La politesse

La politesseOr how to charm the pants off the French

We Canadians are known for being polite. Sorry, we’ll say, every time we even come close to bumping into anyone. When we don’t understand or can’t make ourselves understood, we apologize first, ask questions later. Sorry, sorry, sorry.

Things are different in France. The French rarely apologize but they do have their own strict forms of politesse. If you follow these, you will be admired for your manners and appreciated by all but those mauvaises langues who always have to find something to criticize. There’s one in every crowd.

Hello and goodbye

Bonjour has always struck me as such a formal way of saying hello. Perhaps because I translate it into English as ‘good day’ which no one says anymore except Aussies (and the way they say it, g’day, makes it sound very cool). You can say ‘salut’ as ‘hi’ in French but only to people you know well — it’s quite familiar. Otherwise, bonjour is the standard greeting in France.

The trick is knowing when to shift from bonjour to bonsoir. Exactly when is that elusive moment in the day when you start to say good evening? There is no set answer but it seems to be sometime in the afternoon, certainly not before about 4 pm.

The other complicating factor is that the greeting gets transformed into a form of goodbye. Bonjour becomes bonne journée, while bonsoir becomes bonne soirée. Think of it as the French form of our ubiquitous ‘have a good day.’ You can, of course, simply say au revoir but it may sound a bit brusque.

Still, it is an absolute rule of French politesse to say good-bye. I notice this especially on elevators. People get on and don’t necessarily say anything but when it’s time to get off, they always say au revoir. It is somehow more of an obligation to acknowledge that you are leaving than arriving. I absolutely hate to say goodbye at parties. Usually I will just try and slip away unnoticed rather than make a big deal about the fact that I am going, often well before anybody else. But it does not go over well in French circles. People will say “Il est parti comme un voleur.” To leave like a thief will not win you friends.

Please and thank you

S’il vous plaît. Truly the magic words, this little phrase opens doors in France. It is both an obligation in just about any situation, whether asking for something, grabbing someone’s attention or simply confirming one’s wishes. Literally, ‘if it pleases you’ this really just means ‘please’ and also substitutes for thank you. I remember railing against the lengthy form of this – couldn’t they come up with a shorter way of saying please? But in practice, it’s very short as it all runs together. If you are on close personal terms, use ‘s’il te plaît.’

Everybody knows how to say thank you in French, right? Wrong. In full politesse it is not just ‘merci’ but ‘je vous remercie’ (or je te remercie with intimates). Or in written form, ‘avec tous nos remerciements’ (with all our thanks). There’s also merci beaucoup/merci bien/merci vivement (thanks very much/a lot/sincerely) or mille mercis (thanks a million) or just merci.

You’re welcome

For a North American, please and thank you are nothing without a formal acknowledgement of gratitude in return: you’re welcome. I was appalled to learn that the British consider ‘you’re welcome’ to be an Americanism. Instead they’ll say ‘think nothing of it’ or ‘not at all’. Similarly, the French will say de rien or il n’y a pas de quoi. More formally you can say: Je vous en prie or c’est un plaisir. In a pinch, a nod and a smile will do.

Excuses but no apologies

Je m’excuse, excusez-moi, pardon, pardonnez-moi… Excuses are perhaps one of the finer points of French politesse. The forms can get quite elaborate, along the lines of ‘je vous prie de bien vouloir m’excuser pour le dérangement.” (I beg you to kindly forgive me for the interruption.)

Excuse me is the perfectly polite way to ask for attention in English. But not in French. When you want something, it is always preferable to use please rather than excuse me. I don’t know if this has something to do with not apologizing, but it is better not to ask to be excused unless you have good reason.

Do not confuse politesse with friendliness. I have heard the most bitter enemies address each other with increasing degrees of politesse in French. In fact, it’s a backhanded way of insulting someone.

And if you really want to charm the French…

Admire them. Do not hesitate to show how much you love them, even use abject flattery. The French are suckers for a francophile. They entertain a love-hate relationship with their own country: although they criticize it constantly, they love few things as much as France and all things French. So if you, a foreigner, demonstrate that you are an unrequited francophile, they will love you for loving them.

Take it from me. I married one.

