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Last month I was in France, and as always I thoroughly enjoyed it. What a beautiful country it is. And if only because I like France so much I am saddened at how badly us Anglo-Saxons and the French seem to get along with each other. But now, after my recent visit, I think I have a partial explanation for some of this hostility to offer.

On one of the days I was in France, I wandered around the village where my hosts lived, on my own, and I was struck by how almost everyone I met or even merely passed said “Bonjour!” to me. Everyone said it. Even quite young girls, on their own, girls who in England (or the USA?) would never say a word to a middle aged man whom they did not know.

Everyone said “Bonjour!”, I said to my hosts when I got back home. It was rather nice, I said. Very communal. Well, they said, do not read too much into it. “Bonjour!” is all that they say, and in a year’s time, “Bonjour!” may still be all that they say. They are not making friends, just being polite.

Quite so. Just being polite. But it is a politeness that we Anglos tend not to bother with. When we go into a shop, for example, we tend to get straight down to business, with only the most cursory of hellos. Only after we have done our business do we unbend and become human, and say “Thank you!” rather effusively, and perhaps shake hands. Ever since I started thinking about this posting I have noticed myself and the people I have dealings with here in London doing this same one-two pattern, of business, followed at the end of our brief relationship by politeness. First we do the business, impersonally and correctly, and only then, when the business is done, do we unbend, make eye contact, smile, and generally behave like nice friendly people.

So my hypothesis is this. The French have no deep hatred for us Anglo-Saxons on account of our Anglo-Saxon-ness, our foreign policies, our Hollywood movies or our lousy state medicine. It is simply that they do not like rudeness, or rude people, and to them, we come across as extremely rude. Instead of saying “Bonjour Madame” to the lady selling patisserie, we pitch right in and tell her which patisserie we want, without any preliminary courtesies. Which, in France, is very rude. That is why madame is always, to us, so grumpy.

I once had an extremely unpleasant acquaintance, whom I now avoid, who was and remains notorious for saying unpleasant things to everyone he ever meets, perhaps because he has a permanent pain in the top part of his back and wants to spread the pain around. I remember him saying to me once: “Everyone’s in a terrible mood these nowadays.” I knew why. Everyone he met had just had the misfortune to meet him. They were fine until he showed up. They were in a bad mood because he put them in a bad mood.

Well, I surmise that maybe we Anglos tend to do that to the French. They are not snooty and unpleasant all the time. They are just snooty and unpleasant to us, because we immediately come across to them as very rude, and they do not like it.

Could it really be that something as superficial as our different styles of greeting one another is a big reason for the Anglos and the French not getting along? I really think it might be. I would welcome suggestions for further reading along these lines, but am not able to offer much linkage myself, as I have never heard anything similar suggested.

The nearest related thinking I can suggest is the work of Deborah Tannen, who has written books about contrasting conversational styles among us English speakers – Southerners and Northerners in the USA, slow speechmakers and fast interrupters, and most famously, women and men. Maybe she could do another book about us and the French.

Final thought: Australians are famous over here for saying “G’day” all the time. I wonder if they get along better with the French than other Anglos. Maybe not, because it is not just what you say, as Tannen has spent half a lifetime explaining, it is the way you say it.

37 comments to “Bonjour!”

  • Verity

    Gosh, Brian, you can’t compare a village with London. Yes, in French villages, everyone acknowledges one another, even snippy little 12-yr olds. But they do in English villages, too with a cheerful nod and a “Good morning! Lovely day!” And in my little neighbourhood in my town in Mexico, if two people who don’t know one another pass each other on the narrow pavement, both will nod and say, “Buenos dias!”

    We’re social animals and I think the desire to recognise another human and to be acknowledged by them is pretty much universal. I’ve never been to Africa, but I’ll bet you it’s the same in small communities there, too. Human beings are intensely social and cooperative.

    Where I would agree with you on France, though, is the more formal structure of friendships. Two women – one a doctor’s wife and herself a university lecturer and the other a dentist’s wife – and I got together for an hour of English conversation in exchange for an hour of French conversation. Week after week. In one another’s homes. Then after about six weeks, at one meeting, they caught one another’s eye and nodded, and one of them said, “We’ve decided to invite you to tutoyens” – inviting me to address them individually as tu rather than vous. This was a big step forward and would have been unthinkable to do uninvited in a provincial town in France. France is still a very formal, conservative country and it still, to a large extent, preserves the old manners.

    Even though, in the supermarkets, they will bump your trolley with their own and send you reeling against the frozen food lockers, and on the pavements, four of them will walk abreast looking at one another as they chat and knock you off the curb into the gutter without noticing, in their personal interactions, they are extremely formal and polite.

