Parlez-vous Politeness?


Can we talk about manners for a minute? The French call it “politesse” – politeness – and they will judge you based on how well you know the rules. If you fail a test that can be as simple as how you greet strangers, you will be very quickly dismissed as “mal élevé” (rude), “vulgaire” (vulgar), “radin” (cheap), or the biggest dis of all: “plouc” (which means you’re basically a hillbilly). 

I’m not suggesting we do that, but I think we can all agree on these ten, basic, things that we should do (and make sure that our children do) whenever possible.

  1. Look people in the eyes when speaking to them, especially when you are introduced and/or introducing yourself. Beware of lingering eye contact, however, which is just creepy.
  2. Use a firm handshake (and eye-contact). Don’t overdo it by gripping the hand or shaking the arm too hard, though, or you’ll seem like you’re overcompensating for some hidden weakness.
  3. Always say please and thank you. That sounds so obvious, but I am appalled by how few people do it. By the way, in Paris, you would fail the test described above by just saying “Merci.” Even three-year olds know that you are supposed to say “Merci Madame/ Mademoiselle/Monsieur.”
  4. Elders and ladies first (in that order) when it comes to most things. Ladies, beware of implementing this rule amongst yourselves – I’m sure I’ve seen at least one “Housewives” episode where doing so degenerated into a catfight. As an aside, in France, men enter restaurants before ladies – because you just never know when some danger is awaiting their damsel that must be neutralized with a tasseled loafer.
  5. At the table, don’t talk with your mouth full. No one wants to see what your food looks like other than on your dinner plate.
  6. Tip generously. Whether or not karma actually exists, it’s always best to pay it forward.
  7. Dress appropriately. There is a time and a place to make bold fashion statements. However, it is usually not at someone else’s wedding or at a gathering in a formal place, unless it’s the Met Gala (although if you’re invited to that, you’re probably above the rules of fashion propriety anyways)
  8. Don’t leave people hanging. If you have been asked to do something by or with someone, it is your prerogative to decline. However, not letting the person know is rude, and it also shows a certain weakness of spirit (what, you can’t handle disappointing them, or their reaction?). Obviously, the above does not apply to someone who managed to get your phone number and texted you an indecent proposal in the wee hours of the morning.
  9. Fulfill your obligations. Once you do agree to do something for or with someone, deliver, preferably with diligence. This applies to so many things in life, but all I can think about right now is my younger son who is driving me crazy with his tendency to “forget” to do all of his homework, or who rushes through it to get to far more important things, like talking to girls. Le sigh.
  10. Write thank you notes to show your gratitude. It is a more personal, respectful way of showing your appreciation than an email. If you have really awful handwriting, ask a friend over dinner (once you are done chewing your food) if they would please help out, and assuming they respond immediately (because you don’t have rude friends, do you?), thank them profusely. And leave a nice tip, because you’re polite.

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