It is a bad outcome when the main lesson learned from the recent US Presidential election is that future political leaders will win through a better understanding of demographic segmentation. The conventional wisdom emerging from the recent victory of Barack Obama is that Republicans lost because they failed to understand that the United States is becoming more diverse, and consequently over-relied on older, white votes. Conversely, Democrats are deemed to have won the Presidency and gained seats in the Senate by energizing the vote of Latinos, African Americans, women and younger voters.
The problem with this argument is that it represents a static view of the situation (yes, the numbers are as advertised in the re-election of President Obama), but fails to recognize the dynamic role of political innovation in electoral success (no, there wasn’t any of that in the recent election). Like in business, political innovation does not reside in the ability to activate one’s traditional segment by honing in messages specifically crafted for them (the proverbial “red meat” for the equally proverbial “base”), but in rearranging the segments and building new creative coalitions among them. The name of the game should not be to grind out electoral victories through micro-segmentation and predictive modeling of votes county-by-county or citizen-by-citizen. The role of a political leader should be to engage a large electorate of diverse people in not only redefining their relationship to the candidate, but to each other. There is room for operational micro-segmentation processes as a second implementation step, but it is hardly a substitute for the broad democratic engagement process a candidate should orchestrate. In the election, both candidates had a lot of the former, and precious little of the latter (particularly if one compares Barack Obama’s 2012 campaign to 2008).
Successful campaigns are those where demographic frontiers get blurred and new relationships develop among supporters of widely varied ethnic, gender, sexual preference or age backgrounds, triggering new electoral coalitions. A campaign platform should be about drawing as many people as possible to become active members of the system and co-create with the candidate what he or she stands for. Voting is but the tip of the democratic co-creation iceberg, with day-to-day life in the community its underwater part.
Political campaigns should start in wide open form, not as manifestos. The pressure put by pundits on candidates to define their programs very early, down to the specific tax deductions they will eliminate and the energy programs they will support, is a negation of democracy, not an enhancement thereof. In a co-creative electoral system, there ought to be room for the much derided “listening campaign” of Hillary Clinton in her first senatorial run, or for the highly ridiculed etch-a-sketch views of Mitt Romney. Thinking that candidates should state their views once and for all, then execute them flawlessly once in office under penalty of becoming flip-floppers is as ridiculous as would have been to ask Steve Jobs to define the Apple strategy down to the scroll wheel of the next iPhone, all the while testing whether Latinos or women respond favorably to it.
The new leadership we need is not about ideas, but about process. It is not about reconfiguring party lines, or even bipartisanship from the top-down. It is about democratizing democracy at the community level, and reconstructing it piece by piece.
I’ve been a private sector guy all my life. I like singing for my supper. I like fighting on any consulting proposal, executive education gig, or speaking platform. I consider myself a front-line warrior in an economic war, and I like the thrill of victory and (in moderate doses) the agony of defeat. I have created employment for others (with some inevitable ups and downs), brought back currency to the countries that have been my home, and have traditionally thought of myself as an entrepreneurial type that makes an economic contribution to society without expecting much social credit for it. Most of my fellow citizens seem to believe the wealth generated by entrepreneurial success should be my sole reward, and that’s OK with me. With most of my family members in France as civil servants of one kind or other – many teachers among them – I have run at a young age as far away from government employment as I could, even moving to America to be at the frontier of creative capitalism and avoid any public temptation.
Through the vagaries of consulting life, though, I have found myself in the last few years confronted with the challenge of helping large government entities transform. As is often the case, civil servants have morphed in my mind from abstract aggregates represented by predatory unions into real people of flesh and blood, many of whom I actually like. It was always easier for me to develop a fondness for “teachers, policemen and firemen”, these archetypical public servants US Democrats like for us to visualize when they talk about government employees. But I have discovered that people working in post offices, unemployment agencies, government healthcare or ministries can touch my heart as deeply as any private sector person trying to make a living. As naïve as it may be, I have discovered that government employees are people too.
