Tag Archives: manners

Friend or Foe? How to Cope when the French Get Feisty

Today’s post and photos originally appeared on the HIP Paris Blog and is reposted here with permission.  The author is Tory Hoen.  An avid traveler and writer, Tory is relentless in her search for Paris’ hippest (and most delicious) secrets. Late night, she can be found lounging in various Right Bank hotspots, and by day, you’ll find her doing deals with the green grocers on the rue Mouffetard. Tory splits her time between Paris, New York, and Montreal, but when not in Paris, she’s always scheming about ways to go back.

by Tory Hoen

Paris Cafe Waiter B&W

French café and waiter … unfortunately not always famous for their friendliness. Dolarz

We’ve all heard something to the effect of, “Paris would be perfect, if it weren’t for the French.” I usually laugh these comments off as clichés that hark back to an earlier age, when France was more culturally closed than it is now. We all know that today’s French are as affable as kittens… or are they?

During my days in Paris, my opinion of Parisians vacillated constantly. One moment, I was pleasantly surprised by the (maybe too) friendly feedback I would get from taxi drivers, “Your accent is so charming, you should stay in France forever”; and the next, I was smarting from the evil looks cast by super-stylish French salesgirls, whose foreigner radar always seemed to seek me out.

French waiter, smiling and ready for your order! Flequi

There’s really no point in generalizing about whether the French are “nice” or “mean.” It’s like asking whether clowns are funny or terrifying. The answer? Both.

Grumy French Man Snow

Nice or Mean?  Alex E. Proimos

It’s a nuanced world, especially in Paris. During my last visit, I was in a bakery when an obviously non-French girl was attempting to order a flan. The woman behind the counter asked what kind.

Nature (plain),” said the girl.
Il n’y a plus. Que d’abricot (There’s no more, only apricot),” said the saleswoman.
Nature,” repeated the girl, not understanding.
Abricot,” insisted the saleswoman.
Nature.”
Abricot.”
This went on for a full minute, with the French saleswoman refusing to budge, despite knowing that the poor flan-craving girl in front of her had no idea what was going on. Finally, she basically flung an apricot flan at the girl and sent her packing.

Sometimes, the French are just like that; they make things difficult just for the sake of being difficult. (Because when it’s not difficult, it’s boring).

Therefore, your happiness in Paris may come down to your ability to “manage” the French. Here are a few tips to keep in mind when things (or individuals) get prickly:

Paris Child Boy Smiling Birds

Smiling in Paris – if a child can do it, so can you. Alexandre Duret-Lutz

  1. Speak French. Even if you don’t speak French, learn some basic phrases and always lead with them. A little effort (no matter how poorly accented) can make all the difference between charming a Parisian and alienating one.
  2. Try smiling. This may catch your average Parisian off-guard, which can work to your advantage.
  3. If the smile backfires, try scowling. (A well-executed scowl is tantamount to speaking French, anyway).
  4. Look like you know what you’re doing. If you’re in a store or a market, browse and buy with confidence. Appearing to have discerning tastes and conviction will earn you respect.
  5. Don’t take “no” for an answer. The French person’s default answer is usually “no,” even when they could just as easily say “yes.” Whether you’re requesting a restaurant reservation, a smaller (or, um, bigger) size, or the last table on the terrasse, don’t let an initial negative answer put you off. Persist (with polite assertiveness) and doors may just open.
  6. And above all, don’t take anything personally. Sometimes you’ll end up feeling like an idiot without knowing why, simply because some French person is in a pissy mood. Take it with a grain of salt (good French sea salt).

And remember that, fundamentally, the French kind of like you—even if they act like they hate you. There’s an age-old tradition of loving to hate-to-love-to-hate-to-love-to-hate foreigners, especially Americans. But now that I’m in New York and hearing French on every other street corner, I realize they can’t hate us that much (try as they might to pretend they do).

French Dining Etiquette: Eating with the Frenchies

Today’s post and pictures are reposted with permission from the HIP Paris  blog.  The author is Erica Berman, an American by birth, who has called Paris home on-and-off for 17 years.  She is also owner of Haven in Paris, a luxury vacation rental company.

by Erica Berman

After over 17 years of Frenchie living, I am largely used to the etiquette of dining chez les Francais – along with all of their implicitly understood rules and regulations.

A brunch with Parisian friends for which the first guest arrived 30 minutes after the announced time, and an 8 pm French dinner party invitation with food finally served at 10 pm, prompted the following list of tips for enjoying error-free dining in the land of berêts, baguettes and smelly cheese.

Les Faux Pas qu’il ne Faut pas faire (errors to avoid), a few pointers for socializing Chez les Francais with hopes of avoiding unnecessary uncomfortable moments.

Rule 1: Never, never, never arrive early. Not even one minute. This is highly unacceptable (and unheard of) behavior in France. Walk around the block a few times, have a café, do some lèche-vitrine (window shop), but do not ring that bell even one minute in advance.

Rule 2: Never arrive right on time either, except for a formal meal, or in a restaurant. Even for a sit- down meal, your host will expect you 5-10 minutes late. For a party, a casual brunch or cocktail, you will be expected 20-45 minutes past the specified time. Arriving on the dot might find your host not only not ready, but also not particularly overjoyed by your presence.

