Call of France

A Trilogy by Barry A. Whittingham

Month: March 2017

Monsieur, Madame and Mademoiselle

You know, just one of the things which never ceases to astonish the Frenchman in us is not only how familiar you English are with those you’ve just made the acquaintance of, but how distant you can be with people you’ve known for years. We mean, isn’t it far more logical to be friendly and relaxed with people you know, and just polite with those you don’t? A well-brought-up young Frenchman on meeting a girl for the very first time, will politely address her as ‘mademoiselle,’ and after they get married she will certainly become ‘ma chérie.’ In contrast, an Englishman will use ‘darling’ or ‘love’ to address a girl he’s never met in his life before, yet proceed to call her ‘missis’ once they have walked down the aisle! But on reflection, is it all that surprising that you English should go about addressing people the opposite way to what they ought? Après tout, what can you expect from a people who drive on the left (sure proof they’re not right in their head), and take roundabouts the wrong way round? So who can deny that it’s the French who’ve got things right? For what’s more normal that, when you meet someone you hardly know, you address him or her with a polite ‘bonjour monsieur,’ ‘bonjour madame,’ or ‘bonjour mademoiselle?’ in the morning or afternoon, and ‘bonsoir’ in the evening? And it goes without saying that if you decide to stop for a chat these same rules oblige you to say ‘au revoir, monsieur/madame/ mademoiselle’ when you part.

It’s also important to note that the French titles ‘monsieur’, ‘madame’ and ‘mademoiselle’ are not, as many of you English seem to imagine, always the exact equivalent of ‘sir’, ‘madam’ and ‘miss’.  For while the French titles are simply polite, the English words ‘sir’ (apart from its use as a title of nobility, i.e. Sir Winston Churchill), ‘madame’, and ‘miss’ are both polite and deferential, and as such used to address someone perceived as being in a position of social, professional (or commercial) superiority. Consequently, if you wanted to address a stranger in an English street in order to make a request or ask a question you’d simply say ‘excuse me’ (and not ‘excuse me sir/madam’). In France, on the other hand, it could be considered impolite not to say, ‘excusez-moi (or s’il vous plaît) monsieur/madame’ or ‘bonjour monsieur/madame’. If you were addressing a young, unmarried woman, however, it would be a little old hat to say ‘excusez-moi/s’il vous plaît/bonjour mademoiselle’, and a simple, more informal ‘bonjour’ would suffice. But just to complicate matters, it’s probably better to say ‘madame’ when addressing an older, unmarried woman as ‘mademoiselle’ could give her the impression she’s on the way to becoming an old maid. What’s more, in the name of female equality, the public sector has been recently instructed to use ‘madame’ when referring to an unmarried female in official documents.

Normally, then, the codes of French polite etiquette require you to address a stranger or a person you hardly know by his or her title: monsieur, madame or mademoiselle.  On getting to know the person a little better you can pop on the surname (i.e. bonjour, Monsieur Martin). Unlike in Anglo-Saxon cultures, however, Christian name terms are usually considered only when you really begin to hit it off. Though this is becoming old-fashioned, a subtler halfway point consists in showing slightly more cordial respect towards someone who is more than just an acquaintance, but far less than a bosom friend, by simply using the title to which the Christian name is appended, i.e. Monsieur Pierre. Considerable time may elapse between each phase – though this is not necessarily a question of duration – and, depending on the case, the relationship may even remain stable at one defined point. As a general rule, the longer you remain at one stage, the more difficult it is to progress to the next, and you may never get beyond the Monsieur Martin point with someone from whom you are separated by a difference in age, social or professional status, or even gender.

In the France of today, there is, however, an increasing tendency simply to use a simple ‘bonjour’ to greet a person we don’t know or only know slightly – especially in the friendlier context of a club or association where adding the person’s title would be considered too formal. Here ‘bonjour’ is very much the equivalent of the English ‘hello’ (though this seems to have been now almost totally eclipsed by the American ‘hi’). If you meet someone you’ve already encountered that same day you would normally not shake hands (or cheek-kiss) a second time. It would, nevertheless, be polite to say ‘re-bonjour’ (literally ‘hello again’), or simply use the abbreviation ‘re’.

