The Art of Politeness


(Footnote: The people of Paris are looking forward to Christmas. They’re making plans, shopping for gifts and spending time with family and friends. They’re leaving the terrorist attacks of November 13th in the past -where they belong.  So I’m going to make a right-hand turn here as well, and talk about something altogether different from my last two posts.)

Politeness is a lost art.  Americans in general tend to think of it as a silly formality or a waste of time, something quaint from a bygone era. But Parisians have a concept they actually call “l’art de la politesse” and they live by it every minute of every day. Let me tell you, it makes a HUGE impact on your life here.

Being polite, if you do it correctly, absolutely forces you to be present in the moment with the person in front of you. It is a magical concept really, if everyone embraces it as a way of life. And here in Paris, everyone does. The best way I know how to illustrate this beautiful principle is with a comparison. So I’m going to give you two illustrations of a trip to the bakery. The first will be done the American way. The second, will be the Parisian way.

As an American, you tend to be busy, running through your “To Do” list each day. So, as you pull into the parking space for the bakery, you grab your purse and run into the store. And quite often, you are talking on your cell phone as you enter. When you get to the front of the line, you might say hello to the person behind the counter, but even if you do, you are usually looking directly at the bakery case, deciding on the things that you’d like to buy. (You may still be on your cell phone at this point.) As the clerk rings up your total, you start pulling out your wallet, already beginning to think about the next errand on your list. You pay, and you usually throw out a “goodbye” or “thank you” over your shoulder, as you are running out the door to get to the next errand. It’s efficient. It’s hurried. And your mind was hardly present for any of it.

As a Parisian, you walk into the boulangerie, wait your turn, and as you arrive at the front of the line, a social encounter takes place. There is a ritual to these interactions. This is how it’s always done, so everyone knows how to do it. You make eye contact with the person behind the counter…and you smile at each other as you say hello back and forth. You both mean it. Before anything else happens, two people make a personal connection with each other.

Only after that’s done, you point out what you would like. She looks at you and asks if there is anything else you need. Then she boxes up your things, and goes to the cash register to ring up your total. This entire time, neither of you is doing anything else but this. You pay your bill. And before you leave, there’s a goodbye ritual as well. You and the woman behind the counter make eye contact again. She smiles and says “Merci.” You reply with “Merci.” She says “Bonne journée” (which means “Have a good day today.”) You say something along the lines of “á vous aussi.” (which means “to you as well.”) And then you both say goodbye to each other. Only then, does she move on to the next person and you leave.

I’ll point out that this version has taken almost no more time than the distracted, disjointed American way. But instead of just scratching something off of your “To Do” list, you have had a real moment with another person. You can recall almost every detail because you were actually present in your own life for that period of time. And since “l’art de la politesse” is so important to the French, this happens all day, every day, wherever you go.

Dining is made infinitely more fun by this commitment to politeness as well. In Paris, when people share a meal together, they are sharing their lives for that moment in time. There is no wolfing down the meal, no checking your cell phone at the table, no video games for the kids. You are just there to BE with the people you are with. You tell each other stories about your day. You relish every sip of wine and every bite of food that goes into your mouth. You laugh. You take time to really SEE each other, to share yourself with your friends. It’s beautiful.

You find that after a very short while, you start to do this automatically, everywhere you go. Even the homeless men on the street engage this way. They don’t shake a cup in your face as you walk down the street. Whenever I walk by, they look at me, nod their heads, genuinely smile and say “Bonjour, Madam.” And I make eye contact with them and smile as I reply “Bonjour Monsieur.” They get called “Sir” throughout the day. I can’t help but think that feels good. It makes the world seem very sweet.

And this politeness, this kindness made it very hard for me to understand why American tourists constantly complain about the rudeness of the French. So, I started paying attention and I noticed something.

The French don’t react well to our self-centeredness. Many tourists never even bother to learn a word of french before they get here…not hello, not thank you…nothing. And, when someone walks into a shop here and immediately starts dictating what they want, without ever making eye contact, smiling or saying hello, it throws the French for a loop. They feel as if they aren’t being treated as a person. It shocks them, and they feel almost assaulted. So, they don’t respond well to it. They frown and shake their heads and just try to get through with the encounter as quickly as possible.

It’s a shame. We’re the ones being rude -and yet we get offended.

I think we as Americans should try to slow down and see each other as people. If we could learn to do just one thing at a time, we would have so much more LIFE in our lives. Europeans have known this for centuries. When will we ever learn?

8 thoughts on “The Art of Politeness

  1. Bonjour Grace,

    Another way to think about entering a store in France is to realize that stores evolved from being the front of people’s homes. Unlike in the USA, where the customer is king, in France the customer is entering the personal territory of the shopkeeper and has the obligation to greet him or her in the manner you described. The shopkeeper will then greet the customer in return with l’art de politesse. If this exchange doesn’t take place in this way, it’s an example of another American who doesn’t know good manners.

    A long time ago a very smart man said that manners are a codified way to demonstrate respect for others. It’s hard to be self-centered and respect others. My trips to France have been instructive, making me look at the world a bit differently.

    This art de la politesse, which feels formal to Americans, makes social and business interactions flow very smoothly and gracefully. Having spent a month total in Paris, I’ve never been treated rudely, and I only know a few words of French! The French in general are perceptive and as you said, aware and present for interactions. If one is not polite, they will restrict the interaction as much as they can and it will not feel good. However, being adventurous and open to a different, formal, and graceful way of life is rewarded with warmth and a wonderful experience in an old and wise culture.


  2. Very inspiring and true, Your observation is accurate and would help anyone planing on visiting Paris. Can’t wait for your next article!


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