As strange as it may seem, in France, people are actually very polite. We know that there is a cliché saying that French people are quite rude (especially Parisians) but the general and commonly accepted poker face and silent attitude are usually misinterpreted by tourists, who are, on the contrary, surprised to hear all the polite greeting phrases! Here are some tips to look like a polite French person instead of a rude tourist (which may be why you are facing impolite frowny faces…):
This is probably the most important word to say in French. If you enter a shop without saying “bonjour”, you will be considered as a rude person who is disrespecting the sellers. And vice-versa. A seller who does not say hello to a customer is particularly frowned upon in France. But this rule does not only apply to shops. You have to greet people almost every time you enter in a place: on the bus, at the restaurant, at the bakery, at work, at the bank… In the evening, people also say “Bonsoir”, but we don’t seem to agree on the right hour to begin to say it. Don’t worry, many French people make this mistake, and nobody takes this into account, the most important thing is to say hello quite simply. Needless to say that the same rule applies with goodbyes.
Merci and S’il vous plait are one of the first words children are taught! We are always saying to them “What is the magic word?” to make them say please or thank you. And the rule still applies when you are an adult! It may seem overpolite to string together “Bonjour, merci, au revoir, bonne journée” but this is usually how you address people in France. Every time you make a request, you must say “s’il vous plait” and every time someone makes something for you, you must say “thank you” (even if this is their job to serve you)! As simple as that. Sometimes, people add “you’re welcome” which can have different forms, such as “je vous en prie” or “merci à vous”. “De rien” is a little familiar so, try not to use it with someone you don’t know well.
© Frédérique Voisin-Demery on Flickr
How to ask a question
If you speak French quite well and you have a question to ask a stranger, you can begin your sentence by “excusez-moi de vous déranger” (sorry to bother you…). It is usually rude to interrupt someone in France so it will be appreciated if you say that. If you don’t speak French, don’t assume that everyone will understand you, because even if most French people learn English at school, they are not very good at it! So before asking your question, you can say “Parlez-vous anglais?” or if you really don’t know any French word, “Do you speak English?” will be good as it is a pretty understandable sentence.
Don’t hug people!
This is a major difference between US and France. French people don’t hug to say hello, they kiss on the cheeks. Well, actually they don’t really kiss, people hate it when the mouth of someone they don’t really know touches their cheek! It is more a contact between your cheek and the cheek of your interlocutor while making a kiss noise with your mouth (yeah weird, right?) In formal situations, like in a business meeting, people shake hands. In everyday life, women give and get the “bisou”, and men shake hands among themselves (except if they are very good friends or family, they can kiss).
And that’s about it. Also, try not to be too loud, because French people are known for being reserved! Anyway, they usually love foreigners and their cute accent in French, so they will mostly be happy to help you if you follow these little rules ☺
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