Staying civil in Paris


Matthew Goldstein - Staying civil in Paris 1Matthew Goldstein - Staying civil in Paris

Paris métro versus New York subway

Though it’s contrary to common travel lore, I find Parisians quite civil and polite. This could be relative. Coming from NYC, where people are more courteous than you would expect, there are nonetheless, holes in the fabric of public civility. This is particularly so when it comes to public transit.

There are shovers, eaters and very loud talkers, both on and off the phone, on buses and in other shared spaces. Most subways don’t have wireless, so for now it’s a phone-free zone. Young kids blast music so loud through their ear buds you would think the MTA installed loud speakers inside city buses.

There are welcome exceptions. On the more expensive and fancy express buses, which haul people to further corners of the city, passengers line up to board and allow others who have waited longer to board first.  Phone conversations are rare and brief. Commuter trains to the suburbs have implemented designated ‘quiet’ cars for those wishing a little respite from the noise. Even here tensions flare between those who view these cars as ‘silent’ and those who are simply ‘quiet’.

In Paris, the RATP has gone even further kicking off its latest ‘civility’ campaign in 2011 by displaying a series of humorous posters throughout the transit system aimed at discouraging  incivilités  (anti-social behaviours) like loud phone talking, littering, eating, shoving, turnstile jumping and other rudeness. The posters feature a person dressed as an animal engaging in the targeted behaviour with the bus or metro line number worked into a pithy rebuke and the tag line: “Restons civils sur toute la ligne” or “Let’s stay civil right down the line.”

Learn more about the campaign and view posters at: (English); (French).

No matter how you feel about this campaign or its execution – and it has its detractors – it underscores the necessity of maintaining common courtesy, especially in dense urban cities like Paris and New York.

Perhaps the campaign is working or perhaps it was unnecessary to begin with, but on my last stay in Paris (for two weeks), I was struck by how well-mannered everyone seemed to be.  Parisians spoke softly, covered their mouths when on a phone call in public and always greeted the bus driver with “Bonjour”. They gave up seats to the elderly or pregnant and exited the bus through the rear door. I never once heard a note of music blasting from an adjacent iPhone or musical device.

However, there is one downside to this quiet civility.  One way I gauge my fluency is how easily I can understand the casual French flung around me on streets, on transit, or in cafés; with everyone speaking so softly I can barely hear them at all!

Even in New York, where French speaking visitors are numerous, I strain to overhear conversations. Just last week while I was grabbing a coffee at a favourite spot, I sat next to two young men speaking French. My ears perked up immediately, but I could barely hear a word they were saying.  I read my paper and tried not to appear to be snooping, quietly hoping they were in need of directions so I could spring into action with my French and begin a conversation.

Though I appreciate the common courtesy, I promise not to be annoyed if I’m trapped on a bus with loud French speakers, but thanks to the RATP’s latest campaign, the chances are getting slimmer.


Featured image – Image credit: Phil Beard

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Matthew Goldstein

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One Comment

  1. Bethany Untied Mar 18, 2012 at 12:39 PM - Reply

    We need a campaign like that in Melbourne ! I think I’ll go out of my mind if they don’t introduce a quiet carriage soon…sigh. 😛

    My ears perk up when I hear French, too !

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