Another common mistake on the part of Anglo-Saxons is to confuse ‘bonjour’ with ‘salut’. Be aware that ‘salut’ is far more familiar than ‘bonjour’ and is, therefore, only appropriate when greeting someone (it can be a man or women but is more common between men) with whom you are on very informal terms. I suppose it’s somewhere more or less the equivalent of the American ‘hey’. It can also be used to say goodbye – in which case it’s rather like the English ‘so long’. Curiously, I’ve even heard old male pals greeting each other with a ‘salut monsieur’, where the juxtaposition of the very informal and very polite produces an absurdly comic effect.

Though there are few French equivalents to the numerous terms of endearment you English insist on applying to greet complete strangers (‘love’, ‘dear’, ‘duck’, ‘darling’, to name just a few) we do sometimes hear market stallholders treating some female customers to a familiar, slightly patronizing ‘ma petite dame’, or even ‘ma chérie’. The latter is very much the same as the English ‘my dear’, and offence mustn’t be taken at either. However, we do personally take exception to the ironically familiar appellation ‘chef’ (literally ‘chief’), in many ways equivalent to ‘mate’, and used to address another male somewhere perceived as being ‘superior’. In cases like this we usually reply in much the same vein by a mockingly egalitarian ‘camarade’. But on some occasions we’ve been known not to reply at all!

Dreaming of moving to France ? Thinking of spending a holiday there ? Or would you simply like to know more about the French way of life ?  In this free Ebook you’ll find 369 tips to help you get your bearings in a country where it’s easy to feel all at sea. They’re based on the author’s own observations, experiences (and mistakes) during 45 years of mainly peaceful cohabitation with the French. Available in Kindle, Epub and PDF format.

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Tu or Vous?

