Ahh, the French: stereotyped as driving too close to the car in front (true), speaking with a funny accent (true) and liking a good strike (also true – as seen earlier just this week). However, they’re also stereotyped as being rude and a bit arrogant about their language. I guess it’s a case of a few bad eggs spoiling all the rest, because I’ve honestly found the French, at least where I live, to be far more polite than the people in other places I’ve lived, and proud of their language, yes, but always willing to help me learn new words or graciously try to understand my terrible, accent-ridden French.
And it’s not just me. An English visitor last week asked for some bread in a restaurant, except she asked for it in Franglais: “Je voudrais le pain”. The problem is that in French, “some bread” is actually “du pain”, and by asking for “le pain” the waiter probably thought she was asking for rabbit (“lapin)”. He looked confused, then spoke in perfect English to my now embarrassed friend. It’s not his native language, but he was happy to speak English to figure out what my friend wanted. Two French friends of mine are learning English from me because they want to be able to serve clients in the customer-facing roles better. It’s not a requirement of their job, but they are eager to learn and speak a foreign language in their own country. Top points to them.
The politeness of the French extends in other ways. On a chairlift the other day (once I was through the scramble of the queue, as I’ve discussed here and here), the guy sitting next to me asked me if I minded if he and his girlfriend smoked. There’s another stereotype: all French smoke. Well, yes, lots do, but lots don’t. The indoor public ban on smoking was accepted without the expected protests in 2008, and these two smokers checking if it was okay with me for them to smoke is just one example of how the French can really be surprising. Of course, I felt obliged to say it was fine, then had to find discrete ways of avoiding the smoke that seemed to waft in my direction despite their best efforts to stop it.
And then there’s politeness out of necessity. I was working from home yesterday when I heard a knock on my door. It was the neighbour from upstairs who had never said hello to me. She explained she had an IT need and can I please help. My wifi is open for others to use (the wifi connection in French translates to “pay me in cake” in English and it has worked: I’ve received numerous cakes and sweet things from grateful holiday-makers), so I presumed she was checking if it was okay. I was wrong. She had received a message on her phone about a photo sent to her phone and she needed to type in a web address on a computer to see it. So, we used my computer to access the photo — a baby with a bottle. She cooed and ahhed at the photo as if the baby was in the room with us, then thanked me a number of times. Her husband soon arrived and we all spent some time staring at this baby. They were cooing and I was trying to figure out if it was a boy or a girl. I’m still not sure. Their politeness extended to kisses goodbye and more thanks before they left my place. Their display of gratitude made me realise I’m finally getting the hang of the French language: I understood the nuances of politeness that previously I’ve only understood in English. Yay!