It Pays to be Polite in France

Nice, France café - being rude is costly
“A cup of coffee” – € 7.00
“A cup of coffee, please – € 4.25
Hello, a cup of coffee, please – € 1.40

By Margo Lestz

At this café in Nice, France, minding your manners can significantly reduce the price of your coffee.

Of course, this was meant as a humorous way to remind customers to be polite, but it’s a great illustration of the French attitude toward good manners. 

In France the “courtesy words and phrases” are very important and NOT optional.  Fortunately, they’re easy to master, but if you can’t manage them in French, at least say them in English.  More than likely, the French will understand you and think that you’re a polite person who doesn’t speak French – which is, of course, much better than being thought of as a rude person who doesn’t speak French. So if you want to be polite in France (and I’m sure you do), here are some easy words and phrases (along with my attempt at phonetic pronunciation) to help you on your way:

Hello & GoodbyeFrench manners, Margo Lestz

  • Bonjour (bon zhure) = hello – As you can see from the coffee example above, greeting someone before placing an order or asking a question has much more importance in France than it does in the US or UK. (And you can save € 5.60 on a coffee.)  In France, you should never approach a sales person and immediately ask a question.  Always start with a polite greeting:  Bonjour or, even better, Bonjour Madame or Bonjour Monsieur (muh shure). Then you can ask your question.  I have to admit to having committed this error myself once (or twice).  I was in a hurry and just went up to a clerk and blurted out my request.  She looked at me and slowly said “Bonjour Madame” in a tone that said, “Did we leave our manners at home this morning?” (Ouch)  Then, of course, I had to say “Bonjour Madame” and start over with my question.  So it just saves time (and embarrassment) to remember to greet people first.   Bonjour should also be said when you enter a shop.  You don’t need to direct it to anyone in particular, just a general bonjour will do.  When I go into a shop, I say “bonjour”, even if I don’t see anyone, because I am sure there is someone somewhere watching to see how polite I am.
  • Bonsoir (bon swa) = good evening – At a certain point during the afternoon, Bonjour will become Bonsoir.  There is no precise hour when this occurs and it’s not a big deal if you say bonjour instead of bonsoir.  But if someone greets you with bonsoir you can reply with bonsoir.
  • Au revoir (oh rev wa) = goodbye – Just like it’s polite to say bonjour when arriving, you should say au revoir when leaving.  When exiting a shop, say “Merci, au revoir”.

 Magic words in french, please and thank youPlease & Thank You
These are magic words in both cultures.

  • S’il vous plaît (seel voo play) = please. This is very important; just add it to the end of every request.
  • Merci (mer see) = thank you.  It’s good manners everywhere to thank people when they do something for you.
  • Je vous en prie (zhuh voo zon pree) = you’re welcome.  This is the standard response when someone thanks you. That might be a bit of a mouthful if you don’t speak French, but depending on the situation you might also use:
    • Merci à vous (mer see ah voo) = thank YOU (returning the thanks to the other person).
    • Avec plaisir (aveck play zir) = It was my pleasure.
    • But often, just a smile and nod will be sufficient.

By using just these few words and phrases, you will have the French marvelling at what a well mannered person you are.  But if you really want to make a good impression, here are a few other things to be aware of:Do you speak english, yes, no

