In France, politeness is staging a comeback.
On a recent trip to France, a jet-lagged Daniel Brewer walked up to a shuttle bus driver at Charles de Gaulle airport and asked if the bus went to Paris. A perfectly innocuous question, by American standards. But the department chair was quickly jolted out of his jet lag and into the world of French politesse when the driver responded politely but very firmly: “On dit ‘bonjour’.” (“We say hello [first].”)
Kicking himself for his forgetfulness, Brewer greeted the driver—and received the response to his question. “It’s important to know that code,” Brewer says. “It allows you to establish a social link, an agreement.”
Politesse is a social code steeped in French history. But it’s also undergoing a renaissance of sorts in some contemporary arenas. Polly Platt’s book, French or Foe, tackled the topic of politesse in France and has remained a bestseller since 1994. People are tolerating incivility less, even as rudeness and brutality seem to be on the rise, Frédéric Rouvillois, author of the 2006 Histoire de la Politesse, told the New York Times. “There’s more awareness that courtesy and savoir faire are useful and necessary tools in society,” he remarked.
Indeed, a quick review of recent development reveals that politesse in France has become more than an opportunity to scold tourists. It reveals otherwise hidden truths about a changing French culture. As the idea of Europe grows stronger, long-standing assumptions about national identity are being questioned with increasing urgency. In 2005, violence in the outskirts of Paris, the banlieue, dramatized serious social problems the government faces caused by immigration and the cost of French social policy. At the same time, nostalgia for a refined, civil, and above all polite society is emerging. Consider the following recent developments:
- The Hospital Federation of France began its first national advertising drive for politeness in public hospitals and nursing homes with the motto “Stay polite!”
- The Ministry of Transportation designates an annual “day of steering wheel courtesy.”
- A French reality show recently documented eight women from working-class backgrounds who were sent to a French chateau for a month to prepare themselves for a ball.
- Paris mayor Bertrand Delanoë launched the first Paris Tourist Day recently, encouraging cab drivers and waiters to smile and even to speak English—and tourists to try French products.
Deeper meaningThe term politesse comes from the Italian pulitezza, the noun from pulire “to polish, clean up.” “So the idea is you’re supposed to be polished,” says associate professor Juliette Cherbuliez. “Refined, shiny. Even today, you can’t be born polite; you have to be taught. It’s a system of social regulation that tells you what your place is.”
At the University of Minnesota, learning a country’s code of conduct is an essential part of learning a language and culture, Brewer says. “Students learn the coding, the logic behind a culture,” he says. “It’s what helps groups make sense of their world. Part of what we teach gives students a way to step outside their culture and reflect critically on another.” It’s often useful for students to learn, for example, that the French equivalent of spouting last night’s baseball scores might be memorizing and reciting poetry.
But faculty members don’t simply frame the importance of politesse in utilitarian terms. They use it as a cultural barometer of sorts, a way of measuring cultural change and distinctiveness. Part of the French attraction to politesse, they say, may be its history as a culture steeped in social class distinctions. Indeed, in some French circles people notice whether you cut your salad or fold it into bite-sized packages. And in some families, adult children still address their parents with the formal vous, says assistant professor Mary Brown.
“The impression that I have had after a number of long stays in France is that even today French society is not as integrated as American society,” Brown says. “In most American circles, the preservation of traditions of behavior that set one group apart from others [in France] would be seen as elitism and not welcomed. In France, despite its motto of liberté, égalité, fraternité, the elite are not embarrassed by their position in society.”
Why the sudden surge in interest? Many speculate that with an increasingly homogenous, globally similar culture, clinging to things traditionally and uniquely French is a culture’s natural way to protect itself. “Politeness is about civility and social control,” Cherbuliez says. “I’d speculate that [the current interest] has a lot to do with the feeling that people who are normally in control are less in control.”
It’s even found its way into an obscure political party, notes associate professor Bruno Chaouat. The Parti de l'Innocence was recently founded by writer Renaud Camus. “It could be named as well the “party of politeness,” Chaouat says. It’s a mostly symbolic endeavor; Camus isn’t actually interested in launching candidates into public office. He is, rather, trying to raise awareness about the decline of the French language and the need to return to grammar and syntax as self-discipline and respect for the other.
History“Some form of politesse has been important in France for almost as long as there has been an entity that we could call ‘France,’” Brown says. “The cultural flowering during the late 11th and early 12th century that produced the first vernacular poetry was accompanied by the development of a code of behavior at court. Sociologists have suggested that this codification of behavior was an attempt to civilize the boorish warrior class (the nobility), although they disagree about who was the source of these ideas or why ‘civilization’ in this sense was suddenly seen as something of value.” The new bourgeoisie quickly adopted the system, giving members of the class a way to show that he or she did not belong to a lower class, she adds. In the 18th century, the age of Versailles, French etiquette started getting out of hand, says Cherbuliez. “It becomes insane,” she says. “Every detail is codified.” The 2006 movie Marie Antoinette offered one chilly example. In the film, Kirsten Dunst, playing Marie Antoinette, gets out of bed and is greeted by her ladies in waiting. According to protocol, two women take off her nightgown and wait for the highest ranking woman to hand the queen her clothes. But, while the queen stands naked and shivering, a series of higher ranking women enter the room, forcing the clothes to be passed around while she waits.
The French Revolution set the stage for the more democratic political tradition of the 19th and 20th centuries. The rising middle class looked for ways to distinguish itself through symbols that represented its identity—possessions, leisure, status...and politesse.
Politesse, says Brewer, is “what happens when cultures bump up against each other, and you have to find mutually agreed-upon ways to negotiate the encounter.” With increased global migration, along with continued immigration from former French colonies, France is experiencing these cultural bumps more than ever before. Globalization may have triggered French concerns and anxieties over what it means to be French, but it is also responsible for the resurgence of politesse.