One of the observations that I have made is that, as a general rule, civility is more present in French culture than it is in American culture. This shows up in little ways. For example, when you enter a store you always greet, and are greeted by, the shopkeeper. When you leave, you say goodbye to one another. This always happens in a very friendly tone.
In restaurants, you will be left alone to enjoy your table for as long as you would like–hours and hours–without anyone making a move to disturb you, because it is considered rude to rush people at mealtime. (The flip side of this is that it can be hard to get your check and get out if you don’t want to linger. C’est la vie.)
When walking on the street, people are generally aware of each other and make space for each other–sharing the sidewalks while moving in a way that seems effortless and elegant. (I will admit, however, that Christmas market shoppers lose this ability completely, becoming distracted by EVERYTHING.)
Also, when you pass people on the street and you are the only ones around (not in a crowd), everyone always greets each other with “Bonjour” or if it is evening, “Bonsoir.” Always.
I’ve noticed that French people are very patient and polite in lines, even if they are taking too long, in a way that Americans are not. I recently made a whirlwind trip to Utah to drop my daughter off at college and the cultural difference was very stark. In several instances while there, I saw Americans getting exasperated, pounding on doors, and generally behaving impatiently when asked to wait. (I will also admit that when I was forced to wait in a line of cars for 6 hours to get a Covid test so I could fly back to France, I was one of these very impatient Americans.) French people generally just cue up and chill.
But one instance that stands out to me as an example of civility existing in French culture where it is missing completely in American culture was when we recently stumbled onto a protest in Colmar. It was a protest against the new “vaccine pass.” At one point, two men who were standing not far from us became engaged in a heated discussion. One gentleman was in support of the vaccine and the government regulations surrounding it, and the other gentleman was not. They were both very passionate–yelling at each other. I began to feel very anxious because it was the kind of situation that could easily escalate and become violent back home. However, when it became obvious that neither of them were going to change each other’s minds, they ended the conversation. They were still frustrated, so it was a bit humorous to me when they shook hands and said to each other, “Good day to you, Sir.” “Yes, and good day to you and your family as well.” And then they both took off in opposite directions. It was so interesting to me that the expressions of civility are such a part of the culture that they were not omitted, even in this kind of situation.
I am hoping to be able to emulate the French when I get home by being a little more patient, a little more civil, a little more elegant. I am hoping that I won’t be indifferent to strangers, that I will greet people I pass on the street with a smile and a “Hello.” I’m hoping to remember to greet workers in stores, taking the time to acknowledge their humanity before launching into my questions and needs. I’m hoping to make space for others–physically and emotionally. And I’m especially hoping to remember my civility when I disagree with someone, because people always deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. Always.
France has taught me so much! Here’s more: 25 Reflections: People are People.