A lesson on French politeness

Written by Diane on. Posted in on life in France

level of french politeness When visiting France, one of the first things you’ll notice after interacting with shopkeepers, cashiers and pretty much anyone is that you’ll be bombarded with hellos, thank yous, have a good days and goodbyes — so much so that I found this really comical in the beginning because of what a sharp contrast the politeness was to life in sometimes rude New York City. These days, la politesse Francaise is second nature and I rattle off “thanks, have a good day, bye bye, sir!” just like the rest of ’em.

Just how polite are the French?

Read on for my lesson on French politeness!

In New York, a typical interaction at my local Duane Reade would go like this:

(yea I know not all American cashiers are impolite. Just an example):

Me (approaching cashier): Hi
Cashier: (Silence)…. $9.34
Me: (hands over money)
Cashier: (Silence and hands me change)
Me: Thanks, bye.
Cashier: NEXT!

Here’s a normal exchange at the grocery store in France:

(Note that not all exchanges are exactly like this, but this is common. Of course they’re in French, but I did the translation so you get the idea)

Cashier (as I approach): Bonjour!
Me: Bonjour!
Cashier: That’ll be 9.34, please.
Me: OK, here you go.
Cashier: Thank you very much. Here’s your change.
Me: Thank you
Cashier: You’re welcome. But it’s me who thanks you. Have a good day! Bye!
Me: Thanks, you too! Bye bye.
— takes 5 seconds to gather up bags —
Cashier: (As I finally leave and step away) Thanks, bye!

You see the difference? I have to say that even the cheeriest, most polite retail employee in the US would rival just an average one in France. Sometimes all the greetings are laughable. I mean “Thanks, bye, have a good day, have a good afternoon, thanks, bye” is too much. OK, I may have exaggerated a little there. But not much! Another thing I find funny about French is that people often say “Hello/good evening, sir” or “Thank you very much, ma’am.” Or “Thank you, sir.” I think if I said sir a few times to a cashier in New York, they’d think I was mocking them.

Even the panhandlers on the street are polite. Need an example? I was walking Dagny in our town center and two guys had a sign asking for coins for food. As I approached, one said “Excuse me, ma’am, could you spare some change so I can get something to eat?” I didn’t have my wallet on me and said sorry and he replied “Ok, thanks anyway. Have a good day, bye!” I almost fell over. And that’s not the first time this has happened!

etsy sign fail

French politeness — what to do:

  • Be polite back and just go with whatever the person says to you first. A simple thanks and bye is fine. No need to go over the top.
  • If you’re going to be interrupting someone (even with a phone call or a question in a store), it’s best to say “sorry to disturb you but…” even if you’re not really bothering them. I hear this all the time. Even in stores where it’s the employee’s job to help you, still say excusez-moi before just firing off your question.

French politeness — what NOT to do:

  • Never leave a store without saying merci or au revoir, even if you didn’t buy anything. And especially if you’re the only one in there. This isn’t necessary at a big supermarket (no need to say thanks to the security guard on your way out), but when it’s a smaller shop or market, say thanks!
  • Don’t ignore a bonjour or au revoir. Always follow up a greeting with one of your own. If someone says hi, say hi back. If someone says thanks or bye, say the same. If you don’t know French or are unsure, saying something in English is better than ignoring someone!
Whether the level of French politeness is just a put-on or actually genuine, it doesn’t really matter because it’s cheery and welcoming and beats a sour, silent face any day. French politeness seems to be genuine and a part of the French culture. What’s not to love?

I’ll be traveling to the US in June for my brother’s wedding (first trip home in almost two years!) and I will have to remind myself to scale it back and bite my tongue. A hello, thanks and bye is all that I need in New York  — and even then it might be too much. But hey, never hurts to err on the polite side, right?

What do you think about the level of French politeness?

   
Photo Credit: INKYDIGIT / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND
Photo credit: Courtesy of Etsy shop SignFail (hilarious signs and cards with translations inspired by actual mistakes)
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Comments (38)

  • Christine Snyder

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    I think that level of politeness is wonderful! It just has to lead to a cheerier frame of mind than you’d get in New York City with the lack of friendly interaction there. French politeness would brighten my day, I think, because I’m sure that some of it is genuine.

