Psychorigidité, or Is it rigidity or is it culture?


Psychorigidité is a French word that gets thrown around a lot in our house.  There is not a good English translation of it.  Still, the two word parts psycho and rigide, along with the fact that my French boys apply this label to their German father, should tip you off as to its meaning:Psychorigidité is some combination of “mentally rigid” and “obsessive,” and, as you probably know, it is a cliché that is indeed often directed at Germans.  The fact that I know a lot of Germans who I would call more hysterical than obsessive, and so did Freud, seems not to have counteracted the use of this cliché.

My mother enjoys the word psychorigidité. Instead of having to defend her wildly narrow range of behavioral choices (such as the fact that she can only travel to Europe in October, can only plant her vegitable garden on the Memorial Day weekend, and will only serve one kind of salad vinaigrette on a salad), since acquiring this word, she gleefully explains herself by calling herself psychorigide. This sounds better than saying that she is “stuck in her ways.”  It gives some legitimacy to her behavior.  It sounds exotic and potentially interesting rather than pathological.

What I have noticed, though, is that it is easy to call other people or nations psychorigide when you or your nation get to define the behaviors that indicate psychorigidié.  That is, it's is a barrel of laughs to call someone psychorigide when you get to say which types of behaviors should be flexible and which ones are not even open for discussion.  For instance, take many aspects of the French educational curriculum.  Take the time of the day when you drink coffee, when you eat a snack, and what you eat for that snack.  Take the ways in which you celebrate a wedding, Christmas, or someone’s name day.  Take the retirement system!  (Actually, please take the whole retirement problem away by dealing with it without calling those dealings "reforms").  From the perspective of someone outside of France, all of these things should be open to interpretation, variation, and evolution.  And if they “have to remain the same?”  Now, that is the sine qua non of psychorigiditéNon?

Why should being on time to an appointment or adhering to an agreed upon process for hiring an employee or expecting students to be quiet while you lecture all be signs of psychorigidité?  Why those domains of behaviors when the behaviors I just listed above do not count at all?  That isn’t fair, is it? What if one objects that the above-listed behaviors are part of culture, and preserving them means preserving French culture?  Well, what if my culture is all about being on time, following traffic rules, and listening without talking during a university lecture.  If they all count as culture, and we all want to preserve our cultures, then is nobody actually psychorigide

Or are we all psychorigide?