Occasionally in the afternoons, I enjoy listening to Flavie Flament’s On est fait pour s’entendre — We’re made so we can understand each other — on RTL (Paris).
The studio camera is often on for her shows, so we can see her and her guests discuss various topics of social interest.
There is something amazingly youthful about Frenchwomen. It’s hard to believe that Flament is old enough to have a teenage son. She looks as if she just graduated from university. She also has a gentle enthusiasm and innate kindness which, in many of us, disappear all too early once the responsibilities of everyday life take over.
Anyway, on Wednesday, January 22, 2014, Flament’s guest was Laurence Caracalla, journalist and author of Le savoir-vivre pour les nuls, or Etiquette for dummies. If you’re a francophone, you can replay the whole show at the first link.
So impressed was I by what Caracalla had to say that I have ordered her book from Amazon in the UK.
Many of us think that manners and conventions are outmoded. We no longer understand their purpose or history. However as Caracalla said, good manners put others at ease and make life more enjoyable for everyone.
What follows are a few highlights. These are universal norms of courtesy and not ‘just French’, by the way:
- Gallantry towards women: Caracalla said that it was a shame that women began rejecting common courtesy from men (holding doors open, giving up their seats on public transport) later in the 20th century. Gallantry dates back to the Middle Ages and is a sign of the utmost respect for women. Gallantry does not involve condescension. It should be revived and cultivated. She made it clear that, despite what women say, men should continue offering their seats to ladies.
- Shaking hands: Caracalla maintains that the French are probably the most enthusiastic people in the world when it comes to greeting people properly. A large part of this is the willingness to shake hands and with feeling — as she put it, ‘”the French touch”, la touche française‘. She is 100% correct there. I have observed this on countless occasions; they really do leap to the fore on this. They shake hands eagerly and properly, grasping the whole hand firmly but not bone-crushingly. They never have damp or sweaty hands, and they are mindful of the fact that women wear rings. Caracalla says that we must always be careful not to cause any pain in shaking hands, especially to ladies. It doesn’t take much to crush a finger against jewellery.
- Saying ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye’. She said that the most important thing you can do is to teach your children to greet people they know when they see them, whether on the street or in a shop or in a lift. Again, I can speak from personal experience on this: when in France, certainly be ready to say, ‘Bonjour, madame‘ and ‘Bonjour, monsieur‘ when entering a shop, hotel, restaurant or taxi. The employee or proprietor will say that to you first, and, as courtesy, will look forward to receiving a similar response. We seem to have forgotten this a bit in English-speaking countries. The same holds for a goodbye — au revoir — in order to close proceedings.
- Mobile devices at table. As Caracalla says, ‘Your mobile phone has not been invited to the table’. They should be turned off. Men should leave them in their pockets for the duration of the meal. Women should leave theirs in their handbags. We are there to enjoy present company, not follow up on business, future dinner dates or the results of the latest reality television show. If you’re on call (e.g physician), politely leave the room to check for messages.
- Staircases, escalators and the sexes. Men precede women in ascending and descending staircases and escalators. There is a reason for this — and it is not because men are somehow superior. Men precede women ascending a staircase or escalator so that they are not tempted to overly admire their physique. A gentleman precedes a lady on the way down in case she trips or falls; he can then break her fall and lessen any injury.
- Setting the table for a dinner party. Caracalla said that a poor cook can cover a multitude of culinary sins by laying a sumptuous table. My American readers will know how Ina Garten and Martha Stewart place a high priority on a well-appointed dinner setting. This is the reason why — we lesser mortals need all the help we can get! Caracalla also said that no one sets a better table than the Americans, although, in terms of overall dinner or lunch etiquette, she still believes the French have them trumped. It’s the Old World courtesy and manners which do it.
- Hostess gifts and flowers. Caracalla advises sending flowers to one’s hostess the day of the dinner (early on) or the day after. Bringing a large bouquet when the hostess is finishing off the first course and worrying about the main is not going to please her at that very moment. If you prefer not to bring flowers, then choose a good bottle of wine or champagne — or a box of quality chocolates. A hostess receiving flowers on the day of the dinner should quickly ring the donor to thank him or her and say how much she is looking forward to seeing them later in the day.
- The best tourists. Here, Caracalla left the French touch behind. She said that worldwide surveys show the Japanese make the best world travellers. They address everyone with great courtesy, even if they are not happy with accommodation or a meal. And who are the worst when abroad? Sadly — but for some of you, not surprisingly, perhaps — the French!
Caracalla’s book is in French, but it is a good gift idea if one of your younger family members is off to study or work in France. Knowing the language, etiquette and the culture will make that experience all the more meaningful. It can also open many doors of friendship and opportunity for the future.