    Reply

    • Diane

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      I agree and think there’s truth in “fake it til you make it.” I think the French politeness is ingrained in the French from the day they learn to talk, so it’s actually genuine and just part of the culture. Sure beats a puss face and being ignored in a store!

      Reply

  • Cathy Henton

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    I love the level of politeness in France. I like the way that everybody says good morning to everyone else in the boulangerie in the morning and the way that people say bon appetit when passing you to get to their table if you are already eating in a restaurant. Is this Loire valley thing? I don’t know. I asked our boulangerie lady to call me Cathy last year as we have an account with them and are always in there buying something or other. She still hasn’t managed to switch from Madame but does throw in the odd chère Madame.

    Reply

    • Diane

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      Hahah, I know, Cathy! No one calls me Diane! It’s all so proper. I was out w/Dagny the other day and a young boy, maybe 8, said bonjour as he rolled by on his bike. I turned around to see if someone was behind me. No joke. And when you’re at the doctor’s office, everyone greets everyone else when they enter the waiting room. Takes some getting used to! But I like it!

      Reply

  • Alan

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    Diane,

    I just five weeks in France we have found your observations extremely true. Courtesy in aways a first priority. Fun to experience and take part in.

    Reply

    • Diane

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      Yup, it’s really something different than what I was used to in the sometimes not so polite Northeast. But I like it. Impolite people suck (and French ones exist too) and I giggle inside with the Bonne journee, merci au revoir a bientot all in one! haha

      Reply

  • stella

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    I’m so surprise you find french so polite. I always heard french were rude!
    What you’re saying is true but it’s not always the case. More and more people dont’ say hello or goodbye wen you enter/leave their shop. I always say hello when I get into a shop but if my hello was not answered I don’t say goodbye!

    Here in belgium they are even more polite in shops: when you give the cashier the money to pay you have to say “please” and when the cashier give you the change he says the same.
    In fact here every time you are giving simething to someone you have to say “s’il vous play” (please). It comes from the Dutch. And in France we don’t do that so Belgian think we are rude because of that, but not only that lol!

    Reply

  • Michel

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    I think you have very accurately described the interaction between French shopkeepers and cashiers and their clients. On more than one occasion, I have rushed in to a store and without first saying “Bonjour Madame,” blurted do you have this or that? And rather than responding simply “yes” or “no,” have the shopkeeper say “Bonjour Monsieur” as a less than subtle reminder that there is a certain way to begin a business transaction in France. Very good post.

    Reply

    • gram evans

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      Our youngest daughter went to school, maternelle in France, at age 3. 3 yrs olds were expected to be courteous, shake the hand of their teacher when they arrived in class, saying Bonjour Madame etc. Culture starts very early.

      Reply

      • Diane

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        Oh wow, yes that’s very young. I like how kids are taught their manners from an early age. Thanks for commenting!

        Reply

    • Diane

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      Yup, I’ve made the same mistake and now I know better. And even if I’m in a rush, I take a second to do the whole greeting thing. Now it’s second nature! I don’t think Americans are rude, but we’re just more direct it seems when it comes to greetings

      Reply

  • Jennifer

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    Yes, you’ve got it down! You especially don’t want to miss the initial “bonjour” before asking a question in a shop – you’ll get dirty looks and a grumpy attitude in return!
    Ironically the French are perceived as rude generally, yet they have great manners in commerce 🙂 Merci et bonne journee!

    Reply

  • Den Nation

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    I don’t think the French are rude. North Americans sometimes think the French are rude, but they are basing this on their cultural norms. The French are reserved – North Americans generally are not. I think North Amercians need to realize that what they may consider to be rude would not be rude for a French person.

    That said, there is one time when I absolutely hate to be polite in France. And that is when the other side has messed up, as is often the case when dealing with fonctionnaires that have lost your paperwork or with Orange that doesn’t want to cancel your contract even though you have already written them 3 letters. You know they are in the wrong, but you still have to get out that “Bonne journée” through clenched teeth.