  • John

    I have to agree with Verity. Here, in the American South (at least the part I live in), people give a wave or a “howyadoin?” when they pass each other. I went to NYC and they won’t look at you, much less speak, it was very unnerving.

  • Agreed. I live in Ohio, and my friends in Los Angeles find it highly bizarre that I say hi to people who pass me on the streets when I’m in town. It makes tourists feel good, but creeps out the locals. Meanwhile I find New York unbearably rude.

    And yet it’s brusque New Yorkers and Los Angelinos who seem to like France rather more than the rest of us police midwestern and southern types.

  • I would welcome suggestions for further reading along these lines

    Try this…
    Sixty Million Frenchmen Can’t Be Wrong: What Makes the French So French?

    Written by a couple of Canadians, the book attempts to explore French ideas about land, food, privacy and language and weave together the threads of French society in order to uncover the essence of life in France and give a complete picture of the French.

    The title is not, of course, intended to be taken literally.

  • I agree with Verity. I live in Rural Suffolk, and round here everyone says “Good Morning” to everyone else on the street!

  • Robert Alderson

    I’m always confused by “Howyadoin?” as a greeting. It seems like a question. Giving an answer such as “Doing Good” or “Fine” always seems to me to be the start of a conversation which can’t really continue as the original “Howyadoin?” came from somebody walking the opposite way down the street who has maybe already passed you. On the other hand answering with “Howyadoin?” seems illogical.

    What is the correct response to a “Howyadoin?”

  • Alice

    Dear Brian,
    About saddening contacts : how would you feel after eating for one month in an English workers family as a paying guest? Few French teenagers have the chance to be invited in an American family or in an equivalent English family. The low level of English and politeness of our so called “English teachers” in state schools – but really chauvinist civil servant – does the rest of the job.

    Yes, Verity, French people are both complex and rude : in short, snob, which stands for “sine nobilitatis”. And there are so many forms of snobbery in France, more than the square number social classes (that number being also an intimate French fantasy because most French people fell different from their peers).
    Getting identified (labelled) is also difficult in France, even among French “equals”, so one never knows if one’s reached the best possible terms with a French citizen as long as one hasn’t made sure to be clearly labelled by the target-tribe (individual aesthetic and commonly readable aesthetics are also essential in France). Even French people need to tell what could be guessed from their vocabulary and clothes in most occidental countries. What is more, the best possible terms with French people might not be of any interest to you, most of them never socialise, don’t speak any foreign language and would never believe in the benefits of networking if they ever heard that word. Any foreigner who fells discriminated in France has certainly been less discriminated against than a French native, because the French are far more indulgent to foreigners. Social relationships are so intricate in France, that the French often prefer to hire or rent their property to a non-occidental in order to be relieved from these numerous rules and judgments and feel superior for a while… until they face more material nuisances. I realise my explanations are too abstract, but I’m French. The consequences are practicle, dramatic and taboo. (The fact that French successful comical movies are “unexportable” doesn’t matter.)
    Silence and violence are two alternatives to French socially acceptable discussions, and having one’s blog sheltered in the States is safer.

  • Cliché Police, May I see some ID…

    “French guys, on the other hand, are real romantic types who apparently dream of nothing but to take their Japanese date out to fancy restaurants where they’ll eat only French cheese and French wine while listening to Edith Piaf and Maurice Chevalier or some other French guy playing the accordeon. My friend remarked she was actually surprised that none of them had yet resorted to something subtle along the line of: “Liked Amélie? me too. wanna fuck?”

    It’s amazing true!
    As we said in franglais, ‘top of the top’.

  • Denise W

    John and Sarah

    I live in Georgia. People here smile and say hello to total strangers all the time. So do I. I have a friend who is from Brooklyn, New York and she said people there don’t do that. She said that if you’re from the South and visit New York and do that, if you’re a lady, you could put yourself in danger. Guys might get the wrong idea, follow you or who knows what else.

  • Paco Wové

    What is the correct response to a “Howyadoin?”

    “Doin’ fine, thanks. And you?”

  • John East

    I couldn’t agree more. When you meet the French face to face on their own turf they are fine, particularly if you are trying to practice rusty “O” level French, and desperately blurting out “bonjours” and smiling as you try and compose a legible sentence. It’s certainly worth the effort because most French people will meet you more than half way with simple French or even fluent English once they are happy that you are making an effort.

    My views on the EU are not as favourable as they used to be, but the quality of French baguettes, cheese, sausages and cakes put us to shame, and their general approach to daily life (outside Paris) is so much more laid back than ours. Maybe this isn’t that good for their economy, but it’s good for us on a holiday break.