The social net may be protecting them better than most, and there are undeniably stories of excess involving them, but I have lately found myself wondering what it feels like to only be described as a sector to be shrunk, a cost to be minimized, or a citizens service to be improved. Strangely missing is a discussion of their own professional experience, as if their life had become irrelevant to the debate, or could somehow be reduced to a collective bargaining discussion conducted on their behalf by their unions. The miserable nature of the public servant’s experience has become a bit more visible in a country like France where a wave of suicides has spread through the country when government employees have been pushed to adopt new private sector practices, as has been the case at France Telecom. At this level of distress, it becomes hard to ignore the emotional reality involved.
It strikes me that the process of transformation used by managers of public entities deserves a lot of the blame. To improve productivity and service, public managers typically set goals and cascade them down through a chain of command that pushes front-line employees to higher performance level. This top-down, process-based approach has the net effect of squeezing everybody into a tighter and tighter box, producing extraordinary pain for all involved, from top managers to supervisors to front-line employees.
The key to reversing this process is to initiate a chain of empathy that starts with the interaction between employee and customer. Front-line employees and customers know a lot more than their managers about what to do. Together, they will engage with their customers and reinvent the system at the level of each post office, each blood donation team, each unemployment office, or each ministry’s office. Out of self-interest, public employees and customers will co-create better interactions between them. They’ll even figure out how to migrate these new innovative practices from office to office through peer-to-peer mechanisms, because, believe it or not, they talk to each other on the phone or on Facebook. The French post office has done that with great success (public disclosure: I have worked with them on their transformation). If the French post office can do it, shouldn’t any other public or para-public entity be able to do it?
For this to happen, though, senior government people will need to let go. This is not how senior government managers have been taught at the Harvard School of Government in the US, or the Ecole Nationale d’Administration (ENA) in France. And yet, this is what they should do: their role should be to lay out a few top-level goals, make some central resources available, then get out of the way. From there on, local post office employees will figure out with customers how to lay out or manage the local post office. Local unemployment office agents will team up with people looking for jobs and local employers to figure out how they should work together. Local blood donation staff will figure out with blood donors when and how to schedule each session. There is nothing like the self-interest of local parties to come up with innovative solutions and migrate their solutions from place to place to solve the huge societal problems that plague us.
The time has come to reinvent government. Disappointingly, none of that is part of the current presidential campaign discussion in the US.
Last night, I found myself watching the PBS documentary entitled Half The Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide. Hosted by the two journalists Nicolas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn (his wife), and patterned after their book by the same name , it took me on a roller-coaster from utter despair (when a fourteen year old Sierra Leone rape victim gets expelled from her home for confronting her predator) to powerful hope (learning how innovative some of the militant women are who help young girls or women victims fight and survive).
Unlike Kristof and WuDunn, I am not in a position to write about women oppression of the physical kind (rape, mutilation, sexual slavery), but I do witness quieter cases of women’s moral oppression in global business every day.
I’m talking about you, anonymous Yemeni woman in my Dubai class of the London Business School last year. As often in the Arab world, I was instructed not to address you first. For three hours, you patiently listened to my challenging your male Middle-Eastern colleagues without engaging, eyes mostly down on your notes. In the last fifteen minutes, you found the courage to raise your hand and suggested a brilliant application for your bank of what I was trying to teach. I can still remember your dark eyes, glittering with the excitement of a new thought. I would have liked to put you on stage and have you teach the next class with me. But I didn’t, because this is no place of a Yemeni woman.
I’m also thinking of you, bright young women I have known in academia or consulting over the years in the US or Europe, who never knew how good you were, and who settled for second best careers (or no career at all) because nobody told you you had the power to change the world. How I wish some senior woman in your department could have taken you by the hand and shown you the way! Images of workshops are dancing in my head, with ebullient Brazilian males listening to their head roar while women with richer experience would not dare speak, or post office women in France keeping silent on their experience of work while listening to their male superiors describing their life as if they were not there.
