I’ve been fairly surprised to learn over the past 8 months that politeness rules vary more than I’d expected between France and the US. In America, I typically smile to acknowledge strangers but feel little obligation to say “hello” and “goodbye” to them. Granted, politeness rules vary greatly depending on French regions and cities vs. small towns. But even in America, I had to learn a whole new culture of politeness when I moved from MA to AR for college, so that’s not too surprising. Here’s what I’ve learn about politeness in my Rhône-Alpes small town.
Saying “bonjour” is key. To the people in the waiting room at the doctor’s office. To the man fishing on the bridge on my walk home from the grocery store. To the bus driver when you get on the bus. To just about everyone you interact with, start with “bonjour.”
I was also surprised at how often you’re expected to say, “Merci, au revoir.” It seems like a lot of finality to me when I’m leaving the post office or the bank. It’s become natural to me here, but I would never say, “Thank you, bye!” to a stranger in America except on the phone. In Bourg, right before you get off the bus (even from the back door), you turn and say “merci, au revoir” toward the driver. I’m certain he doesn’t hear it most of the time, but everyone does it (this one is definitely not the case in Lyon, but I think it’s quite nice).
In Pamela Druckerman’s Bringing Up Bébé, she acknowledges the fact that American children are taught two “magic words”: please and thank you. French children, on the other hand, learn four: hello, goodbye, please, and thank you.
I was recently talking to a fellow teacher and she said that teachers usually have opinions about students based on two things. First, whether a child is academically gifted and second, on how polite they are. She said, “sometimes a kid can be completely nul (dumb or literally “nothing”) in class, but he’s extremely polite!” She also explained that kids who don’t say good morning or goodbye are labeled as an enfant roi (literally meaning “child king” but meaning essentially self-absorbed).
Thinking back to my first weeks at school, I’m a little afraid I came off as fairly rude. Sometimes, I’d opt for a quick smile to the cleaning lady or a surveillant (people about my age who are in charge of discipline and hall monitoring) instead of saying “bonjour.” Where I am, that just doesn’t cut it. The lady who serves lunch knows my name and said to me as she served me chicken cordon bleu on Monday, “Still making trips to Lyon every weekend?” with a wink. I replied, “You bet!” I know that part of our school culture is that I am in a middle school in a small village where there’s a strong emphasis on the staff being an équipe (team).
After having realized that my attempt to fly under the radar in public was likely being interpreted as carelessness, I’ve started to make a conscious effort to be more aware. I’ve stopped wearing headphones as I walk in town in fear of missing a passing “bonjour!” I think Americans could learn a lot from this culture of hyper-politeness and it certainly flies in the face of French snob stereotypes.