    Lets face it, we British can be very anally retentive, and even in village situations, it can be somewhat embarrassing deciding whether to say hello to strangers.

    Contrasting a village holiday in France to daily life in a large UK city misses the point. The French, in their own context, are usually more friendly and outgoing than Brits, or at least southern Brits.

    As a recent immigrant from the south to the north of England I have noticed a very similar difference in attitudes to life. Maybe the frantic, dog eat dog, mega mortgage, I’m alright Jack lifestyle in the home counties is the problem. Perhaps northern Brits have more in common with the rural French than with Londoners?

  • Verity

    John East – You have found the French tolerant of bad French? Are you sure they weren’t rolling their eyes to their colleagues? I have found they are the most intolerant people in the world when you make a mistake in their language. Their eyes glaze over and they stare at you most unpleasantly and say, “Comment?” Of course, if you didn’t say it properly the first time, the cold, viperish “comment?” is unlikely to loosen up your brain to provide you with success on the second attempt. My own experience is, the French love their language and only want to hear it used with precision.

    In the Anglosphere, we will accept anything, as long as we can understand what the person is trying to say. We’re willing to meet a foreign speaker halfway without the formality of grammar and correct usage. As, I must say, are the Mexicans. They’re similarly relaxed. If you say a few words, some of which may be the wrong tense or the wrong person, they still figure out from the context what you want and respond, more or less as Anglophones do with a foreigner, meaning, slowly and watching your eyes to judge if you’re understanding. I adore the French and France, but they are absolutely unforgiving about the usage of their elegant language. (In my experience.)

  • lucklucky

    Here in rural Portugal is the same. Bom dia, Boa tarde, Boa noite(Good morning, afternoon, night). In city it’s diferent and i dont think it’s necessarely rudness. Pratically you cant say Good morning to everyone in a city street.

  • Fred Z

    It’s not always the French. Spent time in Paris 2 years ago. No problem ever, even with high school western Canadian accented Quebecois French.

    It may be you Brits. As we say here in the West when we hear an English accent – you can always tell an Englishman, but you can’t tell him much.

  • Matt


    “What up?”

  • Johnathan

    My experience seems to match Brian’s, with one key caveat: modern Paris. Parisians seem fairly rude. However, I have noticed that their waiters shop assistants were far nicer than here in London.

    Gareth Russell, as a Suffolk boy myself, I could not agree more. In my home village near the market town of Halesworth, near the coast, people are pretty friendly. Even the Ipswich Town FC supporters are friendlier than most.

  • Patrick

    Dear me, did you ask your friendly villagers what they thought of Paris? I bet they whought Paris was terribly rude because no-one speaks to you!

    My french wife, from Lyon (mini-Paris as far as rudeness and snobbery goes) is amazed at how friendly and polite Australians are – and that’s in Melbourne (more than twice as big as Lyon).

    Then again, maybe she is just lucky to have fallen into a big moderately conservative mainly religious family! Quite possibly just like the ones your little villagers came from.

    Without offense, if possible, I think your hypothesis is nonsense. At least, having said it, you now know that!

  • Listen to Alice, she’s wrote the best and most precise (while being concise) picture of the current state of the continental Gallic tribes I’ve read in a long time.

    And the money quote:

    Silence and violence are two alternatives to French socially acceptable discussions, and having one’s blog sheltered in the States is safer.

    Hear, hear.

  • mike

    As always, another stimulating post from Brian. I’m actually northern English (Durham) and I suspect there may be some truth to what John East writes – up north people do regularly greet each other, with a ‘hi’ or an ‘alright, mate?’ – which applies from North Yorkshire through Durham, Newcastle and up to Edinburgh.

    I have recently relocated to Taiwan, and I was slightly bemused to find that a great many of the locals say “hello” to us foreigners if they even spot us from across the street. Being greeted from across the street by a complete stranger can be a little strange though as it may take you a few seconds to work out where the “hello” came from, by which time they may well think your silence is rude and will walk off! I always say “ni hao” or hello to the Taiwanese before I buy food or drink and “shi-shi” and “bye-bye” afterwards. I always thought of “bye-bye” as a cute form of “goodbye” – the kind of thing you say to little children, but here in Taiwan everyone says “bye-bye” – it is as normal for adults to say this to each other without embarassment as it is in England to say “take care”.