  • Do you speak English?  Don’t assume that everyone speaks English.  What would you think if you were in your home town and a French tourist approached and just started asking you questions in French?  You might think they were a bit rude, no?  So start with a bonjour – even if it’s badly pronounced.  Then ask, “Do you speak English?”  If they don’t understand, then you have your answer.  But they will probably say, “a little bit” and then try to help you in English.
  • Wait to be seated in restaurants.
  • Ask for the bill.  Normally the waiter will not bring the bill until you ask for it because it would not be polite to hurry the customers.  So when you are ready, ask for “l’addition, s’il vous plaît” (la dee shon, seel voo play).
  • Tone it down – In general, the French are a quieter bunch than… the Americans, for example. Talk and laugh at a moderate volume.
  • Don’t take up more space than you need.  If you are two people, don’t take a table for four – even if there are lots of empty tables.  Don’t take up the entire sidewalk.
  • Put money on the counter instead of handing it to the person you are paying.  Of course, there are exceptions.  If the person holds out their hand, by all means give them the money, but generally it’s more polite to place it on the counter.
  • Keep your cool – Hopefully you won’t have any major problems, but sometimes things can go wrong.  Normally (if you have been polite) you will find the French to be very helpful.  But be warned, you will get nowhere by demanding your rights, yelling, or asking to see a manager. (The “customer is always right” philosophy has not caught on here and managers stick up for their employees) If you want to be helped, you must, above all, remain calm and polite.

So there you have it, the secrets of French politeness – and how not to overpay for a cup of coffee.  Do you have anything to add?  Let me know.

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17 thoughts on “It Pays to be Polite in France

  1. Hello, very useful advice for those who want to do the right thing in France. I have written a few posts on bonjour, au revoir, s’il vous plaît and merci in my Friday’s French series and I totally agree with all your remarks. One of mistakes my fellow Australians make is to say “oui, merci” which, of course, the French never say!

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    • Hello Rosemary, thanks for the comment. Your site has some really helpful tips on this subject too – http://www.aussieinfrance.com
      I wish I had know all of this when I first came to France, it would have been so much easier. The “code of politeness” here is more strict than in the US. In the US, there is more emphasis on the attitude and actions of the person and the words can be somewhat optional. In France it seems to be the opposite. 🙂

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      • I’m sure it will be once I’ve cleared the border.

        My bank in the United States will talk to me and do bank transactions when I ask. People will rent to me there so I will certainly be less homeless. My children will have friends.

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  2. That’s telling it like it is!
    North Americans often complain about the French being rude but I have always found them to be precisely the opposite. Your post is absolutely on the mark. If visitors to France follow your instructions, they will leave with a very different opinion. I always return to North America wishing manners were as important here these days as they are in France.

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  3. Hello and thanks for the confirmation. I’m with you, I find the French to be very polite. I think the problem comes in when a tourist (usually unknowingly) acts in a way that’s considered rude – then the offended French person may react with rudeness. It’s a vicious circle but can be easily avoided with just a bit of preparation. 🙂
    Thanks for your comment.

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  5. After I left my reply to your comment on my blog, I came looking to see if you had gotten my earlier comment here… but it is nowhere to be found. Don’t know what happened, so I’ll try it again… 😉

    My husband is one of those who subscribes to the “French are rude” attitude, but I have never had a problem when I have traveled there.

    I didn’t understand how we could have such different impressions, but you have cleared it up nicely. We have never traveled in France together and that may be the key.

    He is very much a “read the book” at someone to get his point across. He thinks that is trying to communicate in French… By contrast, my approach has always been a more humble, (smile, eye contact, pause) French opener along the lines of “Hello mademoiselle, (good day) Please excuse me- I apologize that I don’t speak much French, but I am trying to…” and I have yet to find anyone who has not changed to a soft helpful demeanor, taken pity on me, or otherwise not helped me get what or where I need.

    Gare du Nord notwithstanding, the people have always been most helpful. Even there, you could say they were helpful- they just happened to help themselves to my briefcase… ah c’est la vie, non?

    Thanks for shedding light on this mystery and clearing up our own communication issues here at home!

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    • I know that the French are stereotyped as rude, but really they are very polite – to those who are polite to them. It sounds like you are the perfect well-mannered tourist. You will have to bring your husband back to France and give him some lessons. 🙂 Like you, I have had French people go out of their way to make sure I got on the right train or bus or to help me find my way.
      Actually, I’ve always had good travel experiences – in every country I’ve visited. I think it has everything to do with your expectations and the way you present yourself.

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