July 1, 2008By Paris UpdateWhat's New Potpourri

Politeness Counts (Sometimes)

A handshake, if not cheek kisses, is mandatory every time friends and acquaintances meet. Photo: J. Gascoigne

Recently, while I was having an early evening aperitif with two friends in a smart brasserie near Trinité Church, two scruffy tramps entered and sat down at a nearby table. Although they were perfectly discreet and well-behaved, it was not long before a waiter came up and asked them to leave. Clearly they did not fit the brasserie’s upmarket image. An argument ensued, ending with one of the tramps shouting at the waiter as they were being ejected, “Vous êtes un con, Monsieur!” which means (non-French-speakers with a sensitive disposition should look away now) “You are a cunt, sir.”

It struck me as peculiarly but also wonderfully French that at the very moment of hurling the most insulting swearword, the tramp was polite enough to use the formal “vous,” accompanied by the even more respectful “Monsieur.” This incident set me musing on the very different and often contradictory notions of politeness (or politesse) that play an important role at all levels of French society.

Throughout the ages, politeness has been taken very seriously in France. Various periods have been associated with terms that are pretty much untranslatable. In the Middle Ages, for example, the tradition in the royal courts of courtoisie, literally meaning courtesy, encapsulated a much more complex set of codes on how to behave nobly. In the 17th century, a vague concept known as honnêteté emerged to represent the ideal of civilized behavior. Various manuals were written on how best to be an honnête homme; the essayist Antoine Gombauld, Chevalier de Méré even congratulates himself and the French on the fact that other nations have no comparable concept of politeness.

In 19th- and early-20th-century high society, the intricacies of appropriate etiquette were an overriding concern for many. One has only to read Proust to grasp quite how complicated a business it was to behave appropriately in such a context.

In today’s France, extreme deference is still necessary in some arenas. The advent of the Internet may have led to less formal ways of writing messages, but formal letters still require many more formules de politesse (polite expressions) than are thought necessary in most other cultures.

In the political field, even the rise of the Americanized Nicolas Sarkozy and his supermodel wife Carla Bruni has not led to more hard-hitting treatment of politicians. Watch a press conference held by Sarkozy and notice the extremely polite, soft-focus questions asked by journalists and compare this to the gladiatorial combat between journalists and politicians in Britain.

On the other hand, Sarkozy’s own rather more direct style of dealing with the populace, such as the time he told a man who refused to shake his hand to “piss off” (“casse-toi”), has been viewed as inappropriately rude for a president of the Republic.

On an everyday level, the French display examples of politeness that somehow seem more charming than in the Anglo-Saxon world. The local baker’s greeting before and after buying your morning croissant, for instance, may be akin to the American ‘Have a nice day!’, but for some reason it feels more sincere.

Once, while I was traveling in Burgundy during a very hot summer, I went for a swim in a river. A large group of sulky-looking teenagers sitting on the riverbank nearby could have belonged to any country at any time. But when a new arrival joined the group, he solemnly made the rounds and shook each one’s hand. That for me sums up the best of civilization, for these rituals show that politesse is still seen as important at the very foundation of French society.

In other areas, however, politeness will put you at a distinct disadvantage: when dealing with civil servants, for example, or trying to make a complaint or catch the attention of a surly waiter. Whereas in the English-speaking world, it is important to say please and thank you as much as possible, in France, and particularly Paris, this is interpreted as weakness, and you will be treated with extra disdain. In my early days in Paris, I remember trying to have a faulty washing machine exchanged. Although the error was entirely that of the manufacturers, I remained my polite best, assuring the shop assistant and the manager that I understood what a problem it was for them to exchange the machine. Grosse erreur! They obstinately refused to do anything to help. Pushed to the limit, after several fruitless telephone calls and further trips to the appliance store, I eventually erupted with a string of my best and most threatening French curses. Instantly, I was treated with extreme cordiality, and the machine was exchanged right away.

Often, only naked aggression will gain you both grudging respect and something resembling a straightforward answer!

James Gascoigne

© 2008 Paris Update

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Reader Panama Red writes: Although I found his article to be extremely informative and entertaining, for James Gascoigne to describe Sarkozy as Americanized and then to use the expression”piss off” as an example of the same is incorrect. While Sarko may be “Americanized”, no American would ever use the expression “piss off”. We’d tend instead to say “fuck off.” “Piss off” as a command sounds to us extremely British. An example of our use of the phrase follows: I just thought I’d bring this up, with no intention to piss off M. Gascoigne.

Editor’s note: You are right. “Piss off” used in this way is a British expression.

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