It’s not easy advocating for women in business when you’re a guy. I always feel a bit awkward, if not downright silly. When I timidly do, I immediately get haunted by images of male politicians discussing women’s health issues, or memories of top-level women’s sports teams coached by mediocre men. What do I know about a woman’s experience? And who am I to even try to help? And so I shut up, most of the time.
If I ever find my voice on this topic, here is what I’d like to say: business women of the world, unite. I see you everywhere, full of talent, able to do things that guys cannot do as well as you, and yet you contort yourself into the male-dominated, individualistic, process-driven model of the business world that has been oppressing you for years. Break those shackles. Let your instinct take over: focus on the human experience, starting with your own. Build communities of business women inside and outside your firm. Unleash the forces of co-creation by shamelessly slanting the resources of your firm toward women. The business world will be a better place for it. Even for the guys. (As Dr. Seuss sort of said, the guys who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind).
Women are alone in the business world. Their interactions remain mostly directed at men they try to please, because this is still often where the power lies. There are of course women’s business associations and support groups, but none of them can play the role of a company-centric community of women helping each other. Governments try to provide incentives to remove the glass ceiling, but they can’t do as good a job as your establishing yourselves into a community of powerful self-advocates.
Sometimes it’s OK to be biased. Women should also build communities outside their firm. They should buy from other women and sell to other women. Better be on the field than talk from the sideline. Use the resources of your firm for advantage. Support other women. Hire women. Promote women. Play to win. Be tough.
It is midnight in Mumbai and my cab driver knows two English words. He points to the huge traffic jam around the hotel caused by the festival and says: “shortcut”. I nod my head appreciatively, hoping he can get me to make my 3 am flight back to the US. As we dodge crowds of young children wandering in the shanties, he utters his second word: “tip”. Raised eyebrows tell me we’re now negotiating. For 20%, he gets me to the airport in less than an hour and I make my flight comfortably. This “tip for shortcut” value proposition is as concise as they come. Cabbies are the best small business owners.
It’s the second half of July in Paris. Traffic is slow, a surprise given that many French people are already on vacation. The problem is painters and plumbers, my Rumanian-born cab driver tells me. “They want to go on vacation in August, and in order to generate cash, they start three or four jobs they will finish in the fall, which allows them to collect multiple down-payments before leaving.” As we’re bobbing and weaving through traffic, he points to numerous double-parked vans clogging traffic. Cabbies are the best traffic analysts.
My London taxi driver hears me speak French on the phone. He asks me if I know the Armenian-born singer Charles Aznavour. As I tell him I do, he starts playing Aznavour’s song entitled “Ils Sont Tombés” (They Have Fallen), a stirring description of the Armenians uprising against Turks in the early 20th century. He’s not Armenian himself, but he has tears in his eyes as he barrels down the M4 to Heathrow. Cabbies are the conscience of mankind.
I am in Spain. Real Madrid is playing Manchester City at home tonight in the first game of the Champions League. We don’t have any language in common, yet we can communicate on whether Ronaldo is really sad (he thinks he’s a big baby), whether David Villa the Spaniard should be considered a traitor for playing for Manchester City (he thinks it’s OK because soccer is a global business), and whether Spain should dump the Euro (his position is no because Real Madrid could no longer attract big worldwide stars like Ronaldo, even though he’s a big baby). Cabbies are the best soccer economists.
As I head back home in Boston, my limo driver is Moroccan. He’s got opinions about everything, Obama vs. Romney, the Arab Spring, and the movie that is igniting protests all over the Middle East. “The problem is that there’s not enough American Muslim leadership to act as intermediary between the fanatics and the grassroots Muslim people”, he tells me, talking like a Harvard PhD. “Look how different this is from France or Germany where local imams in those two countries help tamper everything.” He dreams of playing a role like that someday. Cabbies are the best politicians.
- Do the children of NBC Olympic executives watch the delayed broadcasts at 8 pm?
- Have executives at the soon-to-be bankrupt Best Buy ever visited an Apple store?
- What would it take for my main course at Not Your Average Joe’s restaurant to not arrive on the first bite of my appetizer?
