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11 Nov 2009

Becoming French?

In the first of the pieces on this blog, I talked about how to get on with the French. Basically, the French are extremely formal and polite. Every encounter with every person begins with 'Bon jour' and ends with 'Au revoir' or similar. Failure to observe this politeness is seem as extremely rude and insulting, and this leads to French people being pretty frosty in return.

A couple of recent incidents make me think I am becoming French myself. The first was a visit to a small restaurant in a nearby village, with a couple of French friends. As we walked in, there were only two groups of customers already there. We all said 'Bon jour messieurs/dames'. The first group just stared at us blankly for a few seconds. So did the second. They then started talking amongst themselves, and of course both groups were British. Initially, I was annoyed on behalf of our friends, but then I realised that I was also offended.

The second incident was at the recycling bins in the village. As I was emptying three weeks of stuff into the relevant bins, someone else drove up, and got out of his car. I said 'Bon jour' as to anyone else, but he just looked straight through me. I was really annoyed, and thought how ill mannered that was. When he drove away I saw a UK registration number on his car.

At one time I would have just thought that this was typically thoughtless behaviour on the part of unaware Brits, but now it does actually offend me. I know that many British people seem unable to acknowledge others unless they already know them, but it seems to be getting worse. Walking around the reservoirs at Tring in Hertfordshire in the summer, there were a few other people passing by in the other direction. Some people said 'Good afternoon' but many others ignored me. For what it's worth, if there were two or more in a group, speaking to each other, who did not reply to a greeting, the accents were usually what one might tactfully call estuary, whereas those who spoke did so in a more home counties tone.

Human beings are a social species, and our survival and success has come about by being able to cooperate, and to find ways of adjusting our behaviour to those around us. Lately, in the UK, that seems to be disappearing, to be replaced by selfishness, individualism and every man for himself. Very sad, and perhaps a case of evolution going into reverse.

In France in general, respect for others, cooperation and living in a society seems to be surviving, at least away from the bainlieus (suburbs) of the bigger cities. 

Importantly, I think, it is still there with the younger generation. For example, the other day I was waiting at a red traffic light behind a boy on one of the low powered scooters made to look like real motorbikes that you can ride from the age of 14. He saw a couple of friends, both boys, parked his scooter, took off the alien space helmet they all have to wear, and greeted his friends. They were all about 15, but they all shook hands. Another example was a young teenage girl out with her family saw a group of schoolfriends on the other side of the road, crossed over, and kissed all of them twice. In both cases there were two or three minutes of chat, and off they went again. 

This formal greeting, involving physical contact, seems extremely important to the French. When I meet anyone local, whether for the first time or not, we all have to shake hands. If the other person has been working and has filthy hands, he might offer just a little finger to shake, or in extreme cases just his elbow. There is a book by an English business man in Paris, which talks about the etiquette of shaking hands and kissing all his colleagues at work every morning.

With women, after the first meeting, it is usually two kisses on the cheek. In Normandy it gets a bit more complicated. I think the rules are: acquaintances two kisses, friends and family three, close friends, and immediate family, four. At Fetes de St Sylvestre - New Year's Eve - dinner dances, everyone kisses everyone else four times, or shakes hands, at midnight. At larger events this can take quite some time. But it all seems to mean that people are more respectful of each other, and reduces the possibility of antagonism. And that cannot be bad.

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