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La Politesse Française

It’s funny how the French think Americans are rude and the Americans think the French are rude. You know the complaints – you’ve heard them so many times before:

“The French simply refuse to speak English with you!”

“The Americans just ‘bark’ at you and don’t say ‘bonjour’ or ‘s’il vous plaît’ or even ‘merci.’”

That’s called “culture clash” or should we say “culture crash?”

I’ve personally witnessed the CRASH dozens of times. As we navigate the streets of Paris in a culturally foreign world, it’s easy not to realize that while we may resemble one another physically, our cultural upbringings make us very, very different.

26-10-11etiquetteAn article recently appeared in The Toronto Globe and Mail titled My daughters learned good manners in France  (My daughters learned good manners in France) that sparked my interest. While this author was pleased her daughters had been taught French “politesse,” my pleasure is to have been personally taught how to better behave, even at this ‘ripe old age.’

Anyone who has attended a public event in France surely notices how ‘well behaved’ the crowds are. If you’ve ever ridden a public bus or Métro, then you know how incredibly quiet and reserved are the passengers. When strangers meet in confined places, such as an elevator or a hallway, they are sure to acknowledge one another and say “bonjour.” The slightest touch of another person surely leads to “pardonnez-moi” and always, always, always, upon entering or leaving an establishment, there is an exchange that involves “bonjour,” “merci” and “au revoir.”

This is basic French “politesse” – the kind that not only did her daughters learn, but we adults have learned, too…sometimes from the children. When my daughter was young and her friends would come to the apartment to play together, each would enter and make a point to come over to kiss me on each cheek and say “bonjour Madame.” It was so sweet, even tough I didn’t want to take the time for such formal manners (that’s the American in me talking).

The author of the article addresses the French reputation for being rude and snobbish – but even this author is not reading the cultural differences correctly. For those who think the ‘French refuse to speak English’ and think that’s ‘rude or snobbish,’ think again. Let’s start with why we think they SHOULD speak English in a country where French is the native language? And let’s ask ourselves why, if they do know some English, they won’t try to speak it with us?

If you have ever understood the French educational system, then you would know that doing anything less than perfect is frowned upon and ridiculed, so imagine baring your weakness speaking a language correctly to a perfect stranger? It would be too humiliating!

booksThere have been dozens of books written about this subject and I can recommend some of them for your reading and learning pleasure, but let me suggest just a few things that you can do to change your own “politesse” no matter where you are in the world and watch it change the way others react to you:

1.  Upon entering an establishment or greeting a sales person, gently ‘sing’ “Bonjour!” (Pretend you’re Julia Child and make it sound a bit operatic, with an uplift on the “jour!”)

2.  Upon leaving an establishment, gently ‘sing’ “Merci, au revoir!” (Pretend you’ve purchased something or used its services, even if you haven’t, and make sure everyone hears it so there is no question you were “Bien élevé.”)

26-10-11frenchorfoe3.  When entering a café, don’t just take a seat wherever you want, but do ask permission to take the seat of your choice. You have no idea how much this simple gesture to show respect for the patrons will change your life…and the good service you are sure to receive!

4.  Lower your voice…no matter where you are. American voices have a quality that can pierce any roar. It’s not our fault, really. It’s amazing that our culture, which teaches us to “speak up,” actually created vocal chords that rival even the best of megaphones. The French taught their children to do just the opposite, as ‘speaking up’ is rude and insolent! I’ve gotten so accustomed to their soft and modulated tones, that anything that breaks the mood is horrifically offensive. (Uh oh, perhaps I’m becoming snobby like the French?)

5.  Smile, but only at the right times! Americans have a permanent smile on their faces from being taught to smile from an early age, so you can spot them walking down the streets of Paris looking positively euphoric. It’s charming and friendly, but a dead giveaway that the person is American and the French don’t know what to make of it. Smiling at the wrong times may seem like a mockery of them, or make one look like a bit of an idiot as it’s not taken seriously. If your face is in a perpetual UP movement, then it can be pretty tough to look neutral or in their case, sometimes dour. Just practice speaking French and notice how your mouth will go forward instead of back as with English – and you’ll see that this downward facial expression comes quite naturally to the French and has nothing to do with how they are feeling inside!

Some books to read for more great tips? Polly Platt’s are my favorites (may she rest in peace) and for a serious insight to cultural differences, be sure to read Au Contraire! Figuring Out the French by Gilles Asselin and Ruth Mastron. All of these and much more recommended reading are on our site at Books about France

A la prochaine…

adrian corsica-2Adrian Leeds
Editor, Parler Paris

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P.S. I have no hopes of seeing our latest House Hunters International program to be aired in the U.S. this coming October 28th unless one of you technically savvy folks can record it and send it to me! Visit House Hunters International for the exact times. Many thanks!

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