Fine-tuning the differences.
It has been more than a year since I arrived on the British soil, and I think that I have learned a lot. Obviously I am less and less surprised by the most obvious oddities of my daily life in London, but to a certain extend, I feel more acute to other disparities. For instance, I start picking up differences in the various Anglo-Saxon cultures.
I already published a post about how Kiwis, Yanks, Brits and Aussies are approaching life, but this time I wanted to focus on a short idiom I bumped into recently and which opened new horizons. I happened to read this book on pop culture by Steven Johnson (that I strongly recommend, by the way) and an American expression raised a great interest to me: "water cooler talks".
Every droplet of yesterday TV show
For the non-initiated, a "water cooler talk" is a casual, random discussion that occurs in an office. Why "water cooler"? Because, in the US, that is probably the best place to kill some time with cliches while your thirsty, and apparently faster, colleague is pouring his own cup of chilled water.
I was interested in this expression because I was trying to identify the most accurate translation. And I suddenly realised that I had my finger on a new cultural disparity. Water cooler are yet not very common in France. After all we are exporting some of the most sold mineral waters (Evian, Perrier, Volvic...) that must be because our sources are good enough for not being processed by these refrigerated columns.
So, as I am not questioning our ability to be on par with our American cousins when it comes to bullshitting about the yesterday TV show, I was wondering where these chats would take place.
For instant break, press 2.
In France, the central social place in a company is consequently not the water cooler, but the coffee machine. We are addicted to the black beverage, this machine is probably the best loophole for French workers especially since the smoking ban. People are queuing for their disgusting, industrial, instant coffee, but here is not the point. They are queuing for an instant of social life.
The coffee machine is an agora, an area of free expression, where you can mention the lightest things without constraints. Two French actors have capitalised on this social phenomenon and created a TV comedy, Camera Café, which depicts the life of a Small Business through the "eye" of the company's coffee machine. The chav sales rep, the pseudo psycho-socio-HR manager, the body-built chauffeur, the nympho secretary... All these grotesque characters converge to one point: the coffee machine.
It has been a success for several years on the French screens, and the success has now been expanding in other countries...
Caméra Café across the world (France, Italy, Belgium, Ireland, Poland, Quebec, Spain...)
So why this televisual success and why there has been no English adaptation yet? The consumption of coffee on mainland Europe is more than an hydrating process, it is a cult, a sacred moment during which the barriers are falling. This ritual does exists in England, but the beverage is different. Although water coolers are populating the British open-spaces, they are not the central appliance of the company. The kettle is. No revelation here. Tea is anchored in UK traditions, and is consequently a central part in the company's life (see this previous post).
Kitchenware seems to be playing a critical role in a company's life and that must please my University friends working for the major houseware manufacturers: Seb, Rowenta, Braun and co. However, how come we are not referring to "kettle talks" then? Or "coffee machine discussion"? Probably because in Europe the social life of coworkers does not happen in the office, but elsewhere. The best equivalent to "water cooler talks" is indeed "Discussions de comptoir" in France (counter chats) or "Pub talks" in the UK if my readings of this sociological book on the English is accurate.
Should we see in this vocabulary a reflection of our perception of the role of companies in our social life: very central in the US, more secondary in Europe? Sorry, I won't provide you with a definitive answer on this one, we are Friday now, and it's about time for me to go debate less implicating topics at my local pub. Cheers.