Learning to be Polite

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.

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11 thoughts on “Learning to be Polite

  1. It is good to be able to read your blog again! I also read “Bringing Up Bebe” and I have long agreed that we have developed a bit of informality between ourselves and the people we engage with on a daily basis. I suppose that is why the entire cafeteria at school looks at me like I am crazy when I pick up my food and say thank you loud enough to the entire cooking staff that they all hear it. However after a week all the cooking staff started replying 🙂

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    1. I went on a short blogging hiatus because I thought my everyday life was altogether too boring to write about. But I recently found new motivation 🙂
      And that’s great about cafeteria staff. Certainly not the norm!

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  2. Thanks for your sharing as you learn tid bits about culture and politeness. I am loving reading your blog. You are a good writer and a good learner. Love ya!

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    1. Thanks Donna! I was recently talking to Kenna and saying how amazing it is that things come back to me all the time from classes with Jeremy and Shawn. I credit so much of my learning to their classes!

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  3. My husband is a Frenchman. Parisian to be exact. Every year we visit his home country both on our own and to visit family. We’ve oftentimes had discussions about American v. French culture and the people. I am the product of grandparents who are not American. They are from Ireland. Both my mother and father are first generation American.
    Now–we, my siblings and I were raised to always be polite and respectful. Always greet someone with “hello and when you leave their presence say “goodbye”. In addition, we were taught to say “Please”, “thank you” and/or “no thank you” when the situation called for it.
    This is how I, in turn, raised my own children.
    Where am I going with this? My Frenchman tells me that I was raised in a more European manner than an American manner. So were my children ( he is my 2nd hubs).
    So the first time I visited France with him, I wasn’t all that surprised with the politeness and the air of reserve that the French have. I was more surprised at the horrific behavior of many of the American tourists I observed. It was atrocious.
    But then again–seeing as how Donald Trump behaves and the many people who support him–I should not be surprised in the least.
    Americans can learn a great deal about politeness from the French and other Europeans.

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  4. Ah this is so true! I always feel like I’m being rude to SOMEONE when I fail to say hello or goodbye to every single person in the staff room, for example. I’ve gotten a lot better but it totally throws me for a loop.

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      1. Oh yes, the dreaded double-hello! Cannot get used to that- because I feel rude if I don’t say hello and its rude if I do say hello (again!)

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  5. Kaitlin,
    I have been keeping up with your blog. I find it very interesting, humorous and educational. How is that bike now? I hope he, your boyfriend, fixed it well. Do you still think that you are getting preffential treatment due to your skin color? I wouldn’t worry about it. Maybe people are just trying to be helpful. You are on quite a journey. Have fun too!

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    1. Thanks for your comment Tim! I certainly am learning a lot. My bike is hanging in there, thankfully! Some days it does feel like being white means I blend in easier and don’t face the same harsh treatment some other foreigners do, but I can’t really compare my experience to anyone else’s. And I certainly am having fun!

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