    As for differences in manners accounting for bad relations between the French and English – it may have something to do with it; on my train journeys between Edinburgh and Durham I’d frequently find Londoners in the ‘quiet’ coach of the train talking – always loudly – on their cellphone. Why couldn’t these people simply book a seat in another coach or use their phone in the space between coaches? So the perception of Londoners as rude isn’t simply a French thing – they really are rude!
    Another thing is that, on greeting our friends and relatives, we English don’t usually do much more than say hello or something similar. The French, Portuguese and Italians have much better manners – always a handshake or a kiss on the cheek(s), usually followed by inquiries as to whether we have eaten yet! Australians always strike me as much more like northern English people than home county types.

    But I think there’s more to relations between France and England than simply different manners. We have very different patterns of thinking that just happen to encompass how we greet and treat strangers and friends. Maybe this is because of the different activities and personalities of the successful entrepreneurs (have I spelled that right?!) each country has had. The recognition a society extends to its’ individual heroes may affect the culture. So England recognised and praised Nelson – not just because he won huge strategic mililtary successes, but because of the manner in which he won them. The values of pride, defiance and individual initiative are in the echo of praise for Nelson’s victories. For the French, and Napoleon, there is a different constellation of values echoed in the praise which the French have for him.

  • The Last Toryboy

    I think its just a city thing. I’m from Devon originally – a little village in north Devon to be precise, so way out in the middle of nowhere – and people were pretty friendly there.

    Now I’m in the south east (no jobs in Devon) its a totally different story. You’ll only get words out of a stranger after a few pints…

  • llamas

    I’ve spent a lot of time in France. I speak French in a workmanlike manner but with a strong accent and, no doubt, many grammatical errors.

    Totally agree with the country-vs-city comparison. In little Normandy villages, ‘bonjour’s and ‘ca va?’s litter the highways and byways, and all appear to be sincere. French city folk tend to be, not so much outright rude, as incivil and intolerant.

    I like very much the French business habit of the formal daily greeting exchanged between all parties – the stop, the handshake, the polite inquiry as to well-being, and ‘les bises’, as appropriate. I think it fosters mutual respect and civility between colleagues, and keeps business and social pressures somewhat-separate. You can have a knock-down, drag-out argument with a colleague one day, but it’s hard to harbour animosities when you greet them, and they you, with courtesy and respect the next. Keeps things in perspective.

    Cities are much the same the world around. Get out into the Mid-West and the high plains of the USA, and you’ll see the same sort of rural civilities. Heck, if you drive the back roads of Wyoming or Montana, every vehicle you pass, the driver will raise a hand or tip his hat – an essential courtesy in a place where you might very well have great need of the kindness of strangers.



  • Verity

    Fred Z – Sadly, we can’t all be as vivid and sophisticated as the Canucks.

  • Alice

    Thanks, Dissident Frogman. To me it’s a great compliment from a brillant bilingual blogger.

  • Verity

    llamas – How nice to see you back!

  • What is the correct response to a “Howyadoin?”

    I was always partial to “fair to middlin'”

  • matt

    “My french wife, from Lyon (mini-Paris as far as rudeness and snobbery goes)”

    Been here (Lyon) for four years and I haven’t noticed that. Maybe since your wife left things have gotten better ;-))

    As Verity says, just see how polite those same people are when : driving, queueing, walking etc.

    As for the tutoie (using tu instead of vous), I find that people of the same age or friends of friends have no problems. Cadres (management) who have been to ENA/Polytechniques/etc. is another matter.

  • zmollusc

    John East, wash your mouth out! Northern england was much less assimilated by the french invasion than the south. The reason londoners are so insular is the much lower chance that you share a common language with the person next to you in the ‘tube’ trolley thing (note for northerners, the tube is a system of filling underground railway trucks with people, rather than coal).

  • AK

    ” ‘Bonjour!’ is all that they say, and in a year’s time, ‘Bonjour!’ may still be all that they say. They are not making friends, just being polite.”

    Sounds a little like “Minnesota nice.”

    On the other hand, I’ve always found New Yorkers friendly and open. When I tell other New Yorkers that, however, they assure me that I must have been in a parallel-universe New York.

  • la marquise

    Je vous aime
    Je t’aime Maman
    Lots of commenters here seem to think that universal tutoiement would be a Good Thing but both forms have their charms.

    There was recently a discussion on France Culture’s ‘Répliques’ where the blessed Alain Finkielkraut quoted Tocqueville on democracy’s hostility to forms (i.e. formality) and went on to analyse this as a post-revolutionary belief that all formality was a kind of deception (- which is rather bad news for such cultural manifestations as music, dance and chess where you cannot disembarrass yourself of the form without destroying the thing itself).Le monde Anglo Saxon being more democratic (how did that happen?) is way ahead in the formal iconoclasm stakes.