Rule 3: Always bring a little something for the host, be it a bottle of wine, a homemade goodie or a bouquet of flowers. Remember, showing up empty-handed is seriously frowned upon in France. Note: Do not bring gifts of soap or bouquets of mums. Soap makes your hostess feel like you are implying she doesn’t wash, and mums are brought to cemeteries to cover gravestones.

Rule 4: In France, à table (at the table), one does not speak of politics, money, or religion. One does not ask a French person their salary, their religious beliefs or who they voted for. This is the ultimate insult to a Frenchie!

Rule 5: You don’t have to help with dishes. In the U.S. it’s the norm, even rude, not to help your host clean up the mess. In France the logic is that you are the guest and you are there to relax. When you invite your friends over they will expect you to extend the same courtesy and will not offer to help you with any of the clean-up either. The first few times this happened in my apartment I was annoyed at the lack of help. Now, I appreciate being able to relax when dining out and letting my guests relax when they dine chez moi.

Rule 6: Eat what is on your plate. The French have low (up from no) tolerance for finicky eaters. It is very rude to decline what your host has prepared, and even ruder not to finish what is on your plate. NOTE: If you are a vegetarian or have a true food allergy don’t be shy. Your host  just might be sympathetic.

Rule 7: Remain open-minded. Try everything. From blood sausage, steak tartare, pan-fried fois gras, rabbit w/prunes, baked pigeon and deer stew to escargot, raw sea urchins, fried oysters, frogs legs, tripe and andouillette, I have been there and tried that. These dishes are not found in my normal eating repertoire, and there may not be a second time for many of them, but I think my hosts appreciated the effort that went into my sampling of their fare. Not only will the French be impressed by your ability to reach out of your American comfort zone, you may just discover a new favorite.

Talk Like a Parisian

Today’s post is reposted with permission from Paris-Wise, the blog of Christopher Back, long-time Paris resident and California native.   Although it’s written for tourists, there are definitely a few nuggets here for anyone new to France who doesn’t speak the language well.   

 by Christopher Back

I’ve come to the conclusion that since the tours created by my company afford visitors a glimpse of Paris that isn’t in the guidebooks, the people I meet are especially curious about French life and culture.  As a result, we are often asked what French to learn before coming to Paris. 

Of course, it’s unlikely that anyone can actually “learn to speak French” in the course of planning a holiday vacation to France.  However, you can use a few commonly known words to your advantage.  You just have to use precisely the right word at just the right moment. 

The best place to start is to forget everything you think you know.  There is a charming term used in French language schools called the “Faux ami” – pronounced Fauze-amie.  This translates litteraly to false friend and refers to words that seem like they should mean the same thing in English and French but don’t. 

An example is “excusez-moi” which is generally thought by English speakers to work like “excuse me” when it’s closer to “sorry.”  “I’m sorry” is actually “Je m’excuse”  So this is the first thing to remember.  In my opinion you should forget about “excusez-moi”.

If you are in a crowed place or in the Métro and want to get by the thing to say is not “excusez-moi”, but “Pardon” pronounced par-DON.  With the emphasis on the second syllable and with a nasal “own” sound if you can manage it.  When the doors open in a crowded Métro car and you are stuck far from the quickly closing door, saying Pardon firmly and emphatically will part the crowd in seconds. 

If you are curious about other ways to attract attention, you can read this post for advice on service in restaurants.

The next thing to learn is when to use the words Bonjour, Bonsoir, Au Revoir and Adieu.  “Bonjour” which means “Good Day” is used from morning until dusk.  “Bonsoir” is “Good Evening.”  Both greetings are used in common speech so there’s no faux-ami lurking here.  While there doesn’t seem to be a hard and fast rule about when to switch, it seems that this often happens around dusk  I notice it also can happen when you meet someone working in a shop in the late afternoon who has become bored and tired.  I think they say Bonsoir out of wishful thinking that their workday is almost over.  I would say, it’s a safe bet to start using Bonsoir about 6pm.  Of course, you will quickly relize that you are using the wrong greeting when you say “bonjour” and the person responds “bonsoir.”  Note: This only works with native speakers, the rest of us are sometimes as confused as you are.

What about Au revoir and Adieu you ask?  Well, just thinking about what each of these words mean will give you a clue when to use them.  “Au revoir” translates to “See you again” and “Adieu” is “To God”.  Clearly the finality of “To God” makes it something that is not necessarily used when saying “goodbye” to people.  The lesson here, unless you are at a funeral, forget Adieu.

I’ve saved the easiest for last.  “Merci” and “Merci beaucoup”.  “Thank you” and “Thank you very much” – nothing tricky here.  At last — Something that you can thank Madame Charles, your Junior High School French teacher, for telling you. 

Now that we’ve reviewed the words, we can now discuss the more challenging part of this effort.  When to use the words to get the effect we want —  Like when we need to get people to step aside quickly to let us out of the Métro before the doors shut.