    Reply

    • Diane

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      Oh I know the clenched teeth thing all too well. Usually at the post office when they put postage on my box to the UK when it clearly says USA. Good thing I look out for these things and know the postage rates, otherwise I’m sure that package would have disappeared. Or not asking me to put a customs form on (once again I know it needs this so I ask). Just baffling how ineffective things are sometimes!

      Reply

  • 4 Coins du Monde / Xavier

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    Bonjour,

    What a good observation. You’re right.

    And specialy with the good bye thing.

    As you said, even if you don’t have a high french skill, at least say thank you and good bye in english.
    Since we are young, we learn english. So everyone will understand.

    You’re 200% right : in english will be better then nothing.

    Merci, au revoir et bonne journée.

    Reply

  • Isabelle

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    That is so funny , I never think that an American could say that French were so polit : where I live in the us, I find that people are very polit : like they say : “did you find everything ok ? ” sometime I wonder : what happens if I say No : because I don’t find everything I want all the time … Anyway : I didn’t know that it was so French to say all the time Merci et au revoir …. And i am French

    Reply

    • Diane

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      Yup, I find the formality of French greetings very proper and polite. I don’t think the French in general are particularly friendly. And if you’re in a store and didn’t find everything, speak up. It’s the employee’s job to help you. No harm in saying you need help. And yes the Merci, au revoir bonne journee etc upon exiting a store is crazy to me! So much to say!

      Reply

  • Megan

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    In some aspects I would agree with this post, they are very polite and set on saying Bonjour and bonne journee but outside of those moments is definitely when I find they are less polite than I am used to. Like if somebody accidentally bumps into you in the store, not even a glance your way or “excuse me”, at least not that I’ve encountered. And maybe its just my small town background that has trouble with this lol.

    Reply

    • Diane

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      Oh wow, people bump into you and don’t say sorry? Yikes, that’s really rude. I have to say people have been overly apologetic in my experience. And if they didn’t even say sorry I think I’d say “Excuse YOU” haha

      Reply

  • Punaiz

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    Good evening (see, I’m french)
    Strange enough, French People find Americans very friendly and polite. When they bump you in the street they ask if you’re ok, and tell you to take care. But maybe not in NewYork.
    As in Paris, and specially in the Metro, when people are crushed into small closed areas, they bump and rebound and just exchange a glance (not always) without a word, or maybe mumbling…
    About educating children. I guess a teenager would very naturally bump into you, grab your watch, say good evening and goodbye before running out of sight with your watch and wallet…

    Have a pleasant evening (gosh, can’t hold it)

    Reply

    • Diane

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      I see what you mean. I think Americans are very apologetic one on one, like you said if we bump into someone. But the part that is a little different in France is saying hi to the entire waiting room at a doctor’s office, or saying goodbye to everyone when leaving the post office. It’s more of an inclusive politeness in France, in my opinion. But I like it!! Thank you for stopping by and HAPPY HOLIDAYS!

      Reply

      • Hipparchia

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        Good evening everybody,

        We have a specific non verbal code for the Métro in Paris. Some people are still rude or do not care for other people or even common sense (not letting people going out before then enter the wagon for instance), but most of us do behave correctly. It could not work otherwise.
        I don’t know how different the subway is in New York but the famous “Ligne 13” here can be very hard ride : http://i.imgur.com/1ozEozM.png
        When it is rush hour, it is inevitable to bump into each other, to touch each other (worst of all being the skin contact :p).
        And if you still can apologise with words, you usally show some contrition with small movement of the lips, and a very brief eye contact.
        I don’t know if it’s a french-parisian thing though. But this article (A lesson on French politeness) just showed me that what i supposed to be common everywhere was not, so you may be interested.
        Here is a study about all that (in french)
        http://www.metropolitiques.eu/Comment-supporte-t-on-les-rames.html
        (but here is the google translation http://translate.google.com/translate?hl=fr&sl=fr&tl=en&u=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.metropolitiques.eu%2FComment-supporte-t-on-les-rames.html&sandbox=1)
        The non verbal language is working very often. It can be distrubing because of those “non-dits” : people often prefer not to tell what is wrong because PEOPLE SHOULD KNOW that they are doing it wrong (it does not help :D). Instead of saying “excuse me” or “pardon” they will just say nothing. That is why you have to have eyes everywhere (even behind you) to see if you are not in the way of someone, or taking a seat from an old man / pregnant woman. Asking if someone needs the seat aswell as not asking for that seat will be the proper thing to do.
        On the other hand you will also hear people saying “pardon” or “désolé” (sorry), as being rushed by someone. Don’t ask me why.

