Getting to grips with the French language

French native Sylvie Wheatley offers an insight into the do’s and don’ts of the French language and culture...

Language and social etiquette slip-ups can become amusing anecdotes to be told at future dinner parties but they can also abort burgeoning relationships – and indeed prevent future dinner parties if the wrong word or the wrong action sends the wrong message and someone takes offence! This is especially true when you have to express yourself in a foreign language and adapt to slightly different social mores. As a Brit spending time in France or trying to settle there – and even if you can conjugate French irregular verbs perfectly – you will undoubtedly find yourself in conversations that started simply but that turn complicated as cultural wires get crossed. But take heart, you can be spared the worst by adhering to a few simple rules and applying proven tips.

Naturally each French region has its own little peculiarities that may not apply to the rest of the country. This means that observing the locals and mimicking their ways should be a good start to fitting right in, but there are also plenty of principles that should be true everywhere in France. It’s always heartening to remember that most French people will extend a gracious hand and ear to foreigners who show a desire to speak their language.

Tutoyer or vouvoyer

Although verbs may seem easier to conjugate with tu, it is recommended that you vouvoyer everybody unless told otherwise by the person you’re speaking to; the only exception is children and young people. To be on the safe side, just vouvoyer everybody who looks old enough to have left school, then as you come to know people they might say: il faut me tutoyer maintenant or dites-moi tu or on peut se tutoyer maintenant. This implies reciprocity so they will start to tutoyer you as well.

First-name terms

This follows a very similar rule. Always call all adults Monsieur, Madame and Mademoiselle followed by their surname until they give you permission to call them by their first names.

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It is not uncommon in France for people who have known each other a long time, such as colleagues or neighbours, to keep on calling each other Monsieur or Madame so and so. Again, as you get to know people, they might invite you to use their first names: vous pouvez m’appeler Micheline or appelez-moi Jean-Philippe. Until then, just remain formal.

It is very fair to assume that if someone has allowed you to tutoyer them then you can also call them by their first name, but the reverse is not true. If there is a progression in the relationship, it will go from using first names to eventually tutoyer, not the other way round.

Explaining your level of French

Don’t be shy. There is absolutely no shame in making clear that you are not yet fluent, that you have not understood what has just been said or that you find some phrases difficult. Most people will be more than happy to repeat or to slow down. Try: pardonnez-moi, mon fran�ais n’est pas parfait. Je n’ai pas compris ce que vous avez dit. Pouvez-vous parler plus lentement s’il-vous-pla�t?

Greeting people in a group

As you walk into the boulangerie or the boucherie, there will probably be other customers there as well as the staff. It is very likely that the staff will greet you first with bonjour Madame or bonjour Monsieur while carrying on serving the customers who were there before you. As you are the latest to arrive, you should greet the assembled company as they have already greeted each other. You shouldn’t have to greet them all individually; you can greet them all in one go by using a neutral, global bonjour or bonjour Mesdames, bonjour Messieurs or bonjour Messieurs Dames depending on who’s there. Some French people object to this Messieurs Dames expression as being rather low class but the reality is that you will hear it used regularly across the country. If you do your shopping in the evening – once it’s dark or after 6pm – the greeting will have moved to bonsoir.

When listening to French people greet each other you’ll hear the word salut at some point, either when they arrive or when they leave, whatever the time of day. It is an informal greeting used among young people, or between friends and relatives who are very relaxed in each other’s company. To avoid sounding too familiar, stay away from salut.

Talking about the weather

Beyond just greeting each other, if shoppers waiting for their turn to be served are going to talk about anything, it’s likely to be the weather. It’s the safest way to engage in banal conversation; most people will agree on what the weather is like at any given moment and no-one is to blame for how hot or how cold it is, so just learn the relevant vocabulary and join in!

If someone says: ah l� l�, quel temps de chien! or c’est p�nible cette pluie! or qu’est-ce qu’il fait froid! you just have to say: ah oui, vous avez raison. Beware of places where people are waiting for their turn but may choose to keep a bit more to themselves such as the doctor’s waiting room or the pharmacy. They will say bonjour to you but wait to see if they’re prepared to chat further. If the locals aren’t talking, you probably shouldn’t be either.

Comment allez-vous?

When asked how they are, most people will only ever reply �a va, merci, even if they’re not all that well. However, you may find that certain French people love talking about their bad health and will give you quite a lot of detail about the tests they need to take, the operation they’ve just had or the medication they have been prescribed. The French in general believe in radical medical intervention for most ailments including the common cold.

