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Dos & don'ts of French manners

OLD-FASHIONED courtesy is still de rigueur in the best circles, says Geneviève d’Angenstein, of
L’Ecole Française de la Courtoisie et du Protocole.

She teaches foreigners how to make the best impression in France, drawing on her own experience as a diplomat’s wife.

How did you get into teaching good manners?

If you want to succeed you need to respond to people’s needs and society has somewhat lost its bearings when it comes to manners, due to globalisation and mixing of different cultures. People come to me to reassure themselves about what one should and should not do.

I was lucky enough to grow up in a family where good manners were innate and I went to good schools and then studied anthropology and several languages, so I have always been curious about other cultures and their social rites. I have lived the life of a diplomat’s wife, so I learned how to receive important people and discovered customs around the world, in India, Washington and Vienna, but I was always there to show what French culture was.

Do you often work with English-speakers?

Not only, but yes, I often do. My clients are usually quite refined people, such as English people living in France who want to understand the mysteries of French social rites. They have a certain sensitivity; coarse people don’t see the interest.

Are the rules changing a lot, or is it as important as ever to respect tradition?

When you look at society you might think standards are slipping, but at the same time people are looking for an identity and I think good manners are very much part of our French identity. It goes back to the 17th and 18th centuries.

We are talking about manners that came from the royal court essentially, but at the same time, our courtesy also comes from the Rights of Man and the idea of respecting the other person and especially, respecting women, which is an important part of French courtesy.

One thing English-speakers have trouble with sometimes is tu and vous. Is it best to let the other person take the initiative?

It is always the person who is hierarchically the most important to propose calling each other tu, and, in fact, the woman is always considered superior to a man, apart from in working life, where only the professional hierarchy counts.

France is the only country which gives such importance to the woman. It is the woman who takes the initiative on the kind of greeting, for example she holds out her hand or not, and on tutoiement or vouvoiement.

People also say “monsieur” and “madame” a lot more than the English equivalents…

When I was in the US I was a bit surprised at the way everyone used to smile at me all the time, whereas in France there are barriers that broken down very gradually.

At first we remain very formal and it is only when there are affectionate and social barriers that fall, that this changes. This French formality is actually quite practical because it allows people to always act appropriately and to master the situation.

On occasion I may have called someone tu a bit too quickly, or been called it, and afterwards realised I really didn’t have any wish to be on familiar terms with that person, I felt like a prisoner of this commitment.

It is better to start with saying monsieur and vous, remaining nice and polite, and little by little you can pass to first names and tu.

Is it more a natural progression than the very informal American way?

Yes, it’s like smiling straight away at people; we don’t see the need. I know Americans who are almost in tears if they don’t get a big smile at the baker’s or butcher’s; but for us it doesn’t make sense to smile at someone you don’t know. When we start smiling it’s because a rapport has been established. I think in the shops in Anglo-Saxon countries the shopkeepers have more of a sense of trying to market themselves, which the French lack.

You mention trips to the shops; British people seem to say please and thank you more in such situations than the French. Is it seen as a bit superfluous?

No, if you don’t say s’il vous plaît and merci you are just rude; but there are rude people everywhere.

Apart from the rule on tutoiement, are there other important considerations for behaviour between the sexes?

A women never gets up to say hello to a man but a man gets up for a woman. In my lessons I always outline this culture of the woman in France, that used to amaze foreign travellers. It goes back to the Middle Ages and courtly literature and the Cult of the Virgin Mary… which means that the woman has a privileged status. These days in Anglo-Saxon countries there is more of a feeling that women should be treated the same as men.

Are there certain things to think about on a date?

A man who wants to please a woman should not talk about himself too much and always be interested in his companion. If he takes her to a restaurant it is always the man who goes in first, that’s important, and it is him who pays and he should do it very discreetly. He excuses himself for a few moments and pays at the counter in such a way the women doesn’t see what he’s doing. That’s the elegant thing to do. In the world of work, however, if a man insisted on paying when a woman had invited him for a business meal, it would be insulting.

What about table manners?

It’s not polite to put your hands under the table and it is impolite to lay out the forks with the prongs in the air. The points should touch the table. Points in the air gives a feeling of aggression. Families also used to have their coats of arms on the underside of the cutlery, so this is to show it off.

If you are invited to someone’s house how should you behave – should you, for example, bring a gift or a bottle?

What is elegant is to send flowers beforehand or the following day. To come with flowers is not very well thought of, as it obliges the mistress of the house to leave her guests to find a vase.

Coming with wine is only suitable for very close friends and you should ask them what they’d like and say you are going to bring it. Usually, the host has already coordinated the dishes with wines and everything is planned. What is appropriate is to bring a box of macaroons or chocolates, but very good ones, not something from Monoprix; and the hostess must offer them with the coffee, not just keep them, which would be very impolite.

It is interesting, by the way, that, from my research, originally the English were seen as a bit too direct and unpolished and in the 17th and 18th centuries a lot of French manners treatises were imported. Also Huguenot families who left France brought French manners to Britain. It was only afterwards that the British became known for good manners, with for example with Lord
Chesterfield’s Letters to his Son, On the Fine Art of Becoming a Man of the World and a Gentleman, which are very interesting.

What about hand-kissing, is it really still appropriate?

It’s up to you whether it is your thing or not, but yes, it is done in certain social circles; but unlike for example the Germans or Russians who kiss all the women’s hands, in France it is very codified. You do it only for a married woman and always in private, never outside.

Do you have tips on what English-speakers should avoid and that we often get wrong?

I have an American friend who likes to ask people how much they paid for their apartment – which is the kind of thing you shouldn’t do. One doesn’t talk about money like that, there is a taboo about money, even if Parisiens sometimes shock people too by talking a lot about their flat, because it is true that it is hard to find somewhere to live here.

Do you have any advice on how to faire la bise (kiss people on the cheek)?

It seems most natural to me to start on the right hand side. Two kisses are usual, though in rural areas, among countryfolk, it is three. In that case it’s best to be aware of that and not act like a “townie”.

It is always the older person, the most important, the woman rather than the man, who decides to initiate a kiss on the cheeks.

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