        There are also some rules very strict that can irritate people, like not holding your right in the escalator (to let people in a hurry or just walking faster than you, walk freely), or even in the tunnels. Or worst, being 3 friends walking in a line and not “à la queue leu-leu” (one after the other), preventing people to overtake you. Grrr !

        Sorry for my bad english (I’m a véritable french cliché).

        Bonne continuation, l’article était intéressant !

        Reply

  • Scarlyn

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    French are rude. I am french, we are rude. Your experience with politeness in french was good, ok, you’re lucky. But it was an exception… Usually, in the grocery store cashier would speak exactely like the new yorker.
    Sorry to break your dream !

    Reply

    • Diane

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      Hi Scarlyn, thanks for stopping by and commenting on my post. I can only comment based on my experiences and I guess I am lucky that the French are socially polite in my experience. I will stand by what I said and at least where I live, my exchanges at the grocery store and similar places are always much more polite (hello, goodbye, have a nice afternoon/evening/good day) than the same type of exchange in the U.S. Again, just what I’ve witnessed first hand. 😉

      Reply

    • Cedric

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      Attention, il y a Paris, et le reste de la France. En effet, les Parisiens sont loin d’être les plus agréables, mais en province, la politesse est bien celle qui est présenté par Diane.

      Reply

      • Agnès B.

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        Tout à fait !! you’re right Cédric ! I’m French and I’m reaaaalllyyyy polite ! But I’m not a parisian ! In Paris they’re often rude, not in the rest of France ! thank you Diane, you made my 😉 !!!! au-revoir !

        Reply

  • Morgane

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    Hi !

    I am from France but I am living in Canada now (in the English part). And I saw the difference yes 🙂 I am still saying “Goodbye” when I am leaving a store but I feel like the cashiers are surprised lol

    There is also another big difference in the restaurant. I do not know if it is the same in NY but in Canada, when I am in a restaurant, waitresses are always coming during the dinner to ask you if everything is ok several times. In France, it is not polite at all. The waitress is always stopping me while I am talking with my friend to ask me this. I found it not polite at all for the first time ! I was thinking “WTF ? I was talking with my friend, I lost my words now” but when I noticed that it was in ALL the restaurant, I understand that it was a culture issue 😉

    I also understand why French people are “complaining” about everything. First, I think that our past (the French Revolution) play a role on it but we are complaining about everything because it is working in this way in France ! I was a very shy person so I was never complaining but if you do not complain in France, you get nothing ! I mean for example if your train is delayed, if you do not complain, you will not get the refund. The strongest and loudest is your complain, the better and the faster it is solved…. It works everywhere and every time like this ! Here in Canada, you do not need to complain to get satisfaction. You just need to explain what is wrong, and you get it ! In France you have to exaggerate to get it.

    Well, sorry for the big comment but it is very interesting ! More particularly to read someone talking about my country 🙂

    Je te souhaite une bonne journée !

    Reply

    • Diane

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      Yes, Morgane, so funny, whenever I visit the US and say bye after a transaction the cashiers seem surprised. But hey, it’s a good thing to be polite so maybe my goodbye lifts their mood. Who knows. Or maybe they think I’m crazy! And about restaurants, not sure about Canada, but in the US waitstaff works for tips so it’s in their best interest financially to make sure you don’t need a refill or something else. In France, waitstaff are paid fairly and I understand the cultural aspect of it as well — that it’s impolite to interrupt. Absolutely a valid point. And you have me laughing about the complaining. That the strongest and loudest win. Hahaha.
      Anyway, really enjoyed your comment, thank you!

