by Jean Bernard Talon
In respect of the French national holiday Bastille Day, which celebrates the victory over tyranny during the French Revolution, it may be interesting to look at some of the ‘politesse’ of modern France.
We all have anecdotes about rude taxi drivers, impatient waiters or disinterested hotel staff when we return from the Hexagon (that’s what the French call France), but it is home to some enviable daily courtesies that it seems the rest of us are too busy for or, perhaps, have simply forgotten.
The French still respect and observe what they refer to as an education. It has no class boundaries and is not taught formally. It is as important as a proper lunch with a good glass of wine.
I will not try to explain the complexities of French etiquette but, rather, give examples of what was once normal for the Anglophone, and now – dare we say - seems close to extinction:
- Hello/Bonjour: when entering the lift, a shop, a restaurant, pub or bar, and in an office or place of business.
- Goodbye/Au revoir: when exiting any of the above.
* (Please note there are small variations to greetings, which shall be explored at a future date)
- Please/S’il vous-plait or S’il te plait: every time you ask for something. This may seem basic, but all of us forget sometimes . . . quelle horreur!.
- Merci/Thank you: when you receive something.
- You’re welcome/Je vous en prie, or Je t’en prie: in response to thanks.
(* Again, please note, there is a distinction between vous and tu - another area for later exploration, when we discuss travel)
- Hold the door for anyone following you. In some circumstances, you may want to hold the door open for a madame who is older so that she can enter before you.
- It’s absolutely normal (in fact, expected) to let an older person, pregnant lady, or anyone with disabilities ahead in a queue/fil d’attente.
- On public transport, give up your seat to an older person, anyone with a disability or a pregnant lady. No question.
- The fold-down seats on the métro are not for use when the carriage is full. Instead, these seats are provided as a convenience if the car is only half full.
Also, conversation should be kept low. (Personal anecdote: I always had to remind friends from a certain part of the Americas to bring the volume down and use their indoors voice. No one should be trying to out-decibel another in the métro)
- Say Sorry/Excusez moi/Pardon: whether it’s a stepped-on toe, a misunderstood phrase, or being late (more than ten minutes in France), it never hurts to say you’re sorry.
In France, because politeness is regarded as education, correcting others is not regarded as rude.
Another personal anecdote to end on: Dashing for a train at the Gare de Lyon, I accidentally rolled over the foot of a man with my suitcase. I quickly said “sorry” and then continued. The gentleman followed me and reprimanded me for not apologising. I stopped, turned and said: “Monsieur, I had just now said I was sorry,” and that he obviously had not heard me. He looked at me approvingly and said, “I’m sorry.” We both smiled and continued on our respective journeys.
As much as some things get lost in translation, others are universal. And, although most of these examples do not seem to apply exclusively to French decorum, the difference is that the French practise them daily.
Avec mes meilleurs salutations (my best salutations),
Jean B Talon
* Jean Bernard Talon is a gentleman who hails from the Americas. He has lived in Paris on/off for the past six years, and is a self-labeled Francophile.