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!
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