Manners October 2001

Civility vs. Civilité

No matter what the dictionary says, "politeness" and "rudeness" aren't easily translated

Remember "civility," the watchword of the Bush Administration's early days? This word popped up so often in speeches by the President and members of his circle that it has stuck in my consciousness, inducing me to muse about what it means. President Bush's version, of course, is very American—cowboy civility, a "Hi, y'all!," nicknaming friendliness. But what Europeans mean by civility is something else again. The French version, in particular, is constantly misunderstood on this side of the Atlantic. I should declare an interest here: France is the foreign country I love best, having lived there for twenty-six years.

The French word civilité means the same as the English word: "politeness, courtesy." (Another favorite word of Bush's, "compassion," translates unchanged into French, although I suspect it is seldom used in French government circles.) The French have a history of overlaying all kinds of unpleasant activities with the most polished civility. King Louis XIV was good at this: he had exquisite manners, and he forced his mistresses to give birth in salons at Versailles fully dressed and pretending that nothing was happening.

Even now French manners are much more formal than ours. But (our President's politics aside) I can't imagine the French minding Bush's cozier kind of civility. After all, Benjamin Franklin's homespun charm induced royalist France to finance our anti-royalist Revolution. His simple suits and the fur hat over his wispy, unpowdered gray hair delighted his French friends, themselves all dolled up in embroidered satin coats, swords, and periwigs.

Regrettably, today's Americans don't seem to have inherited Franklin's great love for France. Many of us think the French are terribly rude, without realizing that we often strike French people as deeply uncivilized. "You Americans are all big children!" my French friends were always telling me when I lived there. "Grands enfants!" I put it down to our contrasting definitions of civility.

For instance, we address one another in different ways. The very words Madame and Monsieur seem the essence of civility to me, recently returned to the United States, where a typical salutation is "Hi," and the answer to "How are you?" is likely to be "I'm good." (You are? I'm rather naughty myself.) To the French our hasty, slapdash way of addressing people seems rude. One aspect of French civility is a measured approach to all transactions, whether with a waiter, a taxi driver, or a shop clerk. There's a fraction of a second of eye contact, a "Bonjour, Madame [or Monsieur]," and often a barely perceptible bow before proceeding to business.

This is why waiters look hurt when Americans fling themselves down at a table, calling out "Garçon!" (This word for "waiter" has been out of fashion for years; "Jeune homme," or even "Monsieur," is more acceptable.) Perhaps the American customers don't realize they're in the presence of someone who knows each ingredient in every dish on the menu and is probably getting a percentage of the restaurant's proceeds. The misunderstanding may explain why friends departing for Paris are always asking me if the waiters over there are nasty and snubbing. Not at all. For instance, one friend arrived at the brasserie Terminus Nord, near the Gare du Nord, expecting, as an unaccompanied woman, to be treated disdainfully. The minute she got inside, she warned the headwaiter that she was alone. With a welcoming bow, the waiter replied, "You are not alone, Madame; you are with us!" Now, if that isn't civility, what is?

We Americans usually recognize politeness when we see it, but when in France we often mistake for rudeness behavior that seems perfectly civil to the French. For instance, I used to smolder with quiet rage in Paris shops where I'd have to wait my turn while the proprietor or the clerk gossiped with another customer, talking of their winnings in the Loterie Nationale or the state of their livers, without even a sidelong glance at me. Finally, a Frenchman waiting in line ahead of me at my neighborhood department store, the Bazar de l'Hôtel de Ville, while the cashier endlessly passed the time of day with another customer, explained why the expression "I'll be right with you" has never passed French commercial lips. "That would acknowledge a call to work," he told me. A job in France comes with a wide range of generous perquisites and retirement benefits, but one is not necessarily expected to work very hard at the job, and fawning on customers would be too much like work. Nothing uncivil about ignoring them.

Other aspects of French civility which might be misunderstood by Americans:

  • The French do not expect you to
  • give so much as a friendly nod to, say, someone past whom you are squeezing in a narrow passage. This non-nodding shocked all the non-French passengers I met while cruising aboard the French computer-controlled sailing ship the Club Med I a few years ago. "Why, they're in the next cabin to ours, and they don't even speak to us in the elevator," was the kind of complaint I kept hearing. The French would think the non-nodders entirely civil, and would probably judge the greeting that Americans expect as insincere and unnecessary.

  • It's perfectly correct to sit down on a seat in, say, the Metro without looking behind you to see if there's a straw hat, a tape recorder, or a cardboard box full of chocolate éclairs already on the seat. Like Queen Victoria, who is said to have never looked around to see if a chair was behind her before sitting down, the French consider that they have a right to sit in any seat not occupied by a human being. Take a look at the Declaration des Droits de l'Homme, from 1789: this right is sure to be there somewhere.
  • Americans must not mistake France's
  • favorite word, non, for incivility. Non is the almost inevitable French response to a request, whether for approval of a treaty, a hand in marriage, an interview, or a simple statistic. (In this last case non may be replaced by the response "Write to the President of the Republic." That was the answer I got from several booksellers and a city-hall official when, doing research for a radio feature, I asked them how much it cost to rent a bookstall by the Seine.) But you should never take non for an answer. You're expected to repeat your request again and again, and after you're told non a number of times, the answer will usually be changed to oui. The French psychologist Jacques Durand-Dassier calls this non ritual "the primary refusal." I've found that if the requester turns away, accepting non as the final word, the non-sayer may well be disappointed. The effect is rather like that when one side in a tug-of-war suddenly lets go of the rope, causing the opponents to fall down in a heap.

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