After I had been in Paris for about 6 months, I started listening carefully to how my friend, Barbara, addressed everyone. Her friends, the shopkeeper, the man on the street for directions. She always said to people she didn’t know “Bonjour, je suis désolée de vous déranger….”. I figured out that she was saying “Good morning, I’m so sorry to disturb you but…….” Barbara has excellent manners so I decided just to copy her.
Then one day, I was looking for a bus and felt completely lost. The wrong bus came along and stopped in front of me, As the doors opened, I leaned inside and asked the driver if he knew where #37 was. He looked at me slowly, then said “Bon…Jour Ma..dame” long and drawn out. I knew immediately I’d made a curtesy mistake, a big one. I apologised and started over again. I said “Bonjour, that I had juste une petite question..” and could he help me find my bus. He gave me directions without blinking an eye or giving a smile. I was just doing what I should have done in the first place. I felt about two inches high. The last time I was scolded like that, I was probably twelve years old. I’ll say one thing, once it’s happened to you, you never forget to say “Bonjour” again. It doesn’t matter who it is. It’s la politesse. I always say “Bonjour Madame or Monsieur”. When leaving, I always say ‘Au Revoir’ and ‘Bonne Journée’. Even if someone stepped in the elevator and you rode only three floors with them.
Most of us ride by public transportation. We spend a fair amount of time out on the street or in public places. One can always tell if there is an American new to the country near by. Their voice is at least three decibals louder than anyone else’s. After awhile, I find myself hoping I look french when I hear Americans talking so loudly and not caring whose space they are invading. French, in general, speak quite softly. They text all their messages. They are constantly with their phones as is most everyone but the French do it more quietly. It was strange to me when I first arrived that so few people used their phones as phones. Then I figured it out–the noise factor.
Yesterday, I was shopping at Picard ( best frozen food store in the world. Another blog!!) A woman speaking Spanish spent her entire time at the store on the phone, walking around, talking very loudly. Everyone was looking at her. It wasn’t a mean look, it was a look to say “You might consider speaking softer.” When she got to the cash register, the fellow taking her money was so kind. He tried to speak Spanish with her. She just glared at him. He asked if she spoke English, she nodded her head. Then he told her how much she owed in Spanish. She looked at him like she had no idea what he was saying. Here he was, a young french boy, trying to make this woman less wrong by joining in on her language but she wasn’t having any of it. I felt bad for him. She left without a goodbye, a thank you or any indication that he had been helpful. So it’s not just Americans.
I have two friends, both named Sylvie, who I meet with each once a week to practice my conversational french. When I was confirming a date with Sylvie #1, I started my text by saying “Salut, Sylvie.” When I arrived at her home two days later, the first thing she said to me was one never, ever, ever uses ‘Salut’ in writing. “We, the french, only use it if you see a friend on the street and wave Hi/Salut!”. Well yes and no. Sylvie is my age, old school, and it probably was a strict rule at one time. My younger french friends say people do use it among close friends in writing. However, I hate breaking these rules of politesse especially when I’m not even sure I know many of them. So to be on the safe side, I’m sticking to Bonjour or Bonsoir.
La Politesse is no small thing. Children are taught it from a very young age. If children seem ‘bien élevé’ (well brought up) when you see them out on the street or on the metro, that is why. There are rules. If you as the visitor or the Ex-Pat living here or the tourist passing through, respect these rules you will find the French very easy to get along with. However, if you just blunder your way around in English not attempting to be polite, you will find yourself getting some strange looks. It would be easy to misinterpret those looks as the French looking down their noses at you. In fact, they will just be wondering why you are not ‘bien élevé”!
While I was finishing up this blog, my friend Janet Hulstrand, sent me a copy of her brand new book: Demystifying the French: How to Love Them and Make Them Love you. It is an extension of everything I’ve written here. I will be interviewing her and putting it in my next blog.