Sunday, June 15, 2008

French etiquette lesson #1

Some rules can be bent (a little, perhaps), but others are so inflexible that one dare not even contemplate a breach. We’ve all heard stories that cast the French into the negative stereotypes of rudeness and aloofness. In many instances the judgment might be deserved, but more often than not the French are just playing defense against an unintended rudeness on the part of Americans who just don’t know the drill.
Well, I’m going to lay it out for you. Just as you would not consider leaving for the airport without your passport, you must not enter the city of Paris without observing the following protocol. Ever.
First of all, you are in a foreign country, so expect things to be a little foreign. You must play by the rules of the host country, and it is your duty to cover the basics. So here we go.
Every time you enter a shop, restaurant, café, museum – whatever – in which you encounter an employee, you must start by saying hello.
Bonjour, mademoiselle – or – Bonjour, monsieur.
It is never possible to skip this step; otherwise you are the one who will be considered rude beyond imagination. Believe me, omitting the “hello” stage of any encounter with a Frenchman will result in your being ignored, at best, but more likely you will be further punished for your initial rudeness. This “saying hello” custom is chiseled in stone all over France, and woe be unto anyone who dares do otherwise. At home, we might waltz up to the checkout counter at Target and say nothing at all to the sales clerk. Nor might they say anything to us until it’s time to announce the total amount of our purchases. Not so in France.
But wait, there’s more. You had to talk your way into this personal exchange, so now you have to talk your way out of it. It is seriously rude to leave any place of business without saying good-bye.
Au revoir, mademoiselle – or – Au revoir, monsieur.
It’s so easy.

Still, there are some cases in which it can get tricky. You may address an older woman as madame, instead of mademoiselle, but for middle aged women, where is the cutoff between mademoiselle and madame? I always choose to err on the side of youth (flattery never hurt anyone) and go with mademoiselle for anyone who looks under 60. Sometimes this results in a wry smile from an older woman, but that’s a far better state of affairs than insulting a youngish woman by calling her an old lady. If you get my drift.
For most tourists, this is all of the French language you need utter. By following the above rules and establishing that you are not a rude, uninformed American, you’re off on the right foot. Generally, the French want your business (along with the contents of your storied fat wallet), and they will carry on the rest of the exchange in English. After they have relieved you of several dozen Euros or placed a few charming friction burns on your credit card, the path will remain rosy so long as you remember to say good-bye.

Trust me when I say that the French do not want to hear the way you murder their language. They don’t even want to hear people who are native French speakers, but do not hail from Paris, insult their sensibilities with some crude accent or idiom from southwest France. Residents of Paris are allowed a certain degree of haughtiness over other Frenchmen, and everyone lets them get away with it. After all, Paris is the center of the universe that is France. In spades.
They are aware that it is you, the tourist, who has chosen to fly across an ocean to eat French food, drink French wine and admire Parisian women, who take a back seat to no one. Parisian women carry themselves with a natural poise and confidence that are awesome to observe, and they never leave the confines of their apartments without taking time to present themselves to the public as if they were just about to shoot the most important closeup of their entire career. Even if they’re just out walking the dog. No kidding.
I will take time to elaborate. I have traveled to Paris with Americans who are French teachers back home. They are aware of the “hello – good-bye” rule. They then continue a verbal exchange in French, speaking the right words, without errors in grammar. Yet I can feel the icicles in the air on the part of the Frenchman, whose eyebrows are pointing due north by this time. The affront on their ears is unbearable! The shopkeeper (waiter, ticket-seller, whatever) responds in English, signaling an end to the use of French. My American friend is incredulous, fully aware that she is speaking correctly, and continues on in French. By this time, it is too late to salvage anything. The American who does not take the hint and admit defeat might as well forget any possibility of success. Again, I’m not kidding.
This is the best advice anyone can give you prior to a trip to Paris. So let’s recap:

1. Say hello in French.
2. Then (in slow, clear English) apologize for not speaking French (I am sorry, I speak only English); then make your request (in slow, clear English). Note: do not ask if they speak English; instead, state that you do not speak French. Trust me on this one.
3. Find a way to flatter and/or thank the Frenchman profusely (You have been very helpful. Thank you so much!)
4. Say good-bye in French.

Both you and the waiter/shopkeeper will end your exchange with smiles on your faces.
Even so, I need to elaborate a bit, because this is a world full of nuance (a great French word, by the way!). Bear in mind that it is hard for Parisian merchants to admit they are wrong, and seemingly impossible for them to apologize. This is just the way things are in Paris, and it is not the fault of the shopkeeper that this is their tradition. Instead, the trick is to be fawning to the shopkeeper by insisting that the mistake or misunderstanding is all your fault, even when both of you know that the exact opposite is true. It's the only path to success or resolution.
Also, bear in mind that the compensation system for bartenders and waiters does not resemble our stateside setup. Waiters are salaried employees who do not work for tips. The concept of busboys does not exist in Paris, and restaurants and bars are notoriously understaffed. It is not uncommon for a busy bar to be manned by a single employee or for there to be a sole waiter in a busy café.
If you would dare have the cheek to suggest to a Frenchman that the customer should be king, a likely response would be that in France, they no longer have kings. So there.

