28 March 2012

Key words needed to enjoy life in France

Necessary French vocabulary: bonjour, au revoir, s'il vous plaît, merci, non merci, de rien and je vous en prie, pardon and excusez-moi, and the Magic Formula

You're moving to France (or have already) and want to fit in, enjoy the experience, eventually feel at home.  Well, surprise, you can expect to have to change your behavior.  Not that what we Americans think of as polite behavior is wrong, it's just that polite behavior (or what some call the social codes) is a bit different and very important in France.  One of the worst insults in France is to say someone is mal élevé (ill-mannered, literally "badly reared") and you'd prefer that no one ever thinks that of you!

This post is about a few words you'll use every day to interact with people and attempts to explain the circumstances in which you use them.  This is part of what being bien élevé is about.

The French are more formal than Americans.  The rules of good behavior have been worked out over centuries and well-behaved, polite French learn them at their mother's breast.  When you don't observe them, the French notice.  Fortunately for us Americans, most French are quite forgiving of foreigners, but they still wince internally.  If you're not regularly using these words in France, you still have a ways to go.  Frankly, there's no reason not to know and use these words.  It's a short list and the French will appreciate the effort.  Work on the pronunciation a bit and the French will love you for it.

A short digression:  Americans are "low-context", the French are "high-context".  Explicit vs. implicit.  The Americans worry about misunderstandings; the French worry about demeaning someone by explaining what they already know.  You can tell I'm obviously an American by how I explain below when to say bonjour:  I spell it out in detail as a set of rules.  How American!  The French would never think to do that.  How insulting and how  boring!  Moreover, they don't need or want something explained so explicitly as an American would.  A good friend back in Houston is French and a technical translator, converting American how-to manuals into French.  He complains that American manuals are far too precise in describing how to do something, that every technician in France knows which way to turn a bolt.  Explicit vs. implicit.

Words that are vital to enjoying life with the French
  • Bonjour (hello, literally "good day")
One of the words you'll use the most.  Not saying it on first meeting someone each day is very rude!  Here's what I worked out is the common practice on when to say bonjour in my part of France.

First Rule: you say bonjour to someone the first time you meet them during the day, but not the second time.  So, you need to develop the habit of remembering who you've said bonjour to that day.  You can say rebonjour tif you meet for the second time in a day to let them know you know you've already said bonjour that day, but it's not necessary.

Second Rule: You greet everybody in a room you've just entered.  Personally.  Regardless of how many.  Around the room you go!  And every time a new person enters the room, they'll observe the same ritual.  Don't get frustrated at the time this takes - for the French, human contact is a higher priority than efficient time management à l'américaine (in the American style).

Clarification of Second Rule: In a shop or eating place you only address directly the person behind the counter or the people you meet from the staff.  You may say a general hello to everyone else, particularly if it's small.  Not saying bonjour (and au revoir on leaving) is a serious offense and may produce bad service or get you hounded out of the shop.  If you want a good baguette, be sure to say bonjour to whoever you deal with at the boulangerie (bakery).

Third rule: It gets more complicated.  You're faced with deciding whether and what kind of flesh-to-flesh contact goes with bonjour.  Normally, contact is part of the ritual; however, if the person is behind a counter, is a waiter or shop attendant, no contact is required, unless you already know each other.

If you're meeting a person:
You're a man -
He's a man: you shake his hand.  Note that handshaking is not an Olympic event in France - no bone-crushing grips allowed, and don't be surprised if it's limp or you only get the tip of the fingers to shake or maybe an elbow.
She's a woman: it's her call.  If she extends her hand, you shake it.  If she offers a cheek, you exchange bises;  If she doesn't do anything, you have to quickly make a decision.  If you don't know her well, you offer your hand (if she hasn't already). If you know her well, you give each other bises  See the video on how to give a bise.  Around here it's two bises, one on each cheek.  Other parts of France have a different number of bises. Watch what the locals do.

You're a woman -
He's a man:  it's your call.  You can extend a hand to be shaken or offer a cheek to receive a bise.

She's a woman: if she's clearly older, it's her call.  If she's about your age, you and she quickly decide how close you are and either do the hand thing or the cheek thing.  If she's clearly younger, it's your call.

Clarification of Third Rule: The younger you are, the more often it's a bise rather than a handshake.
Another clarification of the Third Rule:  Be polite and don't force it.  If the other person lets you know that contact is not welcome, let it go.
Further clarification of the Third Rule:  Social rank must play a role in this and I have no idea how that works.  I suspect that if he's a duke or she's a countess, there are other rules.

