While at the airport in Chicago last week, I met a chic, charming woman. We struck up a conversation when I heard her say to her husband, “I’m going to find a macaron the minute we land.” Obviously I couldn’t just ignore a proclamation like that. (I probably would have if I were French because when you think about it, listening in and then participating in a private exchange is not a display of the world’s best manners.)
“Ladurée?” said I. “Of course,” said she. And, off we went into a flurry of chatter.
Eventually we established where we lived, she in Chicago, moi Paris. She explained that it had been a few years since her last visit to Paris and she was very excited about how much she could squeeze into a week. At one point she asked me if I would mind taking a look at a several page printout that a friend of a friend had given her on what one does and what one does not do in Paris.
I love looking at dictums like that. An American telling another American “the rules” of the game is fascinating for me.
One piece of good advice on the list was: “Always say ‘Bonjour Madame’ or ‘Bonjour Monsieur’ when entering a boutique.” It’s more polite and demonstrates that one is bien élevé (well brought-up) to say Madame and Monsieur and not a simple “bonjour.”Children learn this at an early age and their parents constantly remind them.
Another reminder: “Do not make eye-contact with people on the metro.” Good thinking. I imagine one would avoid that gesture in any major city in the world, but maybe little reminders are helpful.
Then, slipped into the advice was the the caution to “not smile all the time” the way we Americans have the tendency to do because the French, particularly Parisians, do not smile. If I’ve heard this reproach once, I’ve heard it hundreds of times over the years.
I’ve been told that smiles are little cadeaux that are not given out indiscriminately in this country and perhaps that’s true to a certain extent. A smile doesn’t necessary accompany the “Bonjour Madame” upon entering a shop, but a small smile might compliment the au revoirMadame when leaving because theoretically a bit of time was passed with a salesperson.
When a tourist asks a local for directions or information I can’t imagine the request would be made without a smile and I can assure you a smile will be returned.
After thinking about this so-called cultural conundrum I believe smiling is one of the most charming characteristics of Americans. I’ve heard us accused of being “too friendly” and maybe that means invasive in some countries, like my rude interruption in a private conversation, but what in the world is wrong with a smile? We don’t want to be everyone’s best friend, but we do consider a smile a gesture of our politesse.