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")
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")
- S'il vous plaît (please, literally "if it pleases you")
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")
- Non merci (no, thank you (literally "I turn down the gift")
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")
- Pardon and excusez-moi (excuse me, literally "pardon me" and "excuse me")
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.)
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.