Fourth rule:  The more formal the situation, the more important is to add monsieur or madame or other title to bonjour.  When you walk into a neighborhood bakery, a simple bonjour to the person behind the counter is enough.  When you meet monsieur le maire where you live, especially for the first time, you say bonjour, monsieur.  When you meet the local curé (priest), you say bonjour, mon père (good day, my father [not that's he's your father - père is his title and mon père is the formal form]).

General observation: The French aren't big on hugging.  It does exist and both men and women do it both to men and women, but less often than in the US and usually to express strong emotion: refinding someone you know after a long separation, meeting someone who's suffering greatly, at a wedding or a funeral, etc.
  • Au revoir (good-bye, literally "till we see each other again")  
Obviously said on parting.  It's good form to say au revoir to those you said bonjour to; however, the French around here are not compulsive about it.  Do make it a point to always say au revoir to the person behind the shop counter and to the host and/or hostess of an event in someone's home, especially if you think you might return (it's all about relationships in France).  Note that there are a lot of variations, like à bientôt, à tout de suite, à demain and so on.  A simple au revoir is sufficient if you're not up to more.
  • S'il vous plaît (please, literally "if it pleases you")
Used much like "please" in the US, both when asking for something and to say "yes" when offered something.

By the way, this is what you say in a restaurant to get the attention of the serveur (waiter).  You do NOT say garçon (boy).  They aren't boys (or girls), they are professionals.  Many have been to special schools, they earn a decent wage and have real benefits, many will work in the same restaurant for years - don't be surprised when you go back in a few months and find the same waiter, who may well recognize you and shake your hand.  After all, for many it's a career and not a temporary job till something better comes along.  You want good service?  Then treat them as the professionals they are.
  • Merci (thank you, literally "recognize the gift or grace you've received")
Saying Merci is important, a sign of good manners.  There are numerous variations, like merci beaucoup and merci infiniment.
  •  Non merci (no, thank you (literally "I turn down the gift")
Used to politely turn down something you've been offered.

There are times when saying non, merci is NOT good manners.  Most commonly, it's when invited to a meal chez quelqu'un (in someone's home) the first time or two.  A French meal is a more formal occasion than in the US, almost ceremonial.  Therefore, you eat everything you're served (the cheese course and the coffee after the meal are optional).  Even if you don't like it.  Even if you've never heard of it.  Here's where you show your good upbringing.  And don't make a fuss about it - be cool, show how sophisticated you are.

French cooks are proud of what they prepare.  Time, thought, effort and passion are invested in their cooking.  If you want to make points, ask for seconds or accept them, because they will be offered.  Even if you're full.

If you have a serious allergy problem, say gluten intolerance, or are a vegetarian, good manners require that you notify the host and hostess when invited or at the latest several days BEFORE you arrive.  Preparing a meal for company is serious business in France and your hosts need time to plan the meal, choose the wine, buy the provisions, prepare the meal.  Calling the day before is not good enough.
  • Je vous en prie and de rien (you're welcome, literally "I beg of you" and "it was nothing")
Used much like "you're welcome" in the US.  The first is more formal, the second less.  You're more likely to hear and use je vous en prie out in public and with people you aren't close to.  De rien is casual and used more with friends and family.
  • Pardon and excusez-moi (excuse me, literally "pardon me" and "excuse me")
Used much like "excuse me" in the US, both when you've committed some kind of blunder (you've dropped something, sneezed or stepped on somebody's foot) or when you want to get the attention of someone (say, a person who's blocking a passageway).

The Magic Formula

The Magic Formula is a formidable tool you want to be able to wield with confidence when you need help.  And believe me that if you're new to France you'll often need help.  Memorize It and practice it till it rolls off your tongue with confidence.

The French are complex people emotionally and their upbringing often produces an insecurity they tend to hide well.  What this means to you is that showing respect is VITAL!  And that starts with saying Bonjour.  Skip that and it's downhill from there.

How do you show respect after bonjour when you need help?  I'm going to suggest the Magic Formula that I learned from Polly Pratt, author of perhaps the best books on how to succeed when moving to France (French or Foe? and Savoir-Flair).  The phrase:
  • Excusez-moi de vous déranger, mais j'ai un problème. (Excuse me for bothering you, but I have a problem.)
You begin by apologizing and then you say you're stuck.  Implicitly, you 're imploring their help - you've thrown yourself on their mercy and admitted they are more capable, more the master of the situation than you are.  The French love to solve problems, your accent tells them you're a poor befuddled foreigner who recognizes their in-born superiority, and they tend to find the appeal irresistible.

