One of those many things the Frenchie in us has difficulty in understanding about you Anglo-Saxons is the fact that, in contrast to the more formal French polite codes where the use of Monsieur, Madame or Mademoiselle to address strangers is de rigueur, the importance you attach to instant friendship requires you to greet people you’ve never met in your life before in the most familiar of terms. During our holidays in England last year, for example, we walked into a small shop. There we were welcomed by an assistant, young enough to be our grand-daughter, and whom we’d never clapped eyes on in our life before, with a cheery, ‘Hello, young man!’ So much did her greeting smack of inappropriate familiarity that our French and Englishman joined together in firmly pointing out that, since she would never have addressed a genuine young man in this way, what really prompted her greeting was, in fact, the very opposite to what she was attempting to imply – namely, that we were no longer a young man!
‘Young Man’ and ‘Old Boy’.
So how is it possible for the uninformed Frenchman not to fall into total confusion in a country where the quest for instant friendship obliges you to call a man ‘a young man’ when he’s not a young man, but rarely call a man ‘a young man’ when he is a young man, and where it’s quite possible to address both an old man and a young boy as ‘young man’, and both a young man and an old man as ‘old boy?’ Isn’t it far more logical to be friendlily polite with people you know, and just politely polite with those you don’t?
Mind you, we probably got off lightly. For such is the importance you English attach to instant friendship that when you go into a shop you can be addressed by someone you’ve not had the pleasure of seeing in your life before with a disconcerting variety of familiar appellations which can only lead the foreign observer to surmise that you’re on the most intimate of terms. What’s more, this obsession with instant friendship obliges us to invite people we’ve never in our life mucked the pigs out with to address us by our Christian name, or even its diminutive, and to take the liberty of using theirs. Last Saturday evening, for instance, we were invited to a dinner party given by a couple of English friends.
‘I don’t think you know Jennifer and John,’ said our hostess by way of introduction to a couple we’d never in our life met before.
‘Oh, just call me Jennie,’ replied the lady, her cheeks creasing into the sweetest of smiles.
This addiction to instantaneous friendship can, however, show its limits. This was illustrated one day last summer when we took ourself along to an agricultural show with an English friend and his wife. As we were walking past one stand a young woman rushed up to our friend’s wife.
‘How wonderful it is to see you again!’ she effused, seizing her in a smothering embrace. A brief conversation followed between them after which we continued on our way.
‘Yes, I met her at a dinner party a couple of weeks ago,’ my friend’s wife explained, ‘but I can’t for the life of me remember her name!’
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This blog is based on an article from the author’s latest book Barry’s Frenglish Folies, ‘a potpourri of serious, humorous and seriously humorous reflections on the French and English viewed through the eyes of a split-identity and occasionally demented Frenglishman’.
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