Another example. I was once walking solo through a residential area of western Paris, out of the range of tourists. I could not find a subway station. There was a tobacconist on the corner (a sort of tiny, cramped neighborhood convenience store). I walked in with no intention of buying anything; I just wanted to know where the nearest metro stop was located. I said hello (in French, of course), then went on to flatter the hell out of the shopkeeper, a man of a certain age. I spoke in slow, clear English, saying that the neighborhood was so interesting and beautiful that I had become lost, and that I wondered if he could show me on my map the nearest metro station. Well, the guy came out from behind the counter and led me out of his shop by the elbow and walked me all the way to the metro stop! He said, “Enjoy your visit” (in English) and smiled as he waved me off (after we both said good-bye in French, of course). I could scarcely believe it, but I swear it’s true. I realized then and there that the French are starved for flattery, and I have used this kernel of knowledge to great benefit ever since.
And so can you.


Anonymous said...

Terry, your "Bonjour, monsieur... au revoir, madame" rule is excellent. I applied it conscientiously and found the French to be charming — from the driver of the Orlybus to whom, upon arriving in Paris, I gave a 50 euro bill for my ticket, to the customs ladies who stamped our tax-free shopping forms upon departure.

I have to disagree, however, with your statement that "the French are starved for flattery", although I realize it was probably made a bit tongue-in-cheek.

I am a native speaker of Spanish, educated in the British Schools of Montevideo and my French is rusty from not being used since college (Wellesley, '76). My cultural background is probably different from that of most of your readers. But I found the French to be courteous and patient with my questions and I had lots of fun talking with them in French.

Years ago I boarded an elevator in New York and absent-mindedly said "Good morning". Half the people didn't even appear to hear me, the other half looked at me as if I needed a psychiatrist. Does that allow me to say that Americans are rude or that they have a superiority complex? I think not. We're just different.

It seems to me that the people with whom I chit-chatted in my shameful French (museum attendants, cashiers at the supermarket, etc.) were simply acknowledging, with their "Bonjour... au revoir" routine that they had before them — well,... a person. I like that.

BG said...

This is a wonderful blog, and —like the Wellesley grad from Montevideo— I strongly agree with Terry's advice about the importance of Bonjour / Au Revoir when entering and leaving any French establishment.

I disagree, however, as does Wellesley Montevideo, about Parisians impatience with foreign French —at least in my case— and regarding the reason cited by Terry for a French person speaking English. These days, many French people simply enjoy practicing or showing off their English skills with a native speaker. It has not always been so.

Meanwhile, if your command of French is sufficient, the local folks —even if they speak English— will be more than happy to speak with you in the local language.

Terry said...

I thank both my readers for their comments, but I stick by my original observations from personal experience. I have traveled to Paris frequently for forty years, and to this day waiters answer our correct, if imperfectly pronounced French with English. The only exceptions are when I am dining with friends for whom French is their native tongue. It is from my French friends that I received the explanation that the French are often offended by how Americans, in particular, murder their language. By speaking in English, they are able to put an end to the affront on their language.

Anonymous said...

Hi! I'm French, and as for the "Bonjour mademoiselle/madame", it is not quite what you defined. We address someone 'Madame' if she's married, 'Mademoiselle' if she isn't. When you don't know the matrimonial situation of a woman: if she appears to be below 30 you can say 'mademoiselle', if she's older, then go for 'Madame', you'll be corrected if you did not have the right guess, but that's not very important.
Concerning the way French people behave when English-speaking people speak to them in French,I just want you to try and imagine a waiter in a Cafe of the most visited and touristy town of the world being endlessly challenged to speak with tourists in French. Those usually don't speak a word of French or at least not enough to make a conversation: you have to listen carefully, smile when it's not really good, and the tourists are boasting that they speak French. In France, unless you are very good at it, nobody states out of the blue that they speak a foreign language.
As for the French starved for flattery (I know I am partial since it is my country), it is not quite that. French people pay a lot of attention to protocol and manners. Just like the 'Bonjour rule', we have loads of rules to address someone, to eat at a table, to serve drinks to people, to enter any building etc... It is quite unnerving that Western countries have lost lots of them, and the usual alien when being in France is quite impolite and ill-mannered. So it is always delightful when an alien is polite. The shopkeeper was probably delighted that you were trying to be nice and polite. But usually, French people are very cautious with shopkeepers: we don't have this rule that the customer is king. People working in Cafes, boutiques... are thought to work as well as others, why would we make a distinction between them and other employees? The conduct to take is the following: when you enter a shop, think of it as the shopkeeper's kingdom: he's the King, you have to abide to his rules, but if anything goes wrong, or you have any queries, he will be the one responsible.

flaneur said...

Oh, what a wonderful thing if this is reality! It's not that I doubt you as such. It just seems to good to be true. I think knowing some basic French words or phrases is a good idea just in case it is needed, but how nice to go to Paris or elswhere in France without having to undertake a study of French. I love Paris, and am happy to learn a bit, but hate to look forward to spending a lot of time on French. I think, though, that the few things you do learn, you should attmept to pronounce them decently. Thanks. You have given me hope.