Friday, 18 November 2011

The Yes-Yes-No-Buts

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~ The Yes-Yes-No-Buts ~

Untitled, originally uploaded by Paris Set Me Free.
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We live in a world of 'Yes-yes-no-buts', at least here in Paris, or i have the impression we do. In any given conversation, generally amongst peers (where you have the right to contradict), the famous 'oui-oui-non-mais' is to be heard ringing out in strident tones from collegues and crèche mothers, bars and boulangerie queues all over Paris.

And what does this legendary have-it-all-ways phrase actually mean? In my opinion, it's simply a more sophisticated form of the good old English 'Yeah, but...'

What's so funny - or irritating, depending on your viewpoint - about 'Oui-oui-non-mais...' is just how blatantly it tries to have things both ways and why not right down the middle while we're at it.

My main issue with this phrase is to cut through the - let's face it - ambiguity and get at what the person is really trying to say. Could we not, in fact, just get rid of the 'oui-oui-non' part and be saying pretty much the same thing?

Well, yes and no. But the real reality (as opposed to the unreal?) is that the true purpose of this chunk of incoherent nonsense has little to do with lexical meaning and a lot to do with social lubrication. And, in that, it's remarkably similar to even more elaborate (and sneaky) structures from the language of Shakespeare such as 'You have a very valid point there, although...' or 'I'm 100% with you on the vast majority of what you've just said; nevertheless, we mustn't forget that...'

In the end, I reckon, the main role of language, however clever we think we are, remains pretty primordial: to get what we want for us and ours without getting hit, hurt or eaten by you and yours. Or them and theirs if you're uncomfortable with me getting so personal. The heights of sophistication this often reaches can be ear-popping, but the basic functions and motivations remain the same.

The first 'oui' agrees; that's always nice. The second 'oui' insists; boy, am I on your wavelength, or what! The
'non' is a bit of a brutal reversal, but my theory is that this is just another form of 'oui', as in 'No, I'm not joking, of course I agree with you' except that - Bazam! - in the subtlest of ways the seeds have been sown for dissent.

Which brings us 'back to our sheep', as the French would say, with the ground carefully prepared and our interlocutor psychologically and interpersonally ready to receive the dreaded counter-thrust, the relationship-breaker, the brinksmanship and bravura of the lovingly manicured 'but'.

And what, you may be saying, has all this got to do with a rather impressive portrait of Nelson Mandela somehow applied to the cold aluminium of a Gare d'Austerlitz commuter tunnel. Well, yes, but no, you see, that's where you're wrong. It's precisely because it has nothing to do with it that it has everything to do with it.

The theme of this posting, I'm realising as I type, is contrasts and contradictions. And so the fact that I could think of absolutely nothing to say about the Mandela piece and everything to say about a couple sitting next to me on the train talking about some woman's botched knee operation, along with more than their fair share of 'oui-oui-non-mais's just about says it all, don't you think? Yes? No? Maybe? Whatever! (Or 'Oui-oui-non-mais-enfin!' if you prefer.)

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Sab Will / Paris Set Me Free - Contact me directly for photo tours, interviews, exhibitions, etc.

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