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Last Updated: Saturday, 23 December 2006, 13:01 GMT
Mastering French manners, the hard way
By Caroline Wyatt
BBC News, Paris

The title, "A history of politeness in France", might strike the uncharitable as being a very short book indeed.

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But Frederic Rouvillois' definitive study of manners through the ages in France weighs in at a crushing 550 pages.

It joins Nadine de Rothschild's best-selling bible of politeness in offering advice to those in need of guidance on how to behave in that oxymoron, "polite French society".

For this season of festive meals can be a minefield for those uneducated in French ways.

Oh, if only I had read their advice before venturing out to my first Parisian dinner party.

I had arrived punctually at the chic Parisian flat on the Left Bank, on the dot of eight o'clock in the evening, as per the invitation, bearing flowers for my hostess.

I wondered why she seemed slightly put out. I realised, when the other guests - politicians, a philosopher, a banker or two and their wives - finally arrived an hour later.

The conversation was in rapid-fire French, no allowances made for the only foreigner in the room.

So, to make myself feel more at ease, I reached over to a bottle of wine, to pour myself a second glass.

The entire table suddenly fell silent as the wine emerged loudly, and in slow motion, into my glass.

A deep froideur descended as 10 pairs of steely Parisian eyes turned to stare. I smiled weakly and remained quiet for the rest of the meal, fleeing as soon as I politely could.

Clearly, I had committed an unforgivable faux pas, although what it had been I wasn't sure.

Cardinal sins

It was only this week that I discovered just how many terrible solecisms I'd committed under the strict laws of French etiquette.

My lesson came courtesy of Constance Reitzler, director of La Belle Ecole - "the beautiful school" - which aims to give Parisians and foreigners alike that special polish.

It teaches the "arts de vivre", that uniquely French concept which encompasses everything from how to appreciate your wine and food, to whether to eat your sorbet or ice-cream with a spoon or a fork.

It's a fork, for those who want to know. And never spread your foie gras on your toast. Eat it with a fork, and the toast separately.

Constance patiently explained that a lady never, ever grabs the bottle of wine to pour her own drink.

She must wait for her host or another man to pour it for her. And more than one aperitif before dinner is considered the sure sign of an alcoholic, or an Englishwoman.

We are, after all, a nation renowned in France for 'le binge-drinking'.

And I had compounded the offence by wishing those at the table "bon appetit", before noisily expressing my appreciation of the food.

Both, apparently, cardinal sins in the Bible of French etiquette.

"Wishing someone bon appetit is seen as very vulgar in polite circles," Constance explained, as I realised to my horror that I must have wished almost every French person I have ever met at a meal "bon appetit".

Paris 'syndrome'

So why didn't the BBC send me on this course before I began my job in Paris?

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And apparently in France it's good manners to keep your elbows ON the table, and your hands visible.

The custom dates back centuries, to when noblewomen did so to display their dazzling rings, to show off their husbands' social status.

Keeping your hands above the table shows that you're concentrating on your meal. And, I thought unworthily, that you are not using them to get to know the husband next to you rather better than his wife might like.

I, of course, had politely kept my elbows off the table, and my hands beneath it while not eating - goodness only knows what all the wives had thought.

But I wondered who was ruder: myself, for not understanding the local customs, or my hosts, for making me feel so ill at ease.

The phrase, "the customer is king", has clearly lost something in translation. Or perhaps the French think it a reference to the Revolution, a chance to cut the customer down to size

It's not that the French are necessarily rude - but Parisians certainly can be.

A psychiatrist has coined a term for its effect on Japanese visitors to the city: "Paris Syndrome".

Every year, several Japanese tourists have to be repatriated from Paris after falling prey to severe culture shock at the hands of the less than polite Parisians.

Waiters who fail to understand their order, taxi drivers who take them to the wrong place and then charge double.

All this is too much for some to take, as their dream of the city of light crumbles into a nightmare of darkness, creating a sense of rejection and paranoia.

'Bon appetit'

Yet I know exactly how they feel after my encounter at a dress shop last week. I picked up a skirt to try on, and as I took it to the changing room, the shop assistant shouted out across the crowded room: "I wouldn't bother if I were you - it'll never fit!"

The phrase, "the customer is king", has clearly lost something in translation.

Or perhaps the French think it a reference to the Revolution, a chance to cut the customer down to size.

Madame La Guillotine may no longer be available, but a sharp tongue can do the job just as well.

Perhaps Constance can help both sides. As I rose to leave the Belle Ecole, she politely handed me a two-page guide to etiquette, with an expression of sympathy, though whether for my past and future hosts or for myself, I wasn't sure.

I glanced at it. It could have been tailor-made for the oafish, drunken Englishwoman who came to dinner.

"Never down your drink in one", and "ne jamais ecraser le buste vers l'assiette" or "don't put your bust in your plate" and "never make noises of satisfaction at the dinner table".

And never, ever say bon appetit.

So now I know. And in spite of that, I'd like everyone across Britain to join me now in wishing all in France a very bon appetit indeed this Christmas.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday 23 December, 2006 at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.


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