- What would it take for Skype to stop moving the “end of call” red phone on my screen so that I can cleanly conclude conversations with my mother (who never hangs up before I do)?
- Why is the freezer compartment on my GE refrigerator designed to break my back and why is it separated into bins that do not match the size of any commercially available food package?
- How can I get my GE washing machine to stop beeping at me when I load clothes into it?
- Why hasn’t any major oil company come up with a comfortable tire inflater at their gas stations (I often go to Exxon Mobil)?
- Could Microsoft and Dell tell me when my Caps Lock is on?
- Why do small TVs automatically have a bad sound (mine is a Toshiba)?
- Why do I receive two or three credit card offers from Capitol One every week, but my Bank of America small business banker never calls me?
We think of weathermen and stockbrokers as the two “often in error, but never in doubt” professions. Let me nominate a third: economists.
If stimulus or austerity policies worked, we’d know by now. If Friedman and Keynes were right, our governments would long have adopted their policies, and our economies would be roaring like Formula 1 cars in the Monaco grand prix. The predictability of tax cuts or stimulus spending on economic growth has the reliability of Paul the Octopus forecasting soccer game outcomes: sometimes it works, and most of the time it doesn’t. Yet politicians everywhere hang on to these disproven theories as economic gospel.
What’s wrong with economics? To paraphrase Mitt Romney in one of his awkward statements, economics is people. Instead, we think economics is policies. From government to universities, we teach economics as a massively aggregated database from which we extract insights, then policies, at the level of a state or a country. This leads to lame assertions about interest rates, monetary mass, jobs, trade deficit, and vague concepts of rational expectations reputedly anticipating economic behaviors. If we understood the true causes and effects in the economic system, our Presidents would not be sweating the job numbers every month: they would tell us beforehand what to expect.
Do you wake up in the morning thinking about interest rates, inflation and trade deficit? Do you actually decide to buy a car, a house, or go grocery shopping on the basis of interest rate and inflation? Do you look at your Turbotax statement to decide whether the rise in the marginal tax rate just passed by Congress will authorize you to go to Wholefoods and buy the fresh organic tomatoes that day, instead of going to the regular grocery store where the tomatoes are cheaper? Of course not. Yet this is the micro-level at which the economy works. Unless we can begin to comprehend decisions at this individual level, we have nothing of value.
If I were an economist, I’d start by diving deep into understanding how five or ten of my neighbors experience the economy. I’d try to build a model of their income statements and their balance sheet, and figure out how they decide to patronize five or ten local businesses (say, restaurants, grocery store, day care, etc.), or why they decide to save and for what. I’d try to understand the economics of the five or ten local businesses my neighbors buy from, why these small businesses decide to expand and hire, or why they scale or shut down. If there were one or two big businesses in my local area (corporate headquarters, big hospitals, etc.), I’d try to understand how the success of those large businesses contributes to the local economy through local taxes and jobs. I’d then try to model how the local township or municipality benefits from all this, and what impact local people and businesses have on the finances of my town (school, public funds, etc.). If we could just model this microcosm of economic interactions, we’d have data on a real, living ecosystem of actual people and entities and begin to understand how a local economy is co-created through their interactions.
Would this be representative of the economy as a whole? Of course, not. There would be massive biases linked to local industrial fabric and wealth levels. To roll up this data into a state, national, or global economy, one would have to empower people to build their own model at the local level. Providing the structure and platform that allows this local modeling would be a great role for government, instead of pretending that it owns the economy or creates jobs. The role of government in economic policy should not be to build top-down expert models of the economy as a whole, but to empower local folks to build models of their local market and learn from their interactions.
Even more importantly, if we began to understand causes and effects at the local economy level, the “economic agents” involved would be able to do something about the economy, rather than passively describe it. Individuals could change their relationship to local businesses, for example, by forming communities around them. Local businesses could mobilize those communities by setting up platforms that better connect them to their local customers (for example, I’d love to rally a few of my local friends to help a local hotel improve a few things in their menu and rooms, and we’d collectively bring them our out-of-town business). If local officials were to facilitate this dialogue, this would do more to create jobs and get them reelected than repeating hackneyed Republican or Democratic theories of austerity or stimulus.