It might be thought that, under normal circumstances, politeness, especially when served up in its friendly form, can only go to unite. But what is less surprising with the French and English (where things are never normal) that it can frequently divide? And what greater damage has been inflicted on Anglo-French relations than that inoffensive-sounding little subject pronoun tu? You know, the Frenchman in us can’t help thinking it’s that same irrepressible desire to get on cordial terms with every Tom, Dick and Harry in less time than it takes to say Jacques Robinson which makes so many Anglo Saxons consider it an open sesame to instant friendship with all. Take the case of Sue.
      Last year, our neighbours, Monsieur and Madame Martin, had a young English au pair girl, Sue. Now Sue had just left school and, before going on to study French at university, she had decided to take a sabbatical year working in France with the aim of improving her spoken language and knowledge of French customs and lifestyle. The problem was that at the beginning of her séjour she systematically used the familiar tu to address all and sundry as a signal that she wished to be on friendly terms with all. Finally, Madame Martin had to take her to one side and explain that, though natural with people of her own age, using tu to address complete strangers, those she barely knew or whose social or professional status, age or even gender created a distance, was little more than misplaced familiarity – a discourteous lack of respect akin to a youngster in England addressing an adult he barely knew by his Christian name. Consequently, to avoid any risk of giving offence, she could only advise her to use the more distantly polite (and also plural) equivalent vous and, as a general rule, to leave it to the native speaker to call the tune.
     But while the more formally-structured codes of French polite etiquette usually require a stricter adherence to prescribed or customary forms with the result that you would normally use tu only to address relatives and friends, this is merely a broad indication and exceptions may occur. For example, in the past especially, but sometimes even today, some parents from the grande bourgeoisie, the upper middle classes, still require their children to address them by vous!  And though we have known my wife’s brother-in-law (as well as two of her cousins) for more than 40 years now, we have always used, and will certainly continue to use le vouvoiement. So, it’s important to realize that longstanding vous relationships of this type will probably be entrenched for life. It is also not uncommon for an older person to use le tutoiement when addressing a younger one (especially someone known since childhood) while the latter continues to uses the more respectfully polite vous.
     To complicate matters even further, though we would normally use vous to address those we’re not on familiar terms with, we can, in some circumstances, be on tu terms with those we hardly know. This is especially the case in a club or association where members are considered to be amicably united in pursuit of a shared activity or goal. So really there’s no hard and fast rule: things may depend on the situation you find yourself in, and/or the nature of your relationship, and it all boils down to a question of what you (and the other person) feel the more comfortable with.
     But, as our Frenchman has to admit, sometimes the choice between tu and vous can be both subtle and complex – even for a native speaker. At our golf club, for example, we sometimes play with a member some twenty years younger than us. When playing together we quite naturally use the tu form to address each other. But strangely, back in the clubhouse over a drink he reverts back to vous – presumably in deference to our age. This puts us in a rather embarrassing position. How do we react? Do we continue to use tu or, like him, go back to using vous?  In cases like this it’s probably better to discuss things openly and come to some form of mutual agreement on the use of one or the other. This is what we did on one occasion while playing a round of golf.
     As we were preparing to tee off on the last hole a lady came up and greeted us with a, ‘Bonjour, Barry. Comment ça va?’
‘Mais ça va très bien!’ we replied, recognizing Geneviève, a lady golfer we hadn’t seen for some time.
‘Et …?’
     We hesitated for a fraction of a second. Were we previously on vous or tu terms? We couldn’t for the life of us remember! So, it must have been our formally polite French part who prompted us to choose, ‘Et … vous?’ The expression of disappointment which momentarily clouded her face said everything. Fortunately, on realizing his mistake, our Frenchman managed to retrieve the situation by saying, ‘Oh, excuse-moi! On se tutoyait, non?’ For the short conversation which followed was full of friendly warmth.
     

Dreaming of moving to France ? Thinking of spending a holiday there ? Or would you simply like to know more about the French way of life ? In this free Ebook you’ll find 369 tips to help you get your bearings in a country where it’s easy to feel all at sea. They’re based on the author’s own observations, experiences (and mistakes) during 45 years of mainly peaceful cohabitation with the French. Available in Kindle, Epub and PDF format.
Get started here : http://calloffrance.com/free-ebook-offer

Cheek-Kissing in France

It’s a measure of the drastic changes in English attitudes towards kissing in general and cheek-kissing in particular that what is now more and more considered as an acceptable form of greeting would have raised eyebrows – even shocked (especially between males) – three or four decades ago when it was mainly confined to theatrical types whose off-stage lives were marked by a general tendency to ostentatious affectation. On the French side of the Channel, however, la bise, the cheek-kiss, has long since been a common form of greeting.

Apart from special occasions such as the New Year when, traditionally, at the stroke of midnight, even those who are little more than strangers will let their hair down enough to cheek-kiss one another, faire la bise is a friendlier, more informal way for men and women to greet each other than shaking hands (hardly surprising with an act which forces you into such close proximity with others that you can smell their make-up, after-shave and sometimes even their breath) and, therefore, usually indulged in by those whose degree of familiarity permits. Unlike men who shake hands when they encounter members of the same sex, women will cheek-kiss other women (handshaking between women is formal and only resorted to when being introduced on official occasions). Cheek-kissing is also common between men and women who are on friendly terms, or simply because they’re close working colleagues or members of the same sporting club or association. When we walk into the clubhouse of our local golf club, for example, we systematically cheek-kiss all the women we know (while shaking hands with the men). And we’ve even known a woman stranger accompanying a friend to offer us her cheek (rather than more formally holding out her hand) on being introduced. In France, however, there can be a considerable gap between private and public behaviour – so you mustn’t be surprised if the woman who readily offers you her cheek at the golf club simply wishes you ‘bonjour’ in the High Street. And though in the past male cheek-kissing took place only between close male relatives, i.e. brothers, fathers and sons (and perhaps very close male friends), today there is a growing trend among young French people (and even older ones) to use la bise on a daily basis when greeting others of a similar age.

