The word “politeness” is usually defined in dictionaries as “the set of rules that govern behavior, the language to be adopted in society.”.
This rather short definition – although already too long for my taste – fails to offer precise examples of the “rules” of decorum in question. In real life, once dictionaries are closed, we soon find – in the street, in the park, in a café, in a restaurant, at work or even on holiday on a boat in an enclosed space – that we all have a different interpretation of what it means to be polite. As we know, a definition can be general, whereas the rules vary by country, culture, region, population group, family or even individual. As for their application, it can even vary according to the situation, the mood of the day or the weather – even the degree of expertise in emotional intelligence of each individual. Politeness is sometimes a close cousin of self-control, isn’t it?
I’m only talking about what I know, but it seems that Canada, Brazil, and Thailand are very, very welcoming countries, generally speaking. Stereotypically speaking, the French are internationally renowned for this paradox: they appreciate civility and delicacy but lack kindness and friendliness themselves. It’s true that compared to Japanese courtesy rules, the smiling welcome of Nepalese and Indians, the good manners of the French among themselves or towards foreigners can look pale.
Really? Is rudeness pretty much a French national sport?
As a French person, there’s no way I could put all French people in the same bag labeled “I’m French so I’m rude”. Every day I come across a lot of charming, polite and civilized people in Paris, La Rochelle, or elsewhere. Of course, I also come across people who are much less friendly, utterly discourteous, inconsiderate or even very rude.
Imagine someone who not only doesn’t hold the door for you but also slams it at you. Or when you pass someone in the street and the sidewalk is small and someone bumps your shoulder because, “he/she didn’t see you coming,” (yet he was walking and looking ahead, wasn’t he?).
And as I love to break down all kinds of stereotypes, I prefer to share with you my own experiences related to politeness and rudeness in France. And I hope to give you, above all, some wisdom on how to connect even with the least cordial French you can encounter.
1. Your survival kit
Like a lot of French children, when I was younger I often heard these sentences coming out of my parents’ mouths – half injunction, half reminder, half threat or desperate complaint:
– Say “bonjour” to the lady!
– Say “thank you” to the man.
– Hold the door!
– We say “please.”
– We say “excuse me” to the lady…
– Don’t forget to say thank you and goodbye.
“Bonjour” “Bonsoir” “S’il vous/te plaît” “Merci” “Merci beaucoup” “Excusez-moi”
These are the primary expressions you need to use in order to make a good impression and gain the attention or the respect, or even the heart of a waiter, for example.
In some contexts, these expressions can even be a real survival kit. They can make your experience as a customer much more enjoyable and effective for example, in a cafe, restaurant, or store.
Have you ever been traumatized by an unpleasant waiter who doesn’t smile, barely makes eye contact and sighs indignantly when he has to take your order or bring you the bill? Welcome to the club.
Once, a student pointed out to me that he sometimes felt like he was bothering waiters and salesmen during his visits to stays in France. I asked myself: “Are waiters and salesmen generally unpleasant or are they more particularly rude to tourists?
2. Don’t take it personally
I was born and raised in Paris. I’ve visited all the major cities of France and most of our beautiful regions: it didn’t take me more than half a second to answer the question above:
Yes, waiters (salesmen, saleswomen, etc.) sometimes/often lack hospitality.
Nope, they’re not more rude to tourists!
It’s likely the majority of waiters lack a little patience. With tourists, customers who are not fluent in French, or very indecisive customers, waiters may fear communication is difficult or that they will fall behind on their orders. This is the paradox of the service professions: if you define “excellent service” in terms of speed, you more often than not end up with a lack of good manners.
Finally, if we happen to come across unpleasant servers as customers, we ought to keep in mind that servers also come across particularly rude or disrespectful customers. Why not take the first step and try to tame him? (And if that doesn’t work, then yes, change the location!)
3. Rather be appreciative
In my opinion, politeness is not just a list of courtesy or sociability rules. Above all, it’s a matter of consideration.
It is quite possible that the French consider themselves as individuals before being a function of the job they do. If you connect with the human being in front of you and not only with the service he or she is supposed to give you, I’m convinced your interactions will change and become much richer.
Personally, if I have to ask a salesperson who is already busy – (shelving merchandise, for example) – I’d rather approach by saying:
“Hi, I’m sorry to bother you, could you tell me where I could find the bulk stuff?”
as opposed to:
“Where are the bulk products?”
Consider the person you are talking to. Don’t turn away even if this person doesn’t smile at you immediately (she will in 5 seconds). Take the time to greet her without abruptly interrupting her and she will return the gesture a hundredfold.
For your information, in this 100% authentic lived example, the saleswoman showed me how to find the bulk shelf, including the exact location of the product I was looking for plus kraft pockets to help myself (“they are at the bottom”). Try it, you’ll be surprised!
By the way, do you know the bistro Le Bon Georges in the 9th Arrondissement of Paris? You’ll always be well received there. What about the brasserie Le Balzar? It’s an Art Deco style brasserie located on rue des Ecoles in the ‘Quartier Latin’ near the Sorbonne. It’s known for its cuisine and staff, who have an attitude towards customers made of, “a precious mixture of nonchalance, irony and kindness”.
And perhaps that, after all, is the “true” definition of French politeness.
PS: ‘Balzar’ is also the name of the tailor-made intensive program I created to help you boost your French skills and reach your goals in a limited time. Want to know more about it? It’s over here!