- -  Day # 121  + +

EU > France > Caen

Social elegance

Caen, FR (View on map)

`Style over content` would be a nice stereotype to describe the French, or to make fun of them. Even though the modernisation of society has weakened the influence of the traditional `etiquette`, elegance and sophistication are still important values in France. Here`s a quick look into how the French expect their conversation partners to behave:

Diane (25):

..explains the French greeting protocol
In written and oral conversations alike, French makes a clear distinction between the formal and informal. `You` in French will translate into vous for almost anybody over 20, which is actually the same as you-plural in English. That makes it different from Usted, short for in Spanish, which makes you speak to an adult in the indirect direct way, as if you were talking about somebody else.

You, you and you
Olivia (25) tells me how about how the informal tu refers to people of your same age when your under 20, to direct family and to friends. Any unsimilarity in age or social status will make people call each other vous until the person considered higher in rank invites the other person to address him/her in the informal way. In case of doubt, it is also makes sense to ask what a person wants to be called. Furthermore, vous is logically connected to the use of a family name, while tu will be combined with first names.

Students in university are addressed by their professors in the formal way, while colleagues at work may also very well call each other vous. Most certainly if they have a different place within the hierarchy of the company, but sometimes even people who work at the same level. In those cases, only the establishment of personal relationship beside work may motivate them to call each other tu. In case of doubt, it is quite normal to ask a person senior to you, how he or she wishes to be addressed. Otherwise, using the formal form and waiting for an invitation to change afterwards is the safest way to go.

Inappropriate use of the informal form will quickly be seen as a lack of respect that only foreigners may possibly get away with. Under the surface, even immigrants from Northern Africa, where people are much more used to call each other tu may be an easily overlooked barrier to integration.

Kisses and handshakes
Diane (24, photo) explains me that the bise, the exchange of kisses, is a fundamental part of the greeting procedure. The bise serves for hello and goodbye and includes a number of kisses that differs per region and degree of intimacy. A two-kiss bise generally prevails in bigger cities and/or for `official` relations, while as many as four kisses are common for good friends or in more regional areas. The ritual is expected between women, men-women, and for good friends also between men.

The kisses are exchanged at least when meeting somebody, but for social settings people repeat the ritual when saying goodbye. If friends or family subsequently meet at another part of the day, they may even start all over again.

Being introduced to friends of friends (female or of the opposite sex) also includes kissing, even if you may never see that person again. The same goes for colleagues on each and every new working day: they invariably greet each other with kisses ? a ritual that may take up to 15 minutes of working time. Man shake hands, which is something that`s almost forbidden for women: only strictly professional relations with at least two degrees of separation (the manager of a manager) or upon meeting a new potential business partner are suitable excuses for women to shake hands. In all other conditions, female handshakes will be taken as for extremely cold and distant.

As a result, kissing and addressing each other formally may well go together. It is the older person or the one higher in rank who takes the initiative. He or she may want to be called vous while proposing at the same time `On se fait la bise quand-m?me`: I suppose we should kiss rather than shake hands, which is moreover a difficult one to escape. This hierarchical system may lead to younger girls almost being forced to kiss older men, which is not necessarily something they are fond of. Re-bonjour, `bonjour again` will be an appropriate greeting for that occasion. `Salut`, the informal greeting between friends, has no similar conjugation and can be repeated throughout the day is its original form, provided that there is some form of separations between the two moments you walk into each other.

Social rules do not only apply to real-life meetings but also, or even especially, to written communication. While most people in Western Europe will be most likely to send letters in print, France still attaches a lot of importance to the art of hand-writing. Personal letters are obviously written by hand, but even most companies will ask for hand-written application letters. It singles out the possibility that people only know who to write because the spell-check corrects their mistakes. In advanced stages of recruitment, personnel managers are likely to assess the handwriting to create a psychological profile of their preferred candidates.

French are very formal in starting and ending letters. Instead of ending with a word or two to conclude what they wrote above, they engage in complicated formulas that all aim to transmit the appropriate amount of respect to the reader of the letter. `I request you, Sir, to accept the expression of my respectful feelings`, would be one such ending. The English translation would not be much more than `Yours faithfully`, but in France it would almost take a quick note to your best friend to be able to get away with your best friend. Use of SMS, texto in French, is slowly transforming written communication to Anglo-Saxon standards. More and more communication between people who have no formal relation nowadays ends in `Amicalement` (with friendly regards) or even `A+`, short for `A plus tard`, meaning `Until later`.

Less elegant
After explaining the oral and written meet-and-greet system, Diane also explains that the French are not always as elegant when it comes to courtesy. They may almost take equal pride in being extremely rude to other people, especially in traffic where the right of the strongest or most aggressive usually counts. Also in busy pedestrian areas or shopping streets, Pardon, Excusez-moi and S`il vous plait may all be very polite words in themselves, the way they are used may sometimes be offending and insulting. When pronounced with the right amount of poison, they meaning nothing less than `get out of the way`.

In social settings, women like to be treated with ?gards, but according to Diane that is no longer something you can expect: `Having a man holding a door for you, or helping you into your jacket is no longer something a woman can simply expect to happen, in fact, it has become a rather rare`, she says. Women themselves have also become rougher, spitting on the ground and showing almost the same aggression as men in the most trivial situations. She further adds that `French people do not smile a lot, even though they have so much to be happy about. Smiles make life so much nicer and they are free`. And who could claim the contrary?

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