans (for instance, you may never come across that nurse again), whereas if you ever get to talk about those "private" things with a French person, it's likely to develop into a true friendship.