30 thoughts on “La politesse

    1. Ha, ha…was thinking more about laid back and unassuming than fashionably chic. Then again I don’t expect any pommy ever found an Aussie cool. 😉

  1. You are giving me an excellent reason to avoid my copy-editing work today. Stop writing such great stuff, you fiend 😀
    I just love the use of deferential language to be rude to people – civil servants at the Préfecture are unbeatable on that one. WDon’t you just love it when they say “Madam has to get a copy of her passport”, and you look over your shoulder for someone else before establishing that they are talking to you in the third person singular? Only in France…

    1. Oh, yes, it took me ages to figure out that when they said ‘Madame’ they were referring to me. (I kept looking around for an older lady or the proprietor of a house of ill repute…) Glad (or sorry) to provide a distraction. If it’s any consolation, I can’t concentrate on my web editing job today either 😉

  2. Reblogged this on FranceSays and commented:

    I was going to apologize for sharing an old post instead of something new. But then it occurred to me that my apology was really more of an excuse, so why bother? And as I have shared before, sorry seems to be hardest word in France.

    It is ironic that this rather elegant way of apologizing, ‘faire son mea culpa’ or to admit being at fault in some way, borrows from the Latin. The French use the fact of being Latin (in language and in character) as an excuse for most bad behaviour: being late, disorganized, resistant to order.

    So I’ll keep this short and suite: Mea culpa!

    Hope you enjoy this oldie but good about manners…see you next week!

    1. I have had the most trouble saying bonjour on entering shops. When I do, I can almost feel a swat from the ghost of my mother, who would most certainly hiss, “Who do you think you are, calling attention to yourself? Don’t bother these people until you’re going to buy something.” Especially when the shopkeeper is busy with another customer–the horror of interrupting just to say hello.

      1. That’s funny — saying ‘bonjour’ as I enter a shop is one of the few things that have really become a reflex for me. It took awhile to realize there is no anonymity in such places; entering them is like going into someone’s home, so I suppose it feels natural now to say hello. 😉

  3. What a delightful and informative post. I think there’s a lot of crossover with Quebecois French politesse, n’est pas? When I first moved to Ottawa, I worked for a member of parliament, and that was when I first encountered the long, formal farewells at the bottom of letters from Quebec cabinet ministers. I thought it was extraordinarily elegant, like kissing a woman’s hand.

    1. I agree that French does seem quite elegant and almost poetic — at first. But in the working world, having to add chapter and verse to each letter begins to feel very heavy. I think a lot modern correspondence is starting to lean towards simpler phrases, borrowed from email, like ‘sincères salutations’. BTW, must have been interesting to work for an MP!

  4. I often hear market stall holders say ‘C’est moi qui vous remercie’. Then recently I heard a bus driver shorten it to ‘C’est moi’. I’m guessing this is too off-hand to use politely? (Always good to have someone experienced to ask)

    1. I am flattered to be considered any kind of expert! 🙂 In my opinion, you can absolutely say ‘c’est moi’ unless in a very formal setting in which case it is better to stick with ‘je vous en prie’.

  5. It amuses me that ‘have a nice day’ is thought of as American and rather fascile by the British. Bon journée/soirée is identical and yet the same nation finds it rather sweet. Of course, the British have no equivalent at all …. and you are so right that flattery and approval of whatever it is is lapped up in France. Here too – as it goes. Not quite sure where British rule fitted in to be honest … there is a lot that reflects France and little that reflects England in my ken, so far.

    1. Funny, I have often thought that too. Americans have more in common with the French as their culture somehow feels more insular. Head up to Canada for a few days and you’ll definitely feel a bit more British influence! Bonne journée xx

  6. Interesting that in France the bonjour is not as important as the au revoir. I find in Geneva people always say hello when entering a room or a shop. In fact at the grocery story you have to say Bonjour before asking the question where you can find something. Excusez-moi doesn’t work! The person will ignore or worse, glare at you!

    And i have to admit i miss the Good Mornings that us anglophones use to celebrate the start of the day.

    1. I do agree – ‘excusez-moi’ is definitely a no-no! It’s as if you’re beginning by admitting to a wrong doing! 😉 And in France, too, a general ‘bonjour’ is pretty well standard in any kind of small shop or public place.

    1. I certainly hope you will and if you do let me know and I’ll try to share a few more! Ça sera avec plaisir! Always handy to have a few French tricks up one’s sleeve.

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