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.

Speak French in sign language


A few weeks of immersion training at the Alliance Française in Paris was all it took for me to master the mechanics of French. Once you’ve got the basic verbs and vocabulary, you can get by in day-to-day life. But the hardest thing about learning another language is the unspoken part, the between-the-lines meanings and culture cues. That can take years.

Fortunately, like most Latin peoples, the French use their hands a lot. Here is a quick guide to mastering six simple gestures that will make you look like a native without uttering a word.

1. The Gallic shrug. Perhaps the best known of all French gestures. Start by opening your hands outwards in a gesture of emptiness, raise your shoulders and then your eyebrows. Finish with a grimace that implies, “C’est comme ça.”

2. The semi-obscene mouth noise* that says you really haven’t got a clue. Raise eyebrows, purse lips and make a farting noise. Helpful when you have no idea what the question was. (*Popularly known as the face fart.)

3. The international sign for money. Very useful when trying to communicate how much money someone has (or how expensive something is), a situation that arises frequently in Paris and the south of France.  Extend one hand horizontally and rub thumb against forefingers.

4. Avoir un poil dans la main” (to have a hair growing in the palm of one’s hand). This somewhat obscure French expression describes one who is lazy. Turn your left hand palm up and use two fingers of right hand to mime pulling a long hair out of it. Frequently used when discussing service industry workers, such as the SNCF.

5. “Avoir les boules” (balls or glands). Quite commonly used although of uncertain origin. Some say it has to do with the game of boules or pétanque. It expresses a special mix of anger and frustration that is universally understood in France. Point both hands towards base of neck and form fingers loosely in the shape of balls. Move back and forth to demonstrate gonflement.

6. “Avoir un coup dans le nez” (literally, to have ‘one’ in the nose). A quick way of signing that someone has had a few drinks. Make a fist and hold by nose. Rotate once or twice, quickly. The drunk in question will never even notice.

Finally, let us not forget the international symbol for “stick it where the sun don’t shine.” The French are known to use this in the form of either the bras d’honneur  (formed with the elbow) or the good old finger — doigt d’honneur. But don’t be misled by the fancy name – there is nothing honorable about either gesture.

Warning: If you flip the birdie to a Frenchman (as I learned from painful experience) you risk being confused with a local and sparking a stream of obscenity that goes right over your head. If that happens, try gesture #1.