    I remember being amused, back in the 80’s, by trendy French guys who went to great trouble to get their Doc Martens from the shop in Camden, and wore anarchy badges pinned to scarfs tied in square knots under their chins (think Rupert the Bear as punk) periodically rising to greet late-arriving friends with hand-shakes as assured as any company director’s. “How but in custom and in ceremony are innocence and beauty born?” But I suppose all you Randian types prefer the naked clash of individuals unmediated by these old, cold, gentle forms which can only be despised as long-distance aristocratic hang-over – but refreshing when one’s on holiday.

  • Verity

    la marquise – I’m all at sea! Could you please point to a single (never mind “lots of) commentator(s) who think the universal tutoiement would be a good thing?

    No offence, and I enjoyed the rest of your post, but where on earth did anyone here lobby for “universal tutoiement”?

  • dick

    I agree with Sarah re Ohio. I grew up in a small city in Ohio and it would take an hour to walk a block downtown. All my friends from NYC who visit there with me cannot believe that people are just always that friendly. Even in the cities like Cincinnati or Dayton or Columbus the people are friendly. The other midwestern states seem to be the same way, at least the ones I have lived and worked in.

    Now I live in NYC and the difference is unbelievable. The people walk down the street, look right at you, and walk right into you as if you were not even there and don’t dare get in their way when it comes to the end of the day. All is fair game. The pushing and shoving is unreal. Trying to cross the streets is like a game of tag. In Ohio the people driving stop at crosswalks to let you cross the street. In NYC they seem to aim at you and dare you to try to cross.

    As to the French, we never had too much to do with them where I grew up. We had the professors at the university but they were the most stuck up prigs I ever met. Had the noses been any higher in the air they would have drowned in a rainstorm. The ones in NYC all seemed to be nasty and money grubbing until you got to the more sophisticated ones. They were just nasty. Unfortunately I have never seen the French in their native habitat. Maybe they are different there. The ones I have met over here in the USA were totally insufferable.

  • RAB

    Well well Alice, I thought you were italian! I have two French aunts myself and have lived with the Gaulic shrug of contempt for anybody else since I was born.Funny thing though, my aunts have lived in Wales(the most friendly and gregarious people on the planet) since 1940, and loathe their fellow countrymen and women with a vengance(something to do with the war, pride . vengance , lies and collaboration I gather but it whips by so fast , you know the french , even when you understand french it still sounds like dial up starting off.

  • Alice

    To Rab, Comparing myself to your aunts : Loath would be excessive, I’m just tired of these Gallic tribes. And I’m not sure sixty years away from them would be enough to forget ; and I speak fast too. Indeed some of the resentment from the war, (from each war), has never been spoken up.

  • la marquise

    Ooops, sorry Verity, I have perhaps over-interpreted some of the comments – speed reading after wine inadvisable perhaps – and yet, and yet I would still claim that the general thrust of most of the comments from the improbably U. S. of Stranadiarkshire maintains that while the sturdy French peasantry will bonjour you to your heart’s desire, the bourgeois and the heducated clarses were snobby, uptight and took a month of Sundays to bring themselves to tutoie you and would therefore benefit from a dose of Stranadiarkshirean franchise, openness and capacity to speak as they find – (I really wouldn’t advise this, – in my experience, people who badger you to open up and frankly say what you think have generally underestimated your critical faculties).

    I agree absolutely with your analysis of the different attitude to language, and the escapees formula of silence, violence (or mind-crushingly dull conversation) does indeed ring a bell but I wouldn’t want to generalise from this, for it is surely it’s not obligatory for everybody to have to eat with my in-laws ……

  • RAB

    The late Wynford Vaughn-Thomas, BBC broadcaster, writer and wit was asked once what the difference between the English and the Welsh was.He related this story.” I had to go to a funeral of a relative in the S wales valleys and I had been living in London for many years.So I got to Paddington to catch the train but I was early.The carrage was empty, but it soon filled up.First one corner, then the next, people keeping their distance for as long as possible.Then up went the newspapers and not a word was spoken all the way to Cardiff.When I got there I had to catch a connection train up the Valleys.This was also empty, but the first person in through the door didnt go for the four corners, he came and sat down right next to me.”Allo butt! where you goin then?” A conversation naturally ensued and it turned out that his aunt knew the Uncle I was burying and would be at the funeral too”. And the French have the nerve to call us Pays de Gaul.I dont think so!

  • Verity

    la marquise – but they do universally tutoie each other at work….

  • David Cockburn

    French colleagues at my office in Paris used to complain about the visitors who didn’t say ‘good morning’ and shake hands all round the office when they came in.
    The Swedish visitors were particularly guilty of this rudeness and they were city people.