Friday, January 12, 2007

Good manners

Like most American publications that target a certain upper-middle class, predominantly East Coast slice of American society, the New York Times is fascinated with France.

So am I, of course. I also love keeping track of the generalizations, simplifications and odd strands of insight that are reported from France back to America. The New York Times online is daily lunch break reading for me, though I admit I spend more time perusing the 'Style', 'Travel' and 'Dining' sections than following world events, and anything concerning Paris, France, or Those Wacky Europeans immediately catches my eye. Yesterday I noticed a particularly promising article:

France Polishes its Politesse

I expected the usual rant about rude and obnoxious Parisians, not that any criticism from New York holds much credibility on the subject, in my opinion. These rants are always fun reading, especially since Americans are wont to mistake normal everyday unpleasant treatment from shop clerks and waiters as some sort of anti-American political statement, which is usually isn't, since Parisian customer service is equally unhelpful to French customers.

No, the article turned out to be even more interesting than that: France is, I discovered, in the midst of a politeness renaissance, a rediscovery of good manners that reveals a complex, centuries-old social code that has only recently and temporarily been forgotten.

I hadn't even noticed. I was aware that the Paris transit authority, the RATP, had launched a repect campaign, plastering caveman-themed posters all over Métro. Double-parking one's car is compared with leaving a mammoth in a bus-only lane, littering with leaving a carcass under a seat, and smoking in a subway station with lighting a bonfire. One evening I counted three people waiting on a Métro platform smoking cigarettes right in front of one of these posters, and I concluded the campaign wasn't having much of an effect.

There is one strikingly contradictory aspect of the French personality that never ceases to fascinate me: the only thing the French like more than making rules is breaking them. Plenty of written rules govern all aspects of French life, from the complex and often ignored traffic code to the reams of negotiated guidelines that every company presents to its employees. The French take for granted that a large percentage of these rules will simply be ignored, and often pride themselves on if not openly flaunting them, at least finding ingenious ways around them.

This is not to say that France is a country of rampant lawlessness, of course, and most of the rule-bending is harmless. French are horrible at queuing and are always trying to find some way to jump ahead in a line, as anyone who's gone through immigration at Paris' Charles de Gaulle airport can attest. French also happily exchange "combines," or tricks, for sneaking into museums without paying, returning merchandise after the all-too-short return period, or getting apartment renovation work done without paying all the employment taxes.

All this is minor, though, or bon enfant, as one would say, because the French also have a very strong sense of right and wrong and I believe this is what the article was getting at. I don't mean the basic right and wrong of the ten commandments variety, common to all societies, but the more subtle values that govern how a responsible and respectable citizen behaves.

For example, as I've mentioned before, properly saying bonjour is extremely important in France. A greeting is without exception exchanged between neighbors in the elevator, and hello is always the first thing said upon entering a shop or restaurant. I've been deliberately corrected by shop clerks when I forgot to say bonjour before asking a question, and I've had colleagues justify their dislike for people they hardly knew on the grounds that they didn't say hello in the morning on their way to their desk.

A favorite topic of conversation among Parisians, almost as popular as real estate prices or the weather, is the bad behavior of fellow public transit passengers. The article is correct, for at the top of the list of pet peeves is failing to stand up from the fold-down seats when a subway car is full. Failing to offer a seat to a pregnant or elderly passenger is probably next, followed by standing to the left and blocking the passing lane on an escalator. Describing and complaining about other people's rudeness sometimes sounds a bit shocking to Anglo-Saxon ears, but it's a sport that's easy to adopt, since self-righteousness and ranting are so much fun to combine.

There's plenty of rude behavior that is perfectly tolerated. Littering, smoking in non-smoking areas, and not cleaning up after one's dog hardly get a sidelong glance in Paris, though I've the impression this is changing slowly. Vociferously contesting being stopped for jumping the turnstiles is also perfectly okay.

I recognized this much of my personal experience in the article, but most of the so-called French social rules mentioned left me scratching my head. I think it is a question of class: it seems logical enough to me that upper-crust Parisian families, with whom foreign correspondents for American newspapers are likely to hobnob, have rules about avoiding pronouncing the word "toilette" in public or sending flowers to a hostess a day before arriving for dinner. I'm even prepared to believe that the haute bourgeoisie never say "Bon Appetit," although it's so much of a custom among ordinary folks that complete strangers will stop and say it to you when you're in the middle of a picnic. To me, these rules don't represent France any more than Emily Post represents middle America.

It is true, however, that it is best to arrive fifteen minutes late to dinner. As a disorganized hostess who is always just a tiny bit behind schedule, I love this custom, and the one time guests ignored this usage and showed up exactly on time I was almost offended.

I don't know if France is experiencing a politeness revolution, however. I'm more inclined to believe that it never forgot how to be polite, yet what it means to be polite is constantly evolving.

This morning I was joined by a neighbor and her three-year-old daughter while I was waiting for the elevator. "Bonjour!" I dutifully and cheerfully said, and she responded with a very respectful "Bonjour, madame," then turned to her daughter.

"I didn't hear you," she said.

Her daughter looked at me without taking her thumb from her mouth.

"I didn't hear you," her mother insisted, to no avail.

"What is it you say? There's a lady here, you're supposed to say 'Bonjour, madame.' You don't want her to think you're a bad mannered little girl now, do you?"

I smiled at them both, a little embarrassed. I think the education of the next generation is assured.

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