Photo by Seligmann / Alamy
Why is that Parisian shopkeeper scowling at you? Is it because you forgot to say “Bonjour”?
The French have a reputation abroad of being brusque, even rude. But stand in a corner and spy on an exchange between a customer and proprietor at a patisserie or a fromagerie and you’ll think you’re back in the court of Louis XIV.
“Bonjour, Madame,” the exchange invariably begins. The customer is always greeted with consummate professionalism – “Monsieur” and “Madame” are preferred. (The gender-inclusive plural “Messieursdames” was once considered so painfully new-fangled that to use it in an interview for the prestigious École Polytechniques was rumored to merit an automatic rejection.)
The customer is obliged to reply with equal formality. Every step of the selling process – choosing an item, explaining the price, paying – is conducted with byzantine levels of grace: each step punctuated by a “S’il-vous-plait”, “Monsieur” or a “Merci, Madame”. And of course, an appropriate “Bon après-midi” on departure is de riguer.
This French obsession with politeness may seem excessive, even old-fashioned – a café in Nice once made headlines for tying its prices to the degree of politeness of its customers. But in France, such an emphasis on behaving comme il faut is an integral part of the wider French obsession with égalité. Shopkeeper or socialite, barista or billionaire, all Parisians are – at the cashier counter, at least – to be treated as one.
Check out TRVL's Favorite Hotels in France by singing up for TRVL. Learn more!