Monday, March 26, 2012

Manners Can Be Fun

It’s amazing what one takes as standard, culture-crossing, global behavior when it has been instilled in you from childhood. Take manners for instance. We are taught that certain behaviors exhibit good training and upbringing.
The whole point of this training is so that you do the right thing at the right time and place. Not only will you make your mother proud, you will also increase your chances of attracting friends who aren’t barbarians.
“Keep your elbows off the table.”
“Put your fork down in between bites.”
“Look people in the eye and call them by their name when you greet them.”
“Don’t interrupt people that are working.”
Then suddenly you find that all of these fancy, proper manners are considered bad form. How can it be? This is what Grandma laid down as gospel for a young lady.
It never occurred to me that social manners along with language could also have frontiers. Here are a few differences in how we comport ourselves now a days.
At the French dinner table it is considered impolite to put one’s hands under the table. I must look like a fidget budget as I rest my hands lightly on the edge of the table and then they drift back down to their accustomed place.  Up and down up and down. I’ve actually heard French parents say to their children, “Put your hands on the table.”
The ‘european’ fashion to eat is to cut one’s food and then continue to hold the fork in one’s left hand and eat what is there. Eat slowly yet efficiently.
And one should pretty much be a part of the family before you address someone by their first name. A “Hello, Madame” or Monsieur is fine. You might even kiss the person on the check, but still not know their first name. The kissing habit is something that does not always travel well back to the states – one time I found myself going up to kiss people at the church greeting time – that started a little fancy panic back-peddling in the pews.
And if you ever wondered why every shopkeeper you met in France knows that you are not French, notice that every time you enter a shop you will hear “Bonjour” – even from other shoppers and you are expected to great everyone as well.  And don’t forget to toss out an “Au revoir” on the way out.
Walking into a small restaurant in any small village demands a protocol you won’t find in Paris.  When you enter, you say “Bon soir (good evening)” to each of the three or four tables of diners.  Yes, they are strangers. (So you don’t have to kiss anybody.)  Then they say “Bon soir” to you.  Then you say “Bon appetite” to whoever just got served.  They thank you and wish you “Bon appetite.”  To which, with a heartfelt “Merci,” you finally get to find your table and sit down.
Every now and then I ask a little advice on how to conduct myself in certain situations. In spite of the fact that what works in Burlington doesn’t go in Bourdeilles, it’s a good thing that the need for manners is a strong part of my upbringing. It makes this part of the adventure in France as much fun as the wine tastings, history discoveries and adventures with new friends.


Lynn at Southern Fried French said...

So true! love the backpedaliing in the pews.
There are so many pitfalls. I once offered a group of visiting French folks a glass of wine at 5:00--quelle horreur!

Anonymous said...

I was raised on these rules. Most Americans who visit France say that the French are very rude. If they would only learn to say "Bonjour" "Merci" "Bon appetit" et "Au revoir" these simple words would make such a big difference to improve their appreciation of a culture so different from their own.


Mary Jo said...

I have always been fascinated my the origins of good manners, like why we don't put our elbows on the table, why men take off their hats when they enter a building or approach a lady, and why the man walks on the street side of the sidewalk. As a teenager, my Amy Vanderbilt Etiquette Book became the bane of my siblings' existence and it was hidden from me when they could no long take my suggestions. But what I really enjoy, is the book I found at a flea market years ago titled Our Deportment. Written in the late 1800s, it speaks to an earlier era and the reasons for many of these customs. It might be fun to find a similar text in French. Think of the fun you could have with that sitting around the dinner table--with your hands properly placed.

A Small Village in France said...

The book we had as children was Manners Can be Fun. We learned not to pout, or whine and all sorts of funny things - and very important.
I can just imagine popping a sibling that had too many suggestions for how to comport oneself into the bedroom closet!