French Good-Neighbor Policies

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Saying hello, or good day, is important to the French, even if they don’t mean it.

It’s the custom to greet someone with a “bonjour” on entering a store, an elevator, a building lobby, a room, even passing someone you sort of recognize on the street.

I had to learn this. Not to become polite, but to acquire the politesse of another culture.

I’d heard that you were to say “good morning” or “good day” when you entered any kind of retail establishment – patisserie, butcher, grocer, hardware store or clothing boutique and even in certain cases, if someone were at the entrance, a supermarket. But it took some practice before it became second nature for me.

The French expect you to keep to yourself and mind your own business, but to acknowledge that someone else is present, not by nodding but by speaking.

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Americans, or perhaps New Yorkers in apartment buildings, are reluctant to acknowledge even the existence of neighbors they see in the elevator. When I first returned from Paris, I thought of what I’d learned there and said hello in the elevator to a couple of sourpusses who lived a few floors above me and whose paths I crossed with some regularity. They looked at me with even more acrid disdain than usual, as if I’d done the unthinkable by daring to try to puncture the shield of their contempt. I no longer bother to say hello, but I do glance at their faces when I see them, searching for signs of anything other than miserable scorn. I’ve yet to see a smile. Not that the French smile all that much – or at least Parisians. But they expect certain things to occur when they encounter each other.

One afternoon, at the apartment building in the 14th arrondissement where I stayed during my first few months, I entered the elevator just behind a boy who lived a floor or two above me. I said nothing to him as he stood there expectant, having greeted me with a quiet “Bonjour.”

At my continuing silence he muttered to himself, “Il faut dire bonjour,” you have to say hello, at which I still said nothing. “Il faut dire bonjour, quand même, il faut dire bonjour,” he whispered as if by rote, and then I realized he was speaking to me.

“Bonjour,” I said at last, looking at him, a little embarrassed.

“Bonjour, monsieur,” he said, and nodded, as if an uncompleted melody had finally resolved itself.

At my floor, as I left, I remembered to say, “Bonne journée,” or have a nice day, as I pushed the door open, at which he said, “Bonne journée, monsieur.” I could have said, perhaps, “Bonne journée, jeune homme,” or something like that. But I’d been unnerved by my awkwardness.

Sometimes this lack of local politeness stems from a greater lack of linguistic ease, and at the time of this brief elevator encounter with the boy who’d stood on ceremony I’d been living in France for just a few weeks and my conversational skills hadn’t progressed much. Paris immediately had felt like home. Yet I was still trying to make myself at home in the culture and hadn’t yet acquired the reflexes of an almost-automatic acknowledgement of another person within my immediate vicinity. You forget certain niceties as you scramble for others.

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A buffet marking La Fête des Voisins.

The rules of engagement in daily life are different in different countries. I was often so preoccupied with fitting in, despite my Americanness, that I stood out regardless, having neglected to observe simple niceties with which the French grow up.

I had also marveled, in those early weeks wandering around Paris, at how the French seemed to be so at ease with themselves. I later discovered that this wasn’t true, and that I had perhaps projected onto the French the reverse of my own spiritual, emotional and mental discomfort. Perhaps I’d also been led to think that basic local politeness that I’d come to observe was deeper than it actually was.

It’s hard to get to know the locals, as any visitor will tell you. But the Parisians have a hard time getting to know each other too, which is why some enterprising person began what’s known as La Fête des Voisins, a celebration of your neighbors. La Fête des Voisins encourages speaking and engaging and perhaps dining with the people who live next door to you or down the hall or in the same building. It’s been going on for about 15 years, and it’s still a work in progress.

You’re still unlikely to have a deeper relation with your neighbors than the necessary “bonjour” that at least establishes a certain equilibrium in day-to-day encounters. This is true in most of the world, I realize, though in my naïveté I had hoped that, despite my occasional social awkwardness, my openness might lead to a similar wish to become known by someone else in Paris. It eventually did happen, but only by chance, and only because a new friend had let his guard down enough to welcome me into a fold that’s often closed to outsiders.

Each of us wears blinders, of course. The French at least try to see beyond them, however fleetingly, during their daily routines by speaking a polite word before resuming, like too many of us, the blinkered path of an unengaged existence.

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