The French keys to the kingdom

Bonjour, madame. Excusez-moi de vous déranger. Then I went on to ask the lady in the press kiosk if she knew how to get to the street I was looking for.

Wow! Talk about a miserable human being! (Miserable, by the way, is a faux ami, usually used in French to mean only “destitute”, i.e., financially “miserable”; the French translation of the English “miserable” is simply [très] malheureux, triste.) The look on her face was a combination of horror (at being disturbed), heartache (What had happened to her?!) and hatred (of the world in general).

And yet, I had used all three magic words/expressions. The ones you’re chided by cross-cultural coaches for not using, and thus not getting what you need and want in France. The ones you’re real proud of yourself for having learned, as witness your success in getting what you need and want in a capital city notorious for its commercial iciness.

So, “Sorry, lady! I gave you all I have,” I said to myself, realizing that if these three cultural-linguistic keys to the kingdom didn’t work, nothing would, and walking away before she even had a chance to decide whether or not to spit out an answer:

  • Bonjour Although the word certainly existed before 1789, the excessive use of bonjour is an artifact of the French Revolution. Since at Versailles and its outposts, the existence of only nobles was graced by a greeting, the revolutionaries decided to go all the way to the other end of the interactional spectrum and to bonjour every soul they had any contact with whatsoever, from the most cursory to the most enduring.

That is why today, when you enter a taxi and bark out, “PLACE DU TROCADERO!” the driver will wait several seconds until his seething indignation dials down a bit, turn his head toward you with torturous slowness and, in a drippingly scathing sing-song, set what he intends as an example via a protracted bonnnnnnnjououourrrrr.

That is why today, when you’re first in line at the bakery and bark out, “UN CROISSANT!” there’s a huge possibility that the person behind you who entered emitting a lilting bonjour will be served before you.

That is why today, when during your walk or run or bike ride through Paris nature suddenly calls and in a visible state of utmost urgency you duck into the nearest café and bark out, “EST-CE QUE JE PEUX UTILISER VOS TOILETTES?!” the otherwise accommodating waiter will let you stand there dancing around anxiously until you figure out that he first needs a bonjour.

In other words, it is culturally unacceptable and even unimaginable that you would not have thus greeted the taxi driver, bakery clerk or waiter before even thinking about announcing your destination, ordering your pastry or relieving yourself!

  • Madame Except if you’re in the military or the Deep South, “madam” and “sir” are received more as terms of sarcasm or eccentricity than of politesse. You say, “Yes, madam!” to your mother when she tells you you’re grounded for a week, and she makes that two. You ask, “Do you mind if I open a window, sir,” and your fellow train passenger assumes you’re from another country.

In France, everyone is madame or monsieur (except young unmarried women, who are mademoiselle until that unforgettable momentous day when someone bumps into them, says Excusez-moi, madame and thus catapults them over the line of demarcation between pristine youth and hopeless decrepitude [older unmarried women often opt for the social heft bestowed by madame]). Failing to include these titles when addressing someoneincluding someone younger or less educationally or professionally accomplished than youis the equivalent of opening your interaction with “Hey! You!”

And in addition to making you a bit more appealing to your interlocutors, according someone the respect of acknowledging their madameness or monsieurness winds up feeling good, possibly tickling those cerebral pleasure-centers ignited when you engage in acts of generosity.

  • Excusez-moi de vous déranger As noted in 90+ Ways You Know You’re Becoming French, successfully navigating the often opaque, frequently frustrating, ever exciting byways of French culture means ultimately “succumb[ing] to the verity that the way to get what you need from the policeman, clerk, passerby, receptionist, helpdesk is to excuse yourself for disturbing themno matter how ferociously you’ve heretofore resisted this humiliation.” For many Anglos, excusing ourselves for “disturbing” someone by asking them to do the job for which they are being paid, or to render the miniscule service of pointing out a neighboring street, is up there at the top of the mortification-meter with telling a correspondent that je me permets de (I am permitting myself to) write this letter asking them to do the job for which they are being paidto, for example, send me the copy of the contract that you promised five times to send and that I never received.

That such practices have their roots in a culture dominated for the better part of two millenniums by tribal chieftains, church elders and monarchic dynasties whose subjects were enjoined to be humble, discrete and self-effacing is beside the point. The dumbfounding fact is, this demeaning little sentence works! Your addressee actually perks up, and while not necessarily giving you exactly what you’ve asked for, at least acknowledges your presence on Planet Earth.

But it didn’t work with the lady in the press kiosk. Which is why I knew to cut my losses and walk away.

Shari Leslie Segall is a writer who lives in Paris

Learn more about life in France in LOOFE.

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