Bonjour! L’etiquette française

The French are a very polite group, à mon avis.

First of all (and this has been true pendant longtemps), everywhere in France, one always greets another — n’importe qui (anyone) — with a Bonjour (or, among friends, Salut). Bonjour, Madame. Bonjour, Monsieur. 

It’s de rigueur (en anglais et en français), if not obligatoire, as we used to say when I was a student in Montpellier, France many years ago. It’s part of French etiquette: one doesn’t ask another person for assistance, or begin speaking at all, before the polite French greeting.

Les français teach their children good manners, la politesse, and from what I observed when I was in France this summer, they do a very good job.* Polite French children grow up to be polite French adults. Taxi drivers, hotel staff, museum workers, merchants, wine makers, teachers, lawyers, accountants, actors, and yes, even waiters treated me and my husband with courtesy and good manners.

Maybe it helped that I speak French, and my husband speaks un peu — he learned some key words and phrases, and when to use them.

Par exemple: Bonjour, Bonsoir et Bon week-end.

Even French toll booth machines on the autoroute are polite. As we drove from city to city in the south of France, we encountered many of them unexpectedly, panicking only the first time, when I was driving (“Do we need exact Euro change? Are we in the right lane? Does it take credit cards?”) The answers were no, yes and yes. Upon the successful completion of our payment, the machine replied in a cheery French female voice: “Merci! Bon voyage!” 

The French equivalent of ‘ave a nice day, “Thank you! Have a good trip!” just seemed more, well, personal. And it made me laugh.

Back before our vacation, I heard many an American complain that the French — in particular, French Parisian waiters

1. get annoyed when tourists don’t speak any French (and don’t even try)

2. don’t linger, hover, try to strike up a conversation, learn English or read their minds, and

3. take (unnecessary?) long breaks, leaving their customers to sit leisurely and enjoy a drink and a good meal.

Hmm. Though we have much in common with the French, we live in different cultures and have different customs. And perhaps we demanding Americans just misunderstand French etiquette.

Back in my day,** I worked as a waitress (as opposed to a “server”) when waiters did not share tables, work or tips. Then, a waiter/waitress could get “up a tree” (or just, “tree’d” in North Carolina restaurant lingo) when several groups were seated at his or her tables within seconds of each other. When I was working to put myself through college, it helped that my customers not only spoke the native language, but also didn’t expect not to speak it. I didn’t linger or hover at my tables, and I didn’t tell the diners my name (why?). I did take breaks, but only when I had time — it’s the American way.

But I always politely greeted my customers and thanked them for their business (in English) —  and I made a lot of money.

* see the post L’éducation des enfants français

** à mon époque, or autrefois… More on this in an upcoming post.

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