A Little Guide to French Manners

I THINK one of the earliest lessons I ever learned was that the French are the most polite of nations. Unless I am much mistaken this was an assertion in some of our schoolbooks half a century ago. “French manners” certainly still expresses to me, as it always has, a suave ceremoniousness never looked for in my own countrymen. We all, I think, recognize instinctively the vastness of the difference between French manners and American manners. Probably with the great majority of us our initial impression upon hearing the former mentioned is of a profoundly bowing monsieur with chapeau describing a curve that no mere mister on earth ever attempts. Also it seems to me that a large proportion of the Frenchmen introduced to us in picture books are bowing supremely, while portraiture at the salon oftenest represents monsieur hat in hand ready for the magnificent coup de chapeau so distinctive of his race and country.

I have just been studying a Petit Guide de Savoir Vivre, published in Paris in 1898, to find that I have not been mistaken during all these fifty odd years. In spite of the democratic leveling of classes and the ill mannerliness of the republic of which its enemies say so much, the importance of the salutation or bow is as much insisted upon as ever I supposed it was. Moreover, it really is even more a matter of subtle endeavor, of superfine accomplishment and sublime display, than I had thought it to be. I had ignorantly imagined it an instinctive and spontaneous manifestation, whereas it is the result of such study as commands one’s wonder, if not one’s awe. According to the Petit Guide, when monsieur meets a lady he must not only “ raise his hat above his head with arms half extended without stiffness, awkwardness, or affectation,” but he must even have his calculating wits about him to “ make the gesture more or less deliberate according to the quality of the lady.” I wonder what happens when Madame Moyenne counts the seconds of the chapeau’s elevation and of its periphery, to find them to lack some seconds of the coup just bestowed upon Madame Mieux. May I not guess that, as great oaks from little acorns grow, much of the bubble and squeak of everseething Paris may be traced to feminine jealousies and the coups of French chapeaux ?

Yet with even this nicety of monsieur’s calculation as to the lady’s “quality ” he has a much easier part to play than madame herself, be she Moyenne or Mieux. Listen to the Petit Guide. “ For the lady it is not so simple. It is impossible to describe the thousand delicate shades of grace and dignity which form the value of a lady’s salutation. It must, however, always combine a sentiment of reserve mingled with one of allurement.”

I read on with hope that the Little Guide may make the next ceremony, that which it names the “ shake-hand,” more comprehensible to one, who, born outside the pale of French manners, has so little capacity for a combination of a thousand shades of grace and dignity with one of reserve and allurement. Alas ! Says the Petit Guide : “ At present the fashion of the shake-hand is the subject of much study, particularly for ladies. This ceremony comprises three movements although executed in one time : (1.) Separate the right elbow entirely from the body. (2.) Bend the forearm sufficiently to raise the hand to the level of the elbow. (3.) At the moment that the hands touch, slightly elevate the right shoulder, accompanying the movement by a delicate undulation of the body, — the least hint of a shadow of a suspicion of a reverence.” This “ reverence,” so delicately suggested, is a work of art in itself. It also has three movements in one time : “ (1.) Put the left foot a step behind the right, bending the knee and slightly stooping. (2.) Draw the right foot in line with the other, and slightly incline the body. (3.) Straighten one’s self gracefully from the backward position.”

The pretty woman whose poignée de main includes this subtle allusion to the courtly grace of courtly centuries has thus six movements to practice in one time (or shake-hand). We New England children, fifty or sixty years ago taught our already somewhat old-fashioned little manners, would have been made miserable indeed had those familiar three movements been complicated into six. In this country no freeborn American has ever been compelled to combine the hand-shake and the curtsy. These six movements (shake-hand and curtsy), says the Petit Guide, “ when executed by a pretty woman and crowned by a smiling expression, have the value of a delicious poem.” Surely. What else than the value of a poem, a poem of the profoundest, most inscrutable, most incomprehensible kind, could even hint at a shadow of a suspicion of a reverence during a French shake-hand, without an expression of agony or of idiocy ?

It seems a sad pity that monsieur who shares this poetic ceremony cannot give his poetic soul to the enjoyment of its deliciousness. Mais non. “ Monsieur must execute the first two movements in unison with madame. Then he must take her extended hand and press it, raising it a little above the level of the elbow, the finger nails beneath, not forgetting to bend the knees with an expression of deferential timidity.”

Other directions are for the dinner table. Both madame and monsieur must hold themselves a little distant from the table “ to avoid stains.” “ The shoulders must fall naturally, the elbows somewhat detached from the body and held high rather than low.” Monsieur must not thrust his napkin under his faux-col or knot it round his neck, although no such prohibition extends to madame who is only forbidden to put her gloves in her glass. Both must eat slowly, “ harmoniously,” and neither must cut his bread, “ for only Germans use a knife for this purpose.” With shoulders and elbows in position, napkin and gloves properly placed, the guest harmoniously eating, it is permissible in conversation with the mistress of the house not to inquire for the health of her husband “ whom often the guest does not know.” Somehow that last rule seems not altogether new to us. We all remember Madame Geoffrin’s guest who asked what had become of the silent old gentleman who formerly sat at the end of the table. “ He was my husband,” answered the hostess. “ He is dead.”

Some years ago I returned to my native country from a long residence abroad. I went directly from my steamer to the rougher part of a middle state. The total absence of bows and “ salutations,” of deferential timidity and alluring reserve, even of smiling expressions, made me acutely realize our utter lack of manners. Indeed, the change from European politeness almost frightened me. At one station where I was to alight I hesitated before struggling with my large satchel, preferring to wait the exit of rather unkempt fellow passengers. Suddenly, without a bow, a smile, a “ by your leave ” or “ pardon,” a clumsy hand reached over my shoulder, grabbed my impedimenta, and the owner strode widely on before me. Breathless, anxious, I rushed after the possible thief till I saw him enter the waiting room, pile all my traps in one seat, then with the terse remark, “ There you be, mum,” disappear from view. As I sat down to recover I remembered that in a fifteen years’ residence in France not once had I ever been helped with a parcel or satchel, though I had received there some of the most magnificent coups possible to the French chapeau.