Foot-in mouth disease is rampant, even among the French
At a multilingual dîner en ville (dinner of powerful people), the pretty daughter of American personnalités (VIPs), in Paris to learn French, provoked well-bred amusement by mixing up j’ai chaud (I’m hot = too warm) with je suis chaude (I’m hot = aroused). The notables taught her a new expression: mettre les pieds dans le plat , which you’d think means to put your feet in the platter, i.e., your foot in your mouth, but doesn’t. It means to step into the mud (plat as in mud-flat), i.e. to put your foot in it and we all know what “it” is. The meaning is to blunder into an uncomfortable situation, and then to keep on talking, which just makes things worse.
Linguistic etiquette varies dramatically from country to country. You really need un informateur autochtone (native informant). And the right informateur. Pity the poor German au pair whose 10-year-old charge told her to refuse second helpings by saying politely, “Non, merci, j’en ai marre” (I’m sick of it).
Savoir-vivre (good manners) translates “to know how to live.” A gentleman is never unintentionally impolite. Étiquette (which also means label) is savoir-vivre in spades. It originally referred to labels that formalized protocol in the royal court. Chantal, who directs stages d’entreprise (training programs), teaches young cadres (executives) the nuances of professional behavior. She regaled the table with stories of gaffes, beginning with the impair (maladresse choquante) committed by a New York trainee. He hopped into a Paris taxi, yelling approximately, “Follow that car!” The driver turned around and, eyeing him calmly, announced, “Monsieur, en France nous disons d’abord (first), ‘Bonjour, Monsieur.’ ” Never simply launch into an interaction. Getting on the bus, including in Paris, it’s customary to greet the bus driver. Even to a stranger on the street, always begin with “Bonjour (or Pardon), Madame.”
Chantal once watched a French stagiaire (intern) unintentionally betray his humble origins by beginning a presentation with the formule populaire (working-class expression): “Bonjour, Messieurs, Dames !” He didn’t get the job. What you say is “Bonjour mesdames, bonjour messieurs.” Job candidates also miss getting hired by opening an interview with “Bonjour, Monsieur (or Madame) Dupont” or heading a letter Monsieur Dupont instead of just Monsieur. Traditionally only a commerçant (shopkeeper) or un employé (employee without management status) takes a deferential position by mentioning someone’s nom de famille. If you want to become a patron (boss) you need to speak as equals. That’s “Bonjour, Monsieur.”
But Americans consider it rude not to call people by name — a habit that’s hard to break. To get around it, Chantal suggests “Monsieur Dupont ! Bonjour Monsieur ! ” On the phone, use an interrogative intonation: “Monsieur Dupont ? Bonjour Monsieur !”
Speaking of phones, she noted that her French students have problems stating their own names. Sometimes she spends an entire day convincing them that in large corporations, giving one’s name is considered indispensable professional courtesy. Unless it’s essential to the transaction, the French think identifying oneself sounds pretentious. Or maybe they hope anonymity reduces the risk of blame.… Twenty years ago, post-office employees threatened to strike if they were forced to wear name tags!
But even introducing yourself gets complicated. I can’t say “C’est Madame Frey,” because, grammatically speaking, I’m not ma dame (my lady). But am I sa (his) dame ? Best to avoid the whole problem. I learned to announce, “C’est Julia Frey à l’appareil” (literally: on the apparatus). For years the French considered the telephone exotic, practically a military secret. They still speak into l’appareil (device), or le combiné, because in 1905, you cranked up a complicated combiné microphone-récepteur.
Even more peculiar was answering the phone and hearing immediately “Qui est à l’appareil ?” That cracked me up. After all, they were calling me! Now callers say, “Ici Martin Dupont.” If referred by someone else, they may explain, “Mon nom ne vous dira rien, mais je viens de la part de Monsieur Untel.…” (My name won’t mean anything to you, but Mr. So-and-so recommended I call). Answering an office phone, announce “Martin Dupont, bonjour ! ” At home, simply say “Allô ? ”
A modern etiquette book that takes on the complexities of le courriel (also called e-mail and mél), les portables (cell phones, not laptops), and Internet still insists on l’élégance du langage. It lists expressions to avoid because they make you sound commun (common, uneducated). “You’re welcome,” is never de rien (no problem). Say “je vous en prie” (“I beg you”—the pronoun en replaces “not to mention it”). If you hear “je m’excuse” (I excuse myself) instead of “excusez-moi,” it’s because the speaker ain’t bin larned no grammer. Saying goodnight, Chantal reminds her foreign guests that it’s vulgar to say au plaisir, to the pleasure (of seeing you again). Au revoir is perfectly adequate.