Greeting people

You will find that if you’re taking a stroll in the park or by the river and have to pass the occasional stranger quite closely, it is expected to greet them. If they are so far away that eye contact is not even possible or that you’d have to speak loudly for them to hear you, then there’s no need. In town, when pavements are busy with lots of passers-by, you only need to greet the people you have met before.

If you bump into people you’ve met before, you should definitely acknowledge their presence and greet them. Depending on how much you’ve spoken to them before and depending on how hurried they seem to be, you may even stop for a little chat.

Getting to know your neighbours

If you move into a small village where very little ever changes, your neighbours are likely to remain exactly the same ones for a long time, so it’s crucial to develop a good relationship with them. Be friendly but remain formal and be prepared to answer a few questions about where you’re from, if you’re going to live in your house all year round, what you do, how long you will stay, how old your children are, etc. Equally you can try to find out about them with questions such as habitez-vous ici depuis longtemps? Que faites-vous comme m�tier? Quel �ge ont vos enfants? Try also to get a few tips on how best to live in their area: pouvez-vous me donner des conseils sur…?

Potentially your neighbours could become wonderful fountains of knowledge about where to find things, who to ask for specific help, etc. Pay attention to the first thing they mention to you about your house or your garden. It probably means it has been bothering them a while and they will expect you, the new owner, to do something about it. It could be trees that are too tall, a pond that’s dangerous to children or too many weeds that seed themselves onto their lawn too.

Inviting people to your home

Venez prendre l’ap�ritif avec nous demain soir. L’ap�ritif – or l’ap�ro in short - is a great way to invite people to your house without having to provide a whole meal and sustain a conversation in French for too long. Your guests will understand that they’re only coming for a little while before going back to their place for their meal and all you need is to provide drinks (Ricard, port, kir and fruit juices should be a good start) and a few nibbles. Les g�teaux ap�ritifs are plentiful and varied in France, so shopping for them is easy; peanuts and mixed dried fruit are also popular.

L’ap�ro du midi starts any time after noon and l’ap�ro du soir any time after 7pm. Remember that French families tend to eat later than English ones in the evening, the chidren having been given a snack called le go�ter around 4pm.

Accepting an invitation

Let’s hope you will be invited to ap�ros, go�ters, dinners and parties. If the invitation is verbal and informal, it is fine to reply in a similar way, either there and then or to promise to confirm later by telephone. If you are invited by letter (a rare occasion these days), follow what the letter suggests. If it doesn’t suggest anything but there is time to write back, then write; it’s a nice thing to do and there is no need for complicated sentences.

If you want to bring a gift, don’t bring what the host is supposed to supply, ie food and drink. It would suggest you don’t trust there’ll be enough, and anyway, who wants to drink a bottle of wine that’s just been shaken about in transit and is at the wrong temperature? Instead bring flowers (not chrysanthemums as they are mainly used on graves!) or maybe a sweet treat that’s obviously not for eating straight away. If it’s a birthday party, don’t bring a card as people in France only use cards when they want to send their greetings by post, not if they’re going to see the recipient face to face.

Writing emails and letters

As it is probably obvious from your name that you are not French, don’t try to be more French than the French when you send a written message – especially when it comes to signing off. There are endless complicated formules de politesse that have been commonly used in France for so long but it can be a minefield choosing between who to give your meilleurs sentiments to or your consid�ration distingu�e.

Instead, use polite but simple, clear, contemporary language and get your grammar and spelling right; the fast-growing use of emails is already encouraging simpler language and you won’t be perceived as rude if you don’t use the old, convoluted signature lines.

Faire la bise

Talking of kisses, you will notice that most French friends and relatives greet each other by kissing each other’s cheeks (including men sometimes), but there are no absolute rules as to how many kisses one should give or expect to receive, or which cheek you should start with.

It entirely depends on local habits, families and individuals. Friends and relatives exchange kisses when they see each other for the first time that day, not on subsequent meetings, and often as they depart. When a whole group meets another group, the kissing can go on for quite a while. People often remove their glasses to avoid clashes and children will also join in. Conversation will finally start once everyone has exchanged kisses with everyone. It might be a while before you know any locals well enough to kiss them, but the time will no doubt come; someone will say: on se fait la bise?