Living in another country for an extended period of time gives you the chance to really get to know and understand a culture and how its people think. Since my arrival in France, I feel like I could write a book about the French way of doing things, because things certainly are done differently here. Not better or worse, just different. Case in point: how you greet people.
I am a woman, which means that in France, I can either be referred to as Madame or Mademoiselle, depending on my marital status, or lacking that, my age. While France has recently made steps towards banning this distinction on official forms, it is still fairly prevalent in everyday conversation, because as we all know, old habits die hard. Unfortunately for my fellow Parisians, I don’t have a ring on my finger to make the distinction immediately clear, which means that I often put them in the undesirable situation of having to guess which one to call me based on a split second assessment of my age. Now, I don’t mind being called either, but it has been interesting to see how my hairstyle and wardrobe affect this decision. Hair up? Always Madame. Hair down? I’ll almost always get Mademoiselle. However, if I’m in my running gear, we’re back to Madame, no matter what my hair is doing. I also recently discovered that I’ve been inadvertently flirting with several of the men in my apartment building when a friend pointed out to me that in France, if you correct someone from Madame to Mademoiselle, what you’re actually doing is signalling your interest in that person. No wonder some of the women in my building have been giving me stink eyes in the elevator.
Next up is a very important grammar rule in a language full of grammar rules and gendered spellings. While I am enjoying my time learning the French language, it is exceedingly annoying how it contains the ability to grossly insult someone without ever resorting to profanity. I’m talking of course about the dreaded “tu” vs. “vous” decision that is in of itself a minefield of potential social blunders. Both tu and vous mean “you”, with tu referring to the singular form of the word and vous referring to the plural. What I didn’t know upon my arrival in France, is that vous is also used as a formal expression of you, and it’s used as a sign of respect towards people both in the singular and the plural. Unfortunately, I’ve learned the hard way on one too many occasions that the French do not take too kindly to being addressed improperly, and despite the leeway I’m given as a foreigner still learning the language, I’ve managed to ruffle quite a few feathers by using tu too early. Take my advice; when speaking French, always remember to err on the side of formality. The French will tell you when it’s okay to start using tu, and you’ll impress them with your language skills in the process.
Finally, we come to the kisses. When meeting new people, I am accustomed to shaking their hand as a standard form of greeting. At the end of the encounter, if it’s a formal setting such as a job interview, you shake their hand again, but if it’s someone you met in an informal setting, such as a party, you hug your new friend at the end of the night. I myself love hugs, and I will go in for one at every opportunity, but I’ve had to curb this habit since I moved to France. Here, the standard greeting is what is called a bisou, or the two cheek kiss, and everyone does it. Women to women, women to men, men to men, it doesn’t matter. The standard greeting and goodbye to people, even those you’ve just met, is to give two air kisses to the cheek, one on each side. If you forget and go in for a hug, it really weirds Parisians out. I know this from experience because there have been many times where I found myself going for a hug, only to try and clumsily transition into a bisou. It’s unbelievably awkward every time, but as I said before, old habits die hard, so it still happens with embarrassing frequency.
Learning a new language and culture is fascinating, but you have to be prepared to look like an idiot from time to time. I know I have on many occasions as I’ve bumbled my way through Paris, but it’s the only way to really learn and know a country and its customs. However, this doesn’t mean you can’t learn from my mistakes, so the next time you find yourself in France, remember to use caution when correcting people, always go for formality, and pucker up, because there will be a lot of bisou coming your way.