Unfortunately, the scarcest commodity in economics is humility. Witness for example the recent Business Week article on the discussion between Paul Krugman and the President of Estonia and on the value of austerity in running a country. I will not venture an opinion about who’s right or wrong in this debate, but getting rid of the condescension conveyed in this dialogue seems to me to be job 1.
I, for one, would like to understand the economics of my village.
Yes, there is such a thing as business methodology fashion. Big data and social enterprise are hot. They’re the Kate Perry and Lady Gaga of business concepts, drawing huge crowds to seminars everywhere. Innovation is not far behind, but like Justin Bieber, it’s hot, rising, and in need of growing up. Customer experience is still high on the charts, but its Eminem alter ego, the Net Promoter Score band, is on the way down. Process design and quality, those Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd of the 70s, now belong on NPR fund-raisers for middle-aged corporate types. Organization and strategy have long gone punk and disco and only get rotation on oldies but goldies stations featuring specialty acts by aging professors. Leadership, like Jimmy Buffet, is still drawing huge crowds of parrot heads to executive education seminars at Harvard Business School. Operations is like hip-hop, more or less always in fashion, changing form all the time, sometimes Ice T gangsta rap, sometimes Black Eyed Peas mainstream.
So where does this leave co-creation, you might wonder? I think we’re like Beyoncé. A little r’n’b, a little hip-hop, a little pop. We’re a cross-over genre. Co-creation, through its communities aspect, is often listed by Billboard as HR and transformation (employee communities), sometimes as product development (customer communities). Because engagement platforms require technology, the charts have us as an IT act. When we rock on experience, we become Marketing artists. When we sing about interactions as the new process, we end up in Quality, 6 Sigma and Lean concerts. And when we show the cost effectiveness of co-creation, we end up on the financial charts.
We sometimes confuse our public, but heck, if it works for Beyoncé…
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology just announced the launch of a new Big Data initiative. For those of you who have lived under an analytic rock for the last few years, Big Data is the name given to the movement that involves mining large volumes of consumer and social data in an attempt to identify behavioral patterns usable by corporations to market more stuff to you. Not surprisingly, the Big Data movement is largely financed by technology firms who see an opportunity to sell expensive equipment to CIOs and general managers, in the hope that algorithmic inspiration will magically arise from the fumes of the data landfill. If you’re old enough to remember the data warehouse debacle of the 70s and 80s, or the unfulfilled promised of Customer Relationship Management software (CRM), welcome back to the future.
I actually like the Big Data movement, but think it is largely misguided in its arrogant assumption that a few analytic experts can generate insights from large amounts of data through the sheer power of their brilliance, while all evidence points to the fact that these expert-driven approaches repeatedly fail. If one more person quotes Moneyball to me as evidence of the virtue of business intelligence, I think I will puke (or better yet, direct them to the latest American League standings where the Boston Red Sox occupy the last place, thanks to the aforementioned Moneyball approach).
To be clear, I very much believe in the power of analytics, as long as we understand who generates insights from data. And in most cases, it ain’t the experts, but the users of the data.
Insights come from the motivation of self-interested individuals confronted with the reality of their own data, measured against the backdrop of an entire population’s data, and hoping to discover new patterns of actions for themselves. Data itself is inert, and rarely produces action, except for a few left-brained people who teach at MIT. Most of us need to convert left-brained data into a right-brained hypothesis that we can only appropriate if we have participated in its development in some fashion. Few of us believe in universal truths to the point where we can put them into action (if this were the case, we would all be eating the right food all the time and exercising several times a day). This conversion from left-brained understanding to right-brained-driven action requires the co-creation of a personal hypothesis based on some objective evidence from the known data, and a unique act of creativity about what will work for us. This co-created hypothesis will lead to a willingness to experiment on a small scale. The experimentation on a small-scale will then lead to a more ambitious exploration of new causes and effects in the hope of figuring out new things selfishly helpful to us. Over time, the sum of all those self-generated experiments will generate population-wide hypotheses which can then be tested analytically, using big data sets (and perhaps a handful of experts from MIT).
