Canadians are known around the world for being polite. When you bump into another pedestrian on the sidewalk in Canada, the person being bumped into says, “sorry”. Why is it that the “bumpee” says, “Sorry”, rather than the “bumper”, who really is to blame? In Canada, that’s just the way it is, and sorry is one of Canadians’ favourite words.
. . . the “bumper” would look at me like I had escargots crawling out of my ears.
It can sometimes be rather difficult to get anywhere in Canada because everyone is so polite. When going through a doorway at the same time as someone else, it turns into a “No, after you” standoff so folks end up having an extended, considerate debate for an hour at front door of local dry cleaners before either one of them finally crosses the threshold to enter. So in Canada, it’s advisable to just buy clothing items that can be washed by hand or in the machine.
A four-way stop at an intersection is another story. The rules of the road is that if two cars arrive at the intersection, the first car to arrive has the right of way, and if you arrive at the same time, you defer to the right. I found myself in this scenario with three other cars one day. I was the last one to arrive but the other drivers kept gesturing and smiling and mouthing the infamous, “You go first” phrase so by the time I got home from work, I had just enough time to have a quick shower and start the day anew.
If you are wondering why, I am going on about polite Canadians, it’s because as a sensitive, overly polite Canadian expat living in Paris, I am hyper aware about folks being impolite so I am a good measuring stick for the level of French rudeness.
In general, I honestly don’t find the French rude, often it is quite the opposite. It’s just a different culture and a different way of viewing the world. It is quite a polite society, but you have to know the rules of the game because they are not the same in France as they are at home. If someone bumped into me in the street in Paris, for example, as the “bumpee”, if I said “sorry” or “pardon” in French, the “bumper” would look at me like I had escargots crawling out of my ears.
The rules of politeness or manners, known as ‘la politesse”, or “savoir-vivre” in France can be somewhat complicated. For example, greetings in a business setting it is generally a handshake. If it is between friends, you do “la bise” or the little air/cheek kisses, whether you are male or female, but the number of times you do it can vary from region to region. In Paris it is generally once on each cheek. There have been a few instances when I managed to turn this greeting into a rather awkward situation when I started “la bise” from the wrong side. Then it becomes a mad dodge of the head by the other person to avoid getting “la bise” right, smack on their kisser, meanwhile, I have managed to make the other person risk a serious dislocation of the vertebrae in the neck.
The French can appear to be cool and standoffish, but it is because they are a little more formal in their day-to-day interactions, and if we unknowingly break those rules, we can appear rude to them and they will in turn, may be frigid and uncooperative. However, there are two simple phrases that are easy to learn and use that, I guarantee, will get a smile and some help if you need it.
Say bonjour always, and I can’t emphasize always enough. Whether you are entering a shop, an elevator, or want to ask someone a question on the street you must open with bonjour or you may get an icy stare, or just be ignored. When I’m with clients on a Flavors of Paris food tour, I advise them to not be shy and say bonjour to everyone when we do our visits.
I find that saying bonjour is an elegant form of acknowledgement. When entering shops in North America, we tend to keep our heads down, looking at the merchandise until the clerk approaches us and asks us if we need any help. There is nothing like making a French person feel like a discarded piece of chopped liver by not acknowledging their presence.
Around 6pm in the evening, bonjour switches to bonsoir, but don’t worry if you don’t make the switch exactly on time. It tends to get a little bungled up, even with the French, around this time of day.
2. S’il vous plaît
I remember when I was a kid and the adults would ask: “What the magic word?”—when I forgot to say please. It’s the same thing for the French. S’il vous plaît, does apparently have magical powers. If you need help, or are trying to get someone’s attention, like a waiter in a restaurant, just try to get their attention and say s’il vous plaît. If you throw in a bit of a lost puppy dog look along with it, I assure you it will get you some cooperation and help.
There are several more helpful phrases for “la politesse” that you can employ because the French style of etiquette is a little more complex that that in America, even in a casual setting. But if you start with these 2 phrases, your visit to Paris will truly be a pleasant experience.
These days, there are more and more Parisians who speak English. Many of them will respond to you in English if they can, when they see you need some help, and there are many Parisians who enjoy meeting Anglophones because they like to practice speaking English.
That wasn’t always the case. I remember visiting Paris many years ago, and the Parisians would look down their noses at me as a struggled to say something in French. Today, they have yet to shake off that reputation for being snooty.
Just like in any big city. People can be stressed and a little uptight, and you can run into a rude person. It has happened to me in Paris, but most of my interactions are positive ones. One of the most exciting things about traveling is interacting with the locals, and I am heartened to hear my clients, who take a Flavors of Paris food tour with us, say that they are surprised just how friendly the Parisians are.
Article by Lisa Rankin, hard-core foodie, wine hound, Paris lover, and Flavors of Paris food tours founder.