Why is this so?  Fais gaffe (be careful): the following are my thoughts on the subject.  I think we touch here on a profound difference between the French and Americans.  Equality expresses itself differently in the US than in France.  We really feel everyone's equal and have from the very beginning, starting with the Declaration of Independence: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal...", restated in the adage "Everyone puts on his pants one leg at a time."  (The racial history of the US shows that we haven't always lived up to this ideal, but the conviction that we must attain the ideal permeates the society and the law, as many companies, large and small, have learned the hard way.)  Class differences exist, but they're not so evident.  Most of us have never believed in the struggle between the classes, the US has never had inherited titles, etc.  Since I don't have a master, I prefer to see myself as the master of my fate and able to take care of myself.   France also believes everyone is equal.  After all, the country's motto is Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité (Liberty, Equality, Brotherhood).  But this ideal translates into equality before the law.  In pracitce, it's complicated by a long history in which relationships were often vertical, rather than horizontal:  feudal lord and vassal, noble and commoner, bishop and parishioner, guild master and apprentice, and so on.  The lord had the authority and power and also the obligation to look after his subjects, and they could, in principle, turn to him for succor.  This system continues today in France: President and citizens, mayor and townspeople, boss and subordinates, the elite and everyone else.  The old system has evolved, but it's still the same and the French are quite comfortable with it.  When the fishermen discover they can no longer make a decent living because the price of fuel has gone through the roof, they demand that the President of France deal with it, and, amazingly enough for an American, he recognizes it's his responsibility and gets involved.  Consequently, when the problem exceeds a Frenchman's ability to solve it, he naturally turns to his superior for help.  To wrap up this digression, I suspect the Magic Formula recreates in miniature the vertical relationship that implores the superior to come to the aid of his subordinate.  Powerful stuff for a Frenchman.

Variations in the wording also work: Excusez-moi de vous déranger, mais j'ai besoin de votre aide. (Excuse me for bothering you, but I need your help) or even Excusez-moi de vous déranger, mais j'ai besoin de votre aide, j'ai un problème.

For whatever reason, the Magic Formula works.  First, bonjour and then the statement that you need their help with a prblem.


  1. Hello, Harvey,

    This is a very astute analysis of a complex reality. Thanks!

    I'm in Paris, a fellow Texan, and a long-time resident of France. For about ten years, I've been assisting other Americans overseas register and vote in American elections. Last year we created a non-partisan non-profit association — the Union of Overseas Voters — to bring this work to another level.

    We'd be delighted if you could help get the word out in any way possible, because now is the time for Americans overseas to register and request their absentee ballots for the General Elections on November 6, 2012.

    We can be reached at info@UnionOfOverseasVoters.org and found on the internet at http://WeVote.fr

    We also have a toll-free number in France 0805 696 408 and are always delighted to help U.S. voters.

    Many thanks,
    Tony Paschall, Founder & Chair

    1. Tony, I'll pass the word to the association Bordeaux-USA here in Bordeaux and I suppose you're already in contact with Democrats Abroad and their chapter in Bordeaux. However, I'm going to leave to you the task of putting the word out at the Yahoo group Live-in-France. They're mostly Americans there and a good group to associate with.

  2. I have a little correction about addressing priests. This was told to me by a Frenchman brought up in the Catholic church. One addresses the curé (a priest in charge of a parish)as "Monsieur le Curé." It is a slightly higher title and involves more responsibility. A regular priest is addressed as "Mon père."
    I enjoyed your piece on manners!

    1. Tiens! That makes years that I photograph churches around here and I've talked to lots of priests, some curé and some not. I've called them all Mon Père without anyone explaining the subtility you've taught me. I'll check the next time I talk to one. By the way, I called the Vicar General of the diocese Mon Père too. He didn't object or correct me either.

  3. I enjoyed your piece about manners but would like to make a small correction. This was told to me by a Frenchman brought up in the Catholic church. A curé (in charge of a parish and having more responsibilities) is addressed as "Monsieur le Curé." A regular priest is addressed as "Mon père."

  4. Excellent article!
    One correction - a mistake that the French also make: You should not actually say "Excusez-moi" but "Je vous prie de m'excuser". You do not order someone to excuse you, you request that they do so.
    "Je vous prie de bien vouloir m'excuser" is the same but more formal.

  5. well written! and it works tooooo!!!!

    Jenny Fabre