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By all means, when in doubt start off with the greeting “Bonjour“. Like the magical “Open Sesame”, it may help smooth your interaction with the French, although there is no absolute guarantee that it will. Some French people do indeed appreciate it when foreigners try to speak their language, but there are others who couldn’t care less. It is difficult for visitors to grasp the subtle signals sent out by your French counterpart, and you are certainly at a disadvantage when you don’t master their language. To my mind rudeness stems from a lack of consideration for a fellow being, which is why the omission of the greeting “bonjour” per se does not offend me in the least, provided the overall manner of the enquirer is courteous. On the other hand, I am offended by someone who barges in with a query, nowadays even by email. As recently as yesterday a query from the US landed in the in-coming mailbox of a member of my family. There was no “Dear so and so”, no “hello”, no “please”, no “thank you”. Needless to say, the email got deleted right away and will not be responded to. Although nowadays rudeness is often absolved under the convenient umbrella of cultural differences (or “cultural diversity” as the more magnanimous expression goes), it is my firm belief that courtesy versus rudeness are universal attitudes; they travel across borders and are transmitted through facial and vocal expression, even body language.
So are the French more rude than others? They certainly have had the reputation of “grandes gueules” going back to the Middle Ages, specifically the fishwives of the old Les Halles market – les poissardes –, according to poet François Villon who claimed that, despite the reputation of their Italian counterparts, “the big mouths of Paris were second to none.” Four hundred years later, Emile Zola corroborated Villon’s assessment in his novel The Belly of Paris. Madame Ladoucette too admitted to a forthright tongue. A Dame des Halles “from mother to daughter since St. Louis”, she took the liberty to send a letter to the Queen and wife of Henri IV and complain about the latter’s philandering. She even had the gall to add that if the King happened to wander through Les Halles, she would give him a thrashing for the love of her Queen. Incidentally, Henri IV did travel through Les Halles, on 14 May 1610, where rather than be thrashed by Dame Ladoucette he was downright stabbed to death by Ravaillac. The fourth centenary of his assassination will be widely commemorated in France this spring.
I was once lecturing in England on French painting to a British circle of the Alliance Française when, all of a sudden, as one of Picasso’s homages to Manet’s Déjeuner sur l’herbe popped up on the screen, an indignant French female voice rose out of the dark exclaiming, “Qu’est-ce que c’est moche (ugly)!” Clearly, despite the decades spent on English soil alongside an English spouse, Gallic blood still ran thick through the veins of the protesting lady, whose unexpected interjection made me lose my thread of thought. This reminded me of a visit to the Paris Planetarium years earlier, when, as we sat in the dark auditorium admiring the star-studded canopy of heaven, the invisible voice of Mr-know-all interrupted the invisible commentator and accused him of talking a load of rubbish. This led to a lengthy confrontation across the cosmos of the Paris Planetarium to the stupefaction of all present, parents and children alike. In the late 18th century, when the Palais Royal was the centre of Paris, it was over music that people insulted one another, namely the partisans of the Italian Piccini versus those of the German Gluck. At the time of Molière, young pompous aristocrats, seated in the front seats, would deliberately interrupt his troupe during performances. In the 19th century, it was the mob that went all out to disturb everyone in the theatre, except that they had to make do with the cheapest seats up in the “gods”.
Queueing up inside a boulangerie in the bourgeois 7th arrondissement, my son, who was still a child, stepped accidentally (and mildly) on a stilettoed customer. Although we bent over to apologise and appease her, the lady would have none of our apologies and went on venting belligerently until we’d bought our bread and left the shop. On another occasion, this time in a restaurant, my son was barked at by the waitress when he asked if he could have a coulis de framboise (which he’d seen on the menu) poured over his chocolate ice cream. “Certainement pas!” the waitress snapped back. “On ne mélange pas le chocolat avec les fruits rouges!” (Certainly not! One doesn’t mix chocolate with berries!). This was still in the days before unorthodox combinations of ingredients were tolerated in France. And how dared I ask, most politely, where the non-smoking section was located in the corner café Le Daguerre by Denfert-Rochereau? This was back in 1991, when non-smoking areas were first introduced in France, by law, but were largely ignored. “Ici il y’en a pas! Et si vous n’êtes pas contente, dehors!” (Here there is none, and if you are not satisfied, out you go!”) Being a woman I was at least conceded a “vous” rather than “tu”, which was not always the case when I had to fight my way driving.
Not so the suited passenger on the packed bus who, like my sinning son, stepped inadvertently on the foot of a proletarian. The response was instantaneous: “Tu te prends pour qui! Pour la reine d’Angleterre?” (Who do you think you are, the Queen of England?) The socially-levelling “tu” was woven spontaneously into a reference to the ultimate representative of class privilege, as seen from the perspective of the French working classes. Yet in April 2004, this very privileged Queen, whilst celebrating in Paris the bicentenary of the entente cordiale, made an appearance on the trendy rue Montorgueil, the very road that once led to the territory of the loud-mouthed fishwives of Les Halles! How odd to see her there in her eternal hat and handbag! The object of her visit was Stroher’s pastry shop, whose founder, Nicolas Stroher, invented the Baba au Rhum, to the delight of both Stanislas of Poland and his daughter Queen Marie Leszczynska, the wife of Louis XV.
The few examples here provided are evidence enough that Americans are not singled out by ill-behaved Parisians. When Parisians choose to be unpleasant, it is first and foremost towards one another. There are some French people who are biased against the English-speaking world, but ultimately, contrary to what many oversensitive visitors believe, they don’t really care. They go about their own lives and spend little time thinking about tourists (except for those who have tourist friends or are in regular contact with them). But the very fact that the new generations have opened up to the outside world, that they travel a lot, that so many have relatives who live abroad, and that many of them now speak English, has generated a new breed of Parisians who are pleasant, helpful, friendly and rarely rude. They definitely deserved their bad reputation in the old days, but they seldom do today. Remnants of the old stock do survive here and there, but then, I have stumbled upon plenty of rudeness in the United States, on some in Britain too, as well as in the occasional email.
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