Many North Americans are terrified of the French. They trade stories about rude waiters, arrogant salespeople and obnoxious taxi drivers. These tales never cease to mystify me; I've spent a great deal of time in France, often for extended periods, and on the whole have always found the French to be much more courteous and nicer to deal with than most other people on Earth.
Of course, being a native French speaker helps greatly, but even tourists with a minimal knowledge of French can have a wonderful time in France if they learn the codes of politeness that govern the country's social life. In a nutshell, here's the word that will open doors: bonjour.
Even the bus driver should be gratified with a bonjour when you board his vehicle. The same goes for shopkeepers, waiters and taxi drivers. Upon leaving, the required salutation is au revoir (see you), bonne fin de journée (have a nice afternoon) or bonsoir (goodnight). Words such as s'il vous plaît (please) and merci (thank you) should be used liberally; otherwise, the customer will be seen as impolite.
"Say bonjour like you mean it and say it a lot. If it feels like you're saying it too much, that's just enough," write Julie Barlow and Jean-Benoît Nadeau, Canadian freelance journalists who are partners in life and in work, in their new book, The Bonjour Effect: The Secret Codes of French Conversation Revealed.
France is an old, polished society, and even the young, whether they are hipsters, sports fans or extreme left-wing activists, adhere to these codes because they've been transmitted by families and schools.
The thing not to do – ever – is to use the tu form and be overly familiar with people you don't know well. Air kisses should not touch the cheeks and should be limited to friends. The French are warm and convivial but fundamentally reserved, and the worst mistake is to confuse a friendly welcome with an opening for intimacy.
It's true, however, that the French have loosened up in the past few decades and are more open to foreigners. They also use a lot of English words (which they can't pronounce), and trendy restaurants have become quite informal (burgers are all the rage). Fortunately, one thing that has not changed is the wonderful French sense of humour; their sharp and witty repartee makes even a brief encounter a pleasure.
Ms. Barlow and Mr. Nadeau cover a large territory. They explain why laïcité (secularism) is such an important value in France; why it's okay to share naughty sex stories but unbecoming to talk about money; why radical feminism never took hold in France; why French children are so well-behaved; and why the French can seem like know-it-alls (the authors' daughters were schooled in Paris for a year, which gave them precious insights into the school system).
I disagree with some of their observations, especially their tendency to overgeneralize from insignificant anecdotes. The French are much more accommodating and helpful than the authors' descriptions, which seem at times a bit fraught by the proverbial unease some foreigners experience in France. Still, the book is a lively and informative description of the country's cultural habits and social codes. First-time travellers to France will find useful tips, and for most North Americans this is a good introduction to the long history and complex culture of the country.