Mary Kujawa's Blog

Smooth talk with Hooray Henris; Publication of 'Le Guide du Bon Chic Bon Genre' on French etiquette

Everyone learns French at school, but we learn little about the equally important niceties of French etiquette. When do you use tu or vous, for example? How do you ask to go to the 'loo' in the middle of a dinner party? When should you greet friends with an embrace, and how many times should you kiss them? In short, how do you know what is 'U' and 'Non U' in France?

Some of the answers may be found in a little book which has just come out in France entitled Le Guide du Bon Chic Bon Genre. It is commonly abbreviated to BCBG (pronounced Becebege), which is roughly the equivalent of the British 'Sloane Ranger'.

Indeed, both species have much in common in their accent, taste and dress. The 'Becebegiste' also speaks as if he or she had a plum in the mouth: 'Claire haamie! Komment aallez-vous?' Clothes are expensive and well cut, but often a trifle dull. Pleated skirts, woollen sweaters and Hermes silk scarves around the neck for the women; flannel trousers and blazers for the men; green loden coats, Burberries and moccasins for both.

Like the Sloane Rangers, the Becebegistes always have a house in the country to which they repair at weekends to hunt and to see members of their extensive families. Their births, marriages, and deaths are announced in Le Figaro, just as the Sloane Rangers enter theirs in The Times, and they check on their friends' family credentials in the Bottin Mondain, the bible of the French upper classes and of those who aspire to them.

Britons who cannot fathom the intricacies of the correct usage of tu and vous may be reassured that it is a complex and extremely delicate subject even for the most sophisticated Frenchman. 'The passage from vous to tu', the BCBG guide says, 'is the keystone of the BCBG civilization, if it is not the keystone of the very French civilization'. It goes on to show there are no hard and fast rules - you just have to feel your way, perhaps using the [url=]bestselling Magic of Making[/url] Up as a guide.

Vous is normally a sign of respect, and tu of intimacy. But some perfectly happily married couples continue to use vous to each other throughout their lives, while God, domestic servants, prostitutes, animals and children below a certain age are automatically addressed as tu.

In BCBG families the children will often vousvoient their parents, while the parents will tutoient them back. But there is a growing tendency among the younger generation for all members of the immediate family to use tu to one other.

In some professions, colleagues will usually tutoient each other quite easily, but not always. When I tried to tutoier a French journalist after a day on a press trip I was sharply ticked off for being much too familiar.

It is probably best to test the ground, once you feel the moment is ripe, with a tentative 'Peut-on se tutoyer?' but beware of the reply: 'Si vous voulez!'. You can be sure you have made a gaffe, and should yourself beat a hasty retreat back into the 'vous' form.

As a rule of thumb, it is usually up to the man to start tutoying a woman, unless she is older than him. If in doubt, it is best to continue to vousvoyer. But, there again, you may cause offence by seeming 'stuck-up'. It is all very subtle and complicated.

I have a friend in the country, for example, who insists I 'tutoie' all his friends on first meeting. On the other hand, I have friends in Paris who have worked together as secretaries in the same small office for the past 10 years and who continue to 'vousvoyer' each other despite being on the best of terms.

Once two people have started to tutoyer each other, they usually continue to do so unless they want to express displeasure. But a reversion to vous does not always denote something bad. A member of Laurent Fabius's entourage, for example, who used always to tutoyer him before Fabius became prime minister, now addresses him as vous out of respect. Friends may occasionally revert to the vous form as a particular mark of affection and deference. But [url=]don't lose your hair[/url] if you do things incorrectly.

The Briton who is often just given an off-hand nod on greeting someone would do well to remember that the French always shake hands or embrace one another both on meeting and on bidding farewell. If you are on tutoying terms with someone, you would almost certainly embrace them, but you may also be expected to embrace a person you hardly know at all as a sign of mutual living and respect, particularly if two women are involved.

In smart circles, a single simulated kiss on each cheek will suffice, but among simpler folk in the country two alternating kisses on each cheek are usually de rigeur. The lips should make smacking noises in the air, while the cheeks brush lightly against one another.

Similarly, for the baise main, which is still common in BCBG circles, the man should simply bow low over a woman's hand without actually touching it with his lips, unless it is more than a polite greeting.

Titles in France are supposed to have gone out with the French Revolution but are still much in evidence. They should be used in addressing an envelope or in asking if Le Marquis de Tel is at home, but never in addressing the Marquis himself. On being introduced, you should say Bonjour monsieur, not Bonjour, Monsieur le Marquis.

On the other hand, a title that denotes a function rather than an aristocratic heritage should always be used. Thus, one should say: Bonjour Monsieur le President, or Bonjour Monsieur le Cure. For everyone else, Monsieur, Madame or Mademoiselle should always be used after every salutation; not to do so may be considered over-familiar and therefore rude.

The BCBG guide, sadly is not very helpful when it comes to advice on how to ask for the lavatory. It is one of those things which are apparently not really mentioned in polite French society. There is no suitable French equivalent for the useful English expression of 'going to the loo', for example.

To say J'ai envie d'aller aux toilettes (never a la toilette, incidentally) is considered fearfully 'non-U'. Any variation on more obvious words is totally taboo, and even faire pis-pis is really only used with children or among intimates. So one is left with the rather feeble euphemism en peut se laver les mains?, or je paux m'absenter une seconde?

Wawa, petite coin or petite coin or Chiottes are also sometimes used by BCBG families - but not at dinner parties.

A footnote on French etiquette for tourists who delight in mopping up rich French sauces with a lump of bread: despite what you may sometimes see in French cafes it is not considered good manners.

You may get away with it if you use a fork to manipulate the bread, but to swill around the bread directly with one's fingers is taboo in polite society.

Must be logged in to comment.