As far as the cheek-kissing technique itself is concerned, the first question which springs to mind is which chop do you begin with? Well, basically, that’s for participants to decide. Personally, without really knowing why (perhaps it’s because we’re right-handed), we usually go for the left one first, and when she realizes this, the lady usually co-operates by holding it out. But, as with shaking hands, you can leave it to her to take the initiative. And what do you do with your mits? While pulling the lady towards you in an intimate hug would be going too far (the French don’t really go in for hugging), placing your hand half way down her arm (or even on her shoulder) would be a more natural accompaniment, and far more acceptable than keeping them both rigidly stuck down your sides. And how many times do you do it? Well, this is, in fact, a regional thing. Where we live, thank goodness, we’ve never been witness to more than one on each. But, depending on where you are, it can be once on one, once on the other, and then back to the first for a second helping. And in some regions it’s a ritualistic two on each.

What’s more, the word ‘kiss’ is more often a misnomer. Rather than planting your lips on the cheeks of the other, the technique often consists in briefly rubbing your chops together, and at the same time making a kissing movement with your lips. The result is that most of the lip contact is with the surrounding air – though we do have a copain who believes in firmly planting his lips on the cheeks of women he feels real affection for. Wearers of spectacles or sunglasses should be careful as their frames have been known to inflict nasty pokes in the eye. And, similarly, if you’re sporting a cap with a long nib, you’ve got far more room for manoeuvre if you take it off.

Anglo Saxons must also be aware that in France cheek-kissing is a manifestation of friendly affection, and has no sexual connotations. On the contrary, kissing on the lips is indulged in by those sharing an intimate physical relationship (i.e. husband and wife or homosexual partners), and never by male and female members of the same family (i.e. brother and sister, or mother and son), as is sometimes the case in Britain.

That romantic gesture of ‘old school’ French gallantry, la baise-main, which consists in the male bringing his lips into light, respectful contact with the back of a lady’s outstretched hand is now less common in higher social and diplomatic circles – though a former Président de la République (a reputed woman chaser) systematically used it as a way of promoting the legendary French touch when welcoming foreign lady heads of state. Though the hand-kiss is, apparently, still quite common in Central and Eastern Europe, the French – in their everyday life, at least – look upon it with affectionate amusement. And on the rare occasions when it is used it is bestowed on the older, usually married woman.

In this respect, we remember one particular occurrence some years ago when we went on a coach trip organized by an association we were members of. Having set off well before dawn one Sunday morning, we stopped for breakfast coffee and croissants at a motorway café. Our driver parked his coach alongside a Polish truck. Now in France it’s forbidden for heavy trucks to circulate on Sundays, and we couldn’t help noticing that one of the two drivers, a young man (he must have been in his middle twenties), had – even at this early hour – found no better way of whiling away what was going to be a long, inactive day than by ingurgitating the contents of a bottle of vodka. On seeing us step out of the coach, he leapt down from his cabin (still clutching his bottle), and proceeded to bestow on each lady a mockingly respectful hand-kiss the moment she’d placed a foot on the ground. Not only did these middle-aged ladies find the gesture hilarious but, we suspect, were secretly flattered by his attention – so much so that they readily consented to a group photo being taken with our grinning young trucker in the middle.

 

Dreaming of moving to France ? Thinking of spending a holiday there ? Or would you simply like to know more about the French way of life ?  In this free Ebook you’ll find 369 tips to help you get your bearings in a country where it’s easy to feel all at sea. They’re based on the author’s own observations, experiences (and mistakes) during 45 years of mainly peaceful cohabitation with the French. Available in Kindle, Epub and PDF format.

Get started here :   http://calloffrance.com/free-ebook-offer

 

 

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