French politesse, lesson one: the spoken rituals

French politesse - www.MyFrenchLife.orgIn which I examine the ins, the outs and the treacherous culs-de-sac of French politesse.

Until I moved to France I thought I was quite well-mannered. In fact, by the standards of my country of origin, the United States, I was. This is because in the States politeness can pretty much be boiled down to using the words ‘please’, ‘thank you,’ ‘you’re welcome’ and ‘excuse me’.

That covers the four most fundamental aspects of human interaction: wanting something, getting it, pretending that you enjoyed giving it, and audible biomethane emissions. Or inaudible, if you’re in especially ceremonious company.

Of course, French has its versions of all those expressions, but the equivalents (respectively s’il vous plaît, merci, je vous en prie and excusez-moi) are significantly longer, totaling 13 syllables compared with nine in English.

In other words, French people spend nearly 50% more time on any given day rattling off formules de politesse (which term itself has 50% more syllables than the English ‘polite phrases’). This leaves them with less time for everything else they need to do — which is why they’re so brusque and impolite to everyone.

Say “hello” to the lady. (Ahem) to the LADY!

And there’s more. In the US it’s not particularly shocking in commercial and other non-personal transactions to start talking with few or no preliminary niceties. If you’re ordering coffee, mailing a package or buying drugs, it’s OK to get right down to business without so much as a ‘hello’.

But, as all foreigners learn within minutes of setting foot on French soil, and sometimes French tarmac, it is considered a grievous insult here to start any conversation, no matter how utilitarian, with anything but bonjour. (Or bonsoir if it’s after sundown, but since most people have lost their voices by then from all the extra polite verbiage, this is a relatively rare circumstance.)

And, new arrivals take note, a simple bonjour is not enough — it is also considered a grievous insult not to tack on a Madame or Monsieur, as the case may be.

In stark contrast to the United States, it is not considered a grievous insult to presume that a woman is unmarried and call her Mademoiselle, although I personally see no reason to attempt this distinction.

“In other words, French people spend nearly 50% more time on any given day rattling off formules de politesse (which term itself has 50% more syllables than the English ‘polite phrases’).”

In any first-time meeting with a grownup who happens to have double X chromosomes, I figure I have two options:

1) Do a fast and furtive inventory of her fingers for jewelry, which is likely to be futile, and even more likely to be misconstrued as a fast and furtive inventory of other less commonly bejeweled body parts, or…

2) Assume that any woman who’s old enough to be working for a coffee shop, post office or drug cartel is old enough to be called Madame.

There’s no contest. Even if I think I might enjoy option number one. (Note to grownups who happen to have double X chromosomes and be married to me: I mean because some women have really nice-looking fingers!)

In any case, failure to follow the greetings rule is asking for trouble. If you just walk up to a French person and start asking questions — “Which way to the Louvre?” “Why do you smell good?” “Where’s the fire extinguisher?” — the mildest reaction you can expect is an icy stare and a sternly inquisitive, “Ah, Bon-jooouuurrrr?” Which is French for “Were you raised by wild boars?”
Should you ever find yourself in this situation, take my advice: don’t just grunt in reply.

They’re only not following orders

And there’s still more. Unless they happen to be working in a restaurant or infantry battalion, the French don’t take orders. By which I mean: phrases that sound banal or even downright friendly in English can sound like aggressive, imperious demands in French.

For example, in English “Call me” is understood to mean “I would be delighted to receive a phone call from you at your convenience,” but in French “Call me” (“Appelez-moi”) is understood to mean “CALL ME!!!” As in, “I hereby command you to contact me by telephone at my convenience, so that I can continue to boss you around as the whim strikes me and then order you to beg for more while you’re struggling to wriggle out from under my boot heel so that you can finish tongue-cleansing my bathroom floor before I get angry.”

Or something like that…

“And, new arrivals take note, a simple bonjour is not enough — it is also considered a grievous insult not to tack on a Madame or Monsieur, as the case may be.”

Therefore, everything that you would like someone else to do has to be expressed as a vague, sheepish, Uriah-Heepish suggestion. If you really want a French person to call you, whether for a job interview, dinner date or cocaine delivery, instead of “Appelez-moi” you need to dampen the blow, so to speak, by saying something like “Vous pourriez m’appeler” — “You could possibly call me.”

This is why there are so few stop signs in France — A 40-centimeter red octagon just isn’t big enough to convey the message properly: “Veuillez arrêter s’il vous plaît, Mademoiselle, Madame ou Monsieur selon le cas”.

For those of you who are taking notes, here are some other common English imperative phrases adapted to make them directly translatable into polite French:

I would appreciate it if you would give me five.

On your marks… Get set… You may now proceed!

I heartily recommend running for your life!

Imagine how much fun it would be to halt before I shoot!

Pray thee consider the potential benefits of sticking it up…

Oh, that’s enough note-taking. But keep your pens handy because, of course, there’s more: with French politesse you also have to get it right in writing. As I will explain in lesson two

Do you also find the French language more formal or, at worse, stilted than English? Answer me! I mean, any comments would be most welcome.

 Image credits:
© Charles Giai-gischia.

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David Jaggard

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  1. Ann Mason Jan 17, 2014 at 8:58 AM - Reply

    Do you also find the French language more formal or, at worse, stilted than English? Answer me! I mean, any comments would be most welcome.

    The French seem to value their language more than we do as English speakers. I admire this trait along with almost everything else about France and the French and especially Paris. You my dear are living my life, and I am most envious. Great column today, and yesterday too. Hoping I will be able to come to France this year. Last year I missed out due to health reasons, but that is all bettah now.

  2. Jim Apr 7, 2020 at 2:09 PM - Reply

    As an American of a certain age (and reasonably well brought up in a blue collar family) I suppose it is true that in the US you can get right down to business without so much as a ‘hello’ but I find it extremely rude. Even if you are just paying for snacks at the 7-11, some kind of acknowledgement to the cashier is just good behavior. And it works! You will get much better service by treating someone like a person instead of a machine. But indeed, you can get away with it without problems. What does that say about our society?

    Thanks for the article. I enjoyed it.

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