As a tourist, I've made countless gaffes, but I suspect that when I move abroad, it will make sense for me to at least familiarize myself with how not to come across as a totally inept American. That way, if I am hated, it will be for where I was born, and not how I (mis)behave.
On second thought, I almost want to make the same mistakes as David Sedaris. Or to re-live portions of "Almost French" and "A Year in the Merde," two books that chronicle the misadventures of an Australian woman and an Englishman (respectively) who dealt with the cultural peculiarities of living in France.
France Polishes Its Politesse
By ELAINE SCIOLINO
January 11, 2007
CHIC French diners eat asparagus with their fingers and sorbet with their forks.
The words “Bon appétit” should never be uttered at the start of a meal.
The polite passenger always says, “Bonjour” to the driver upon entering the bus.
And, bien sûr, the dinner guest must not leave the table in midmeal to use the powder room, and should she have to go, never, ever use the word “toilette” when asking a host for directions.
Mastering the rules of good manners never has been easy, even for the French.
Despite a centuries-old obsession with behaving well, the French are constantly relearning how to do it, and the last few years have witnessed both the degradation of civility and manners and a revival of interest in them.
On one level disrespect for authority is on the rise. Cars are burned and garbage is thrown out of windows in the troubled gritty suburbs. Verbal and physical attacks against teachers in schools are more widespread than they were a few years ago. Commuters are hit, seats are slashed, graffiti is written on Paris Métro cars.
But on another level is a desire to retain, encourage and even venerate what the French call “politesse.”
“It sounds bizarre, but with more and more acts of incivility, people are tolerating them much less,” said Frédéric Rouvillois, the author of “Histoire de la Politesse,” a scholarly tome that traces the history of good manners in France over the last three centuries. “There’s more awareness that courtesy and savoir-faire are useful and necessary tools in society.”
As part of the consciousness-raising, private sessions on proper table settings and dining habits are offered to Parisian ladies of leisure. The Paris transit authority is in the midst of a campaign of respect to improve the quality of travel for its passengers. Humorous posters hung last fall prodded travelers to muzzle their pets; use trash cans for their garbage; speak softly on their cellphones; avoid whacking their neighbors with their backpacks; and, of course, say hello and goodbye to conductors and ticket vendors.
In 2005, in response to complaints about interaction between patients and staff, the Hospital Federation of France began its first national advertising drive for politeness in public hospitals and nursing homes, with a list of rules for how to behave and the motto “Stay polite!”
The Ministry of Education has made good citizenship part of the national curriculum in high schools. The Ministry of Transportation designates an annual “day of steering wheel courtesy” to encourage polite behavior on the road.
“In a society more and more brutal, with deafening vulgarity, it is with delight that we are rediscovering the discreet charm of courtesy,” wrote Point de Vue, a weekly magazine that focuses on old families and the remnants of royalty, in an article some months ago on the return of good manners.
In the perfect French world, rules govern even the most mundane subjects: how to answer the telephone, how to greet a guest at the door, how to address a stranger, what to take to a dinner party, how to behave on the Métro.
“It’s like a sport, you have to train hard,” said Marie de Tilly, a rail-thin expert on manners, who teaches a two-hour course in Paris to women who pay $90 to attend. “But once you train and know the rules, it all comes naturally.”
All can be lost in that first moment of acquaintance, Ms. de Tilly told a group of French and American women during a session last month in a hotel room adorned in brocade and silk.
“In the first 20 seconds, others will judge your look, in the second 20 seconds your behavior and the third 20 seconds your first words,” she said. “There is a code. If you don’t follow it properly, it will be very, very hard to make a comeback.”
The class learns classic 19th-century behavior: for example, that the woman — not the man — extends a hand for a handshake. A married woman should fold one hand over the other at the table, the better to show off her jewels.
A box of chocolates is an appropriate gift when invited for dinner, to be deposited at the entrance with a gift card. Flowers can be sent either just before the dinner or, better, the following day. Wine is not an appropriate dinner gift. (It assumes that the host does not have good taste.) Always arrive at a dinner party 15 minutes late.
Only a country bumpkin would say, “Bon appétit” at the start of a meal. Foie gras should be eaten with a fork, never spread on bread. If a woman’s wineglass needs filling, she should play with it until her male neighbor notices and fills it.
It is best to avoid using the powder room at all, but if there is absolutely no choice, it must be done discreetly.
“When you are at the table, you never get up, never,” Ms. Tilly said. “You never use the word ‘toilette.’ When there is a break — the best time is after dinner when you leave the table — you can ask, very discreetly, ‘May I wash my hands?’ ”
Etiquette has trickled down to a more popular level as well. Last year the French television station M6 ran a reality show dedicated to the “conquest of savoir-faire.” Eight young Eliza Doolittles from working class backgrounds were sent to a French chateau for a month to prepare themselves for a ball. Some of them regularly ate with their fingers. One had never worn a skirt.
Coaches taught them to speak, move, dress and eat properly, even how to nudge large shrimp out of the shell with knife and fork. The winner secured a place for herself in opening the Louis XIV Ball, a gala event for “aristocratic” families held every June in a Paris hotel.
The most ambitious attempt to improve manners is Objective Respect, a campaign begun last October by the transit authority to help change the behavior of riders who, for instance, play loud music or eat messy food. “Passengers were complaining more about the lack of respect for the rules and that people no longer made an effort to get others to behave,” said Gilles Alligner, the director of communications at the transit authority. “So we decided to give the riders some responsibility and make them our partners.”
The transit authority has asked passengers to rank their pet peeves on an interactive forum on the Internet, answering the question, “What irritates you the most?” The most common complaint is the failure of riders automatically to surrender the seats near the doors and to stand when the train becomes crowded, allowing the seats to fold and thus create more room.
France has had an uneven history of manners. With the French Revolution, the republican passion for equality trumped the rules of gentility, which glorified hierarchy and differences of class and gender. Men had to be called “Citoyen” (Citizen) rather than “Monsieur.” The use of the familiar “tu” form of “you” replaced the formal “vous.”
The rise of the bourgeoisie in the 19th century swept in a new era of politeness, which declined during and after World War I. The brutality of the war made the rules of gentility seem meaningless. Another low point came with the May 1968 rebellion, which swept in an ideology that challenged all forms of authority.
Certainly, polls show an increase of interest in manners. Ninety-five percent of the French believe that being polite is an asset, according to an Ipsos poll last March. A poll in 2003 indicated that 70 percent of French parents place great importance on manners, compared with 53 percent in 1991 and 21 percent in 1981.
Some rituals of politesse die hard. Dueling may have been banned decades ago, but hand kissing has survived. The master has to be President Jacques Chirac.
Mr. Chirac clearly knows how to do it: he raises the woman’s hand to chest level and bends over to meet it halfway. Sometimes, as when he visited Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin last March, he cradles the hand in both of his.
“The French president,” a writer in the Swiss daily Le Matin commented last September after Mr. Chirac kissed Ms. Merkel’s hand once again, “can no longer meet a woman, either a star, a head of state, a first lady or a minister, without doing it.”
The practice, however, the writer added, “has nothing to do with protocol.”