      Reply

  • FaFa

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    Hello Diane,

    I am surprised to read you because I am French and I have always found us rude. I currently live in Canada and I think the service here is much better and I don’t mind if they don’t say hello first…because in France, I think that people will be polite (or not), but they will not try to help you in a store as much as in North America. In France, if they are annoyed at you, they will almost tell you and it will be your fault anyways, even if you are right!… The worst is at restaurants I find. I remember I went on vacation to Paris and the waiter did not want to spit the bill like it is done in Canada because he did not feel like it, or a supermarket where a cashier talked in the back of a client very loudly…(my Canadian side wrote a complaint) and I have many other stories… of course, sometimes people are really polite like you mentioned but in general I find North America better in that regard… New York being an exception.
    When I go to the French consulate where I live or at the city hall of my hometown, they often have a silly remark to make. Overall, it is really a big stress to have to go back to France!!

    But I’m glad some people are having good experiences… one day i went to France with my american friend and they were nicer to her than to me.. I should start working on my English accent in French!

    😉

    Reply

  • Cecile

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    Very good post Diane! About politeness, I think it’s a matter of education. I remember my parents teaching me that: “Bonjour”, “Merci”, “s’il vous plait”, etc were kind of magic words to obtain more easily what I wanted… I am so glad that you underline that French people are not so rude… They are less effusive and demonstrative than other people, that’s true. May be that’s why they are judged so cold and arrogant :-). I am Parisian and I wrote about these cultural differences and what to do for enjoying a nice stay in Paris.
    http://etvoila.info/10-mistakes-to-avoid-to-have-a-nice-stay-in-paris/
    Paris is definitely a place where you really need good advices to feel comfortable with people!

    Reply

  • Patou

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    I so agree that in France it’s de rigeur to say “Bonjour Mme/M” as you enter a store, and “merci” and “au revoir” or “Bon journee” as you exit. I live in NYC and spend several weeks renting an apt. in Paris each year…I love the politesse and civility there that’s lacking in NYC. The French are among the warmest, most lovely people in the world, and it’s the ignorant Americans who give them a bad rap.

    Reply

  • Nathalie

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    I am French and live in England! Did find hard to accept people don’t say “Hello and Good bye in shop! Or shaking Hand to say hello and goodbye when you meet people! Or kiss when you know a person more closely!
    If you don’t shake hands it’s considered as very rude too!

    Reply

  • Frédéric

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    You’ll find these expressions in nearly every formal conversation in France. It’s not always a form of politeness I think, more of a stereotype discussion, essential expresions that are part of the french culture.
    I mean, you could someday enter a shop, and the cashier isn’t having it’s very best day, you’ll hear those thankyous and goodbyes anyway. Which is a good french thing, I guess!

    Reply

    • Diane

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      Yup, I agree that it’s a good thing! Even if it’s superficial and rote, it sounds nice to the ears!

      Reply

  • Maxime

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    Dear Diane,

    I am a french man, and I wanted to thank you for that article. And you are also pointing your finger on a cultural and very particuler thing that is part of the french culture………..being polite. Plenty of north american people tend to think and say that french people are rude, especially in Paris. But let’s be honest, when you have 70 millions of tourists every year, that come in your country and just don’t take five minutes to document themselves on the culture and the habitudes, well………you just loose your patience and stop being nice. And this is a pity, because, when you are polite in France, there is absolutely no reason that people won’t be the same with you. Of course we have a lot of stupid people without education. But most of the time, when you enter in a shop or an administration, your level of politeness will configure the way the person interacts with you. It can be surprising for foreigners, but that is part of our daily culture. And not respecting it will make you meet plenty of rude french people !

    Reply

    • Diane

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      You’re very welcome, Maxime! It’s so true that politeness begets politeness. If someone is rude, it automatically starts the conversation out on the wrong foot. I think in some cases, tourists just don’t know the cultural norms in France but sometimes even if they do, they just don’t care. So trying to educate people a little at a time through my blog. 😉 Thanks again for stopping by!

      Reply

  • Crotta

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    Hello!
    There is an expression “ni bonjour ni merde” , like in “he started talking to me, ni bonjour ni merde” to point the fact that the person is a jerk. And when we are kids we have to learn “les mots magiques”: merci, s’il vous plaît, but poeple tend to be less polite, when I ride the bus I’m often the only person who says helle to the bus driver. But you are right, politness is the base for good social interaction, if you are not, be ready for frowny faces and unwillingness!!

    Reply

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