For example, let us say I want to reduce the glucose level in my blood because I have been diagnosed as pre-diabetic. Of course, I will be told from day one by my doctor that I should reduce the intake of certain foods and exercise more (medical research has proven that broccoli is generally better than a hot fudge sundae to reduce cholesterol, so I might as well put that known fact to good use, but as already said, this will only carry me so far if I love hot fudge sundaes). What will motivate me is finding the ultimate combination of food and exercise that works for me. To get there, I will need to formulate hypotheses that apply uniquely to me (for example, by keeping hot fudge sundaes on my diet, perhaps a bit less frequently), and letting me create my own set of relevant data and measuring consequences of my personal food and exercise choices. In other words, I will want to generate my own set of data and devise my own algorithm as to what works for me.
The question I would ask is the following: given what is already known about cholesterol, from a clinical standpoint, is society more likely to make progress on the cholesterol issue by:
a. Looking for a killer predictive algorithm that predicts who will get diabetic from the pre-diabetic stage, using a Big Data approach (classic medical research and development approach)?
b. Distributing a user-friendly test kit and data log to the pre-diabetic population that allows them to test in real time their glucose level, encourages them to figure out what specific food raises their glucose level in their own body after each meal, and measures the impact of exercise on their individual glucose level after each work out (the co-created approach to research and development)?
I’ll leave it to the National Institutes of Health to spend my tax dollars on scenario a, and I’ll personally put my money on scenario b. Why? Because you will get a lot more engagement from linking personal data to individual courses of action for each patient. If we can get millions of pre-diabetic patients to self-create their own clinical experimentation – imperfect as this “clinical trial” would be from a statistical standpoint– we will learn a lot more than by having three scientists set up a double-blind, exquisitely narrow hypothesis and spend the next ten years collecting that data, complete with double-blind set-up and T statistics. Beyond the obvious advantage of collecting data on a large scale, the moment where patients start tracking their own data, they will start experimenting with new approaches that interests them and them only. This will create a wide field of distributed experimentation that can then be aggregated into wider insights, making the personally co-created data and insights into usable research data for the whole population.
The point here is that patients are contributing a lot more than data. They are also contributing insights, by formulating hypotheses about what could work for them, and by setting up personal experiments to test those hypotheses. Their motivation for doing so is not analytic (they’re not looking for a Nobel Prize of Medicine), but self-serving (they want to get healthy). Right-brained motivation for self-improvement is the currency of true research.
Of course, a lot of the hypotheses formulated by individuals will be dead ends, and they will naturally weed themselves out. Co-created research is a messy game where a few insights hide in a forest of marginal or even useless ideas. Experts could in many cases have elegantly dismissed these naïve or erroneous out of hand through their a priori knowledge, but it does not matter in the end because the sheer volume engendered by self-interested people will always trump the expertise held by a few . There is a legitimate role for experts, but it involves coaching patients into investigating some areas rather than ours and structuring the aggregation of both data and algorithms at the larger population level, not claiming a monopoly in generating those insights as the current Big Data approach suggests.
MIT, let the Big Data bird out of its expert cage.
Living outside France allows me to return to my country of birth with a foreigner’s sensitivity to quaint language developments there. The French proclivity for multisyllabic concepts is unmatched. If you can think of a concept, there’s a French word for it.
One of my favorites is primo-accédant, which refers to people who buy real estate property for the first time (not necessarily primo real estate, I might add). How many other languages have coined a term for such a person? French people also have a word for people who have multiple banking relationships, yielding the pentasyllabic multi-bancarisé. Multi-bancarisé is opposed to mono-bancarisé when they have only one bank. As for sex, however, it turns out the French prefer multiple relationships, yielding a sizable segment of primo-accédants multibancarisés for whose attention bankers fight. I am told from admittedly less than reliable sources that the new French President François Hollande was heard warming up for his victory speech at La Bastille by repeating primo-accédant multibancarisé a hundred times at fast pace .
