There is a saying in the United States — “Little things mean a lot.” I think it was even the name of a song in the 1950s. In France, however, little things mean everything!
One of the first important lessons we learned early on was that understanding French does not mean that you understand the French. They fought a bloody revolution to gain their status as equals, free of the rigid hierarchy of royalty. After 1789, they addressed each other as “citizen” to reflect this newfound status, later evolving to monsieur and madame, which were titles previously reserved for aristocrats.
There is a French word, politesse, which literally translates in English as “politeness.” It is actually much more than that. It characterizes the day-to-day interactions in France that have roots in the Revolution … but it’s not just a matter of being polite. In my opinion bonjour is the most important word in French. You may say it 25 times a day … but the one time you forget to say it you are in trouble. It has more to do with respect when the butcher, bus driver or store clerk expects to be greeted with “Bonjour monsieur” or “Bonjour madame” or “Bonsoir” after 6:00 p.m. Failure to do so is considered not merely impolite but downright disrespectful. The same code applies on leaving. An “Au revoir monsieur (or madame)” is mandatory.
When I hear from returning American vacationers that the French are “rude,” I ask them to describe the situation. More often than not there was a violation of the code of politesse, which actually meant the American was being rude — albeit unknowingly. A wonderful book on why the French do what they do is French or Foe, by Polly Platt. It should be required reading for “Paris 201.”
She tells readers to learn several “magic words” in French that will endear them to the natives and keep them out of trouble. Some of the words are the phrase in French: “Excusez-moi de vous déranger,” (“Excuse me for disturbing you”), which never fails to elicit someone’s help. Others, such as please (“s’il vous plait”) and thank you (“merci”), followed by “monsieur” or “madame,” are not unlike the manners we were taught as children but perhaps have forgotten to use as we grew older.
Spoken French has its own cadence, timbre and body language. By observing and listening, it’s possible to learn what I call “situational French” — how real people order in cafés, how they greet each other and carry on conversations. This varies with age group, with more slang from youth and more formality among adults. It often bears little resemblance to what is learned from textbooks. In high school French in the 1960s we learned that single women should be addressed as “Mademoiselle,” and married women as “Madam,” cognates of “miss” and “missus.” Today, only young girls are addressed as mademoiselle. All other women, single or married, are madame. There is no counterpart in French for the American “Ms.”
Politesse extends to other courtesies. Now that my wife and I have become persons “of a certain age,” we are regularly offered seats on crowded metros and buses by younger riders.
Politesse in dining
Dining in France can be the experience of a lifetime. Understanding the customs and protocols will make the experience even more memorable. All establishments that serve food or drinks in France are required to show menus in their windows with prices, which include service and taxes. Avoid places with six-language menus in the window (tourist traps?), or at least stay away from those displaying pictures of the food.
The French don’t drink bad wine: Go ahead and order the house wine or the wine of the month, by the glass or carafe. It will be good.
If you ask for a carafe d’eau with your meal, tap water will be brought at no charge. Parisian tap water is known for its good quality. Ordering eau minérale means still or sparkling mineral water (eau minérale gazeuse) and you’ll be charged for it. A basket of bread will be brought when you order food. It is always included in the price. Your piece of bread is set on the table to the side of the plate, not on it. The waiter will take care of any crumbs before dessert is served. Coffee is always served after dessert, no matter how much you plead for it to be brought at the same time.
There is no such thing as a doggie bag; portions are not supersized. Wine, however, is another matter. Diners who do not finish their bottle of wine are gladly accommodated with a cork to take it home. (A wine is a terrible thing to waste!)
Many corner cafes and bistros advertise “service continu,” or “non- stop,” which means they serve from morning until late at night. They are a good bet for light meals. For picnics in the park, bakeries (boulangeries and pâtisseries) usually sell baguette sandwiches and small ready-to-eat quiches. There is no such thing as a “croissanwich” in France. That is purely an American invention.
Eating or drinking while walking around or on a métro or bus has always been considered gauche. It’s a good way to spot American tourists. The only exception I’ve seen is pinching off the end of a baguette and eating it while walking home from the bakery. Everyone seems to do it.
When eating, the French (and most Europeans) hold the fork in their left hand and the knife in their right hand. It seems more efficient. You may be tempted to try this to fit in. For those who aren’t left-handed, be careful! It can take years to do this smoothly. I tried to go native once years ago during a business lunch with customers. I dripped sauce on my necktie and nearly stabbed myself in the face. Eating with chopsticks is child’s play compared to this.
We may be shocked to see a dog sitting next to its owner in a restaurant. There are more dogs than children in France and they seem to be welcome in restaurants.
Paris is a big busy city and the French who live in the provinces will tell you that Parisians can be brusque in their own way, not unlike Midwesterners describing New Yorkers. Recently, the city of Paris has begun taking Parisians to task for violating their own code of politesse. Perhaps the stress of the poor economy and high unemployment is taking its toll. A sign in buses reminds riders that “2 bonjours font 1 bon jour”, (Two bonjours make for one good day). Good advice for everyone!
Jerry Marterer is the author of Paris 201 — Uncommon Places in the City of Light. He and his wife, Suzanne, divide their time between Charleston and Paris.