There is a myth that the French are rude, but I think this is no more true in Paris than any other big city in the world.  In most cases, this couldn’t be further from the truth.  In fact, there are some basic cultural guidelines for being polite to strangers that don’t necessicarily apply in English speaking countries. 

When you enter a small boutique or a café  you are expected to say “Bonjour” (or Bonsoir) to the person working there.  Once you have looked around (and regardless of whether you’ve bought anything) one says “Merci – Au Revoir” when leaving.  This is also regardless of whether the person in the shop has even bothered to come over and offer to assist you.  But I can assure you, no matter how disinterested the person working in the shop may have seemed, when you leave and say “Merci – Au Revoir” they will respond with “Au Revoir.”  

The same is true when you leave a neighborhood café.  I have already written about how to order coffee in Paris, but after a having a coffee at the counter or a table, when you pass by the bar on your way out the door, you should say “Merci – Au Revoir”.  Again, no matter how disinterested the barman may seem they will generally respond with an automatic “Au Revoir.”

The final and perhaps most important moment to use “Bonjour” and “Bonsoir” is when you are asking a question in any store, shop, grocery store or department store.  Imagine you have been looking around inside for a little while and now have a question for someone working there.  In English, it’s acceptable to glance over and say “Excuse me, do you have this in red?” all in one quick and efficient phrase. 

Not so fast there partner, we’re in France;  things are different here.  I learned this the hard way in the first few weeks of living in Paris back in 2001.  Armed with just a couple of weeks of French studies, I went to the Monoprix grocery store in my neighborhood of Passy.  I was looking for something that I was sure they stocked but I simply couldn’t find. 

I looked around and found a man who was stocking the shelves.  I went over to him and said – “Excusez-moi ou est mayonnaise?” — “Excuse me, where’s the mayonnaise?” Okay, it was a bit roughly said, but I thought I was getting my point across.  After all, I’d only been studying French for two weeks.   The man responded with a blank stare and replied “Bonjour”.  I repeated my question differently assuming I’d made a mistake.  “Je cherche mayonnaise” – “I’m looking for mayonnaise”.  Again he replied “Bonjour”.  The third time I thought I should keep it simplesaying only “Mayonnaise” which I probably pronounced slowly “May-onnnn-NAIZZZZZE” to ensure that I was as clear as possible.  By now I became convinced that “Mayonnaise” was not actually a word in French because he responded again with “Bonjour”. 

Exasperated, I didn’t know what to do.  It was clear that I was not going to be buying any mayonnaise that day.  So, I started to walk away.  “Monsieur” the man called after me “En France on dit Bonjour d’abord” — “In France we say Bonjour first”. 

Ah, I finally understood, and started over.  This time I said “Bonjour”.  He replied “Bonjour”, then I said “je cherche mayonnaise” and he replied “Aisle five”.  Success!  It was my first cultural lesson, and it happened right there in the middle of the Monoprix where I recently had another cultural awakening.

One last moment when I think it’s very important to say Bonjour is on the bus.  When boarding the bus, most people greet the driver who says “bonjour” in return.  A nice custom I think.  In general, when you come up to someone and you want to ask them a question, start with “bonjour” or “bonsoir” and you’ll never go wrong.

So, it’s not necessary to learn a lot of French to blend in a bit and give the people you meet in shops and cafés the impression you are making an effort.  In reality more and more people speak English in France and so it’s generally not so difficult to communicate in most shopping, eating or sightseeing situations.  In most shops even if the person you first greet doesn’t speak English, they will find a colleague who does.

So instead of studying French, I recommend you spend your time reading guidebooks and scouring the Internet for places to go, things to see and hidden restaurants to discover.  Or, you can let our concierge do the planning for you and simply enjoy the result.  Bon voyage!


Required Reading

There’s a kazillion books about France out there — cookbooks, travel guides, memoirs, histories, you name it.  But if you’re going to buy one book before you move to Paris, make it Polly Platt’s French or Foe.    Were it not for this book, I would not have learned that it is absolutely necessary to say “Bonjour Madame” (or “Bonjour Monsieur”) upon entering a shop, nor the importance of asking for help by starting with the key phrase, “Excusez-moi de vous déranger.”   Platt calls the latter the “five magic words” and she’s right.  They automatically establish the relationship in which you the client recognize the expertise of the shopkeeper.  As Platt notes, “this is the charm that warms the hearts of impatient Parisians on the street, of inquistorial telephone operators, and even of those most preposterously maddening of creatures, bureaucrats in post offices and police headquarters.”

Platt decodes French culture and codes of behavior in the home, workplace, and marketplace, reaching back into history to help newcomers understand why things work the way they do.  Some of her advice is a bit dated (for example, sending calling cards to follow up a dinner invitation) but even that offers insight into French customs and ways of doing things.  She covers the territory from the minute (don’t bring chrysanthemums as a hostess gift as they are associated with funerals) to broader cultural themes (like the French hesitancy to admit blame or take risk).  

As you transition to life in France, you will at times find it frustrating and difficult.  Platt’s advice won’t solve all your problems but it will sure get you off on the right foot.

French or Foe is available from Amazon; any independent bookseller worth his salt will also order it for you.   Although Platt passed away in 2008, her Web site is still active and includes a number of articles and interviews.