Why being punctual is not always polite in France

Sometimes being late is good manners as columnist Annaliza Davis finds out

A polite visitor who receives a dinner invitation for 20:00 will arrive at around 20:15

A new year is a fine moment for reassessing priorities and setting good intentions for the 12 months to come.

Often, our resolutions centre around ensuring we give ourselves enough time for what is important.

In Britain punctuality is a mark of respect

Time is a curious cultural phenomenon, starting with the concept of being ‘on time’.

I grew up in Britain with the notion that one should ideally arrive for a meeting or appointment more or less on time, and that punctuality is a mark of respect.

Here in France, I have learned that while you must be on time for official appointments, even when the other party is consistently late, in other situations punctuality is often disregarded.

The quart d’heure de politesse, for example, defies my British upbringing.

Read more: Pétante, pile: French phrases to help you set punctual timekeeping

Good manners in France means arriving 15 minutes late

French etiquette website Grand Courtoiseau confirms that a polite visitor who receives a dinner invitation for 20:00 will arrive at around 20:15 (a little earlier in rural areas and a little later in cities) to ensure hosts have enough time to get ready for their guests.

My grandfather would have been livid.

Read more: French people are not rude, just direct

The word ‘normalement’ is a disaster

Also, consider il arrive, which has a literal translation of ‘he is coming’ or ‘he is on his way’, but is also used when the person concerned has just woken up or is two hours away.

Il revient à 14:00 normalement is a disaster.

‘He’s coming back at 14:00’ would be okay, but the moment a French person adds normalement, it changes everything.

While normalement should translate as ‘if all goes well’, experience dictates that a closer translation is ‘but probably not’.

If your mechanic tells you your car will be ready at 18:00, and then adds normalement, get yourself a back-up plan.

The concept of punctuality varies a lot throughout the country, but if you find that you are always the first to arrive, and that no one else turns up for another 10 minutes, you might need to adjust your habits this year.

Sometimes, in order to be respectful and polite in France, you simply have to be late.

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