“Why would one do simple when one can do complicated”, was the wisdom offered by an old French TV cartoon called Les Shadoks. This exemplifies French people’s approach to language. A problem used to be un problème, but has now migrated to une problématique, with sounds like a much larger headache (moving from a masculine to a feminine also appropriately connotes of greater complexity). It was appropriately used by the hotel maintenance staff at my Paris hotel this week to describe a leaky toilet in my room (la problématique de la chasse d’eau). Things also used to last (elles durent), but they now hyper-last (elles perdurent), which, best I can see, is the new watered-down definition of eternity given the increased secularism of France. Any kind of work-related injury used to be commonly referred to as un accident du travail (a work accident), but employers are now invited to prevent troubles musculo-squelettiques. As a modest French employer, I have spent many sleepless nights imagining employee body parts flying all over the hexagone and being held responsible for such human implosion.
The political language of the French presidential campaign has also co-created its share of new words, most of them quite divisive. Islamophobie, while elegantly polysyllabic, refers to the sad reality of immigration-related tension and the racist feelings it engenders. I even heard an interview on television where a young woman referred to herself as an anti-islamophobe (that’s seven syllables if you’re counting), which, she explained, is a lot stronger than being an islamophile. The presidential candidates have spent a lot of time trying to diaboliser their opponents (paint the other guy into a devil), while taxing the other one of angélisme, the art of attributing angel-like feelings to people who should clearly be diabolisés instead. There is a trend toward the désacralisation of everything (literally take the sacramental portion out things), most notably marriage, paying taxes and les institutions.
The French are also world-class when it comes to metaphoric expressions. When they mean to convey “let’s not worry about that”, hip French people like to say “on ne va pas se mettre la rate au court-bouillon”, which literally translated means something like “let us not make spleen soup out of it”. In case you wondered about ingredients in cuisine nouvelle. Another popular expression to convey “it’s not even close” is “y’a pas photo”, literally “there is no need for a photo-finish on this one”. This one appears to have originated with horse racing, and the celebrated tiercé et quarté du dimanche. French people used to eat horses in boucheries chevalines, but the trend is clearly toward less eating and more betting. Some uncharitable commentators have referred to the new French President François Hollande as “il n’a pas fait l’école du rire” (literally, “he did not graduate from laughing school”), because of his serious demeanor. I can’t wait for the slap fest at the next sommet franco-allemand with Angela Merkel. given her own barrel of laugh approach to things.
While I increasingly need an interpreter to decipher those new expressions, a few concepts have remained reassuringly the same (ils ont perduré, as it were). The dame pipi, still available at most French railroad stations in Paris, is still à son poste, collecting coins before letting you faire vos besoins (attend to your needs, or do your business). For good measure, the French have added some automation equipment (the French are big on infrastructure, particularly when it comes to bathrooms and fast trains), such that you now not only have to produce at least 50 centimes d’euro (or risk the wrath of madame pipi in a surprisingly polyglot tirade), but also have to jump turnstiles with suitcases, encouraged by a crowd of lookers-on inspired by the popular TV game show Fort Boyard. Engineers at the French railroad organization SNCF were clearly never told that train travelers use suitcases, in full illustration of the motto of the French elite engineering school Polytechnique which stipulates: we know some things works in practice, but do they work in theory?
Of course my timing is particularly bad here. The French are at a serious juncture in their political history, having just elected François Hollande to become Président de la République Française, and here I am, participating already in his désacralisation and his diabolisation. Cher Monsieur le Président, I present you with my best wishes in addressing la problématique of France, such that my former country can perdurer, with a special thought for the primo-accédants, whether of the monobancarisé or the multibancarisé variety, and whether they are prone to troubles musculo-squelettiques or not. Vive la République. Vive la France.