Saturday, March 3, 2012

The Importance of Bonjour

Americans in Paris

The doctor’s office was on the bottom floor of a house.  When I pushed the door open, I was standing in a square foyer.  To my left was the “toilette.”  In front of me was the “salle d’attente” – the waiting room.   I opened the door and glanced at the six or so patients who were seated in the room; then I settled into a stiff chair and opened a book.  Several minutes later, a woman walked in, said “Bonjour” to everyone, and sat down.  Again the door opened, and another woman appeared, looked around, said “Bonjour” and found a seat.  It then dawned on me that I am a rude American.

The next time I entered the doctor’s waiting room, I said “Bonjour” to the seated strangers, and felt oh-so-French.  But this pride of figuring out some part of the cultural communication system was turned upside down soon after, when it was my turn to speak to a person at the information desk of a department store.

“Where can I find women’s shoes?” I asked.

“BONJOUR, madame,” she replied.

A timid and high-pitched “Bonjour” exited my mouth.

Bonjour is important.  If you travel to France, make sure you say bonjour to salespeople, waiters, clerks, hotel workers, airline personnel, hairdressers, cashiers, and anybody, actually, before you ask a question or start a conversation.  When you walk into a hotel elevator, say bonjour to the people who are already in the elevator.  If you’re staying in an apartment building, say bonjour to people who live there, even if you don’t know them, and you can also up the civility by adding a “madame” or “monsieur” to your greeting for supplementary politeness (“Bonjour, madame”). And if you decide to get your hair done in France, make sure you greet everyone in the salon at once with a pleasant bonjour (in barbershops, men also shake hands with other customers as well as the barbers, saying bonjour to each).  Bonjour is part of the French politeness code.  Master that, and you won’t be such a rude American.

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