February 11th, 2016
We once lived in a very nice apartment with a view of the Chrysler Building. It had a great kitchen and two large bathrooms but the door staff could be surly. We couldn’t wait to move from this rental [where, by the way, we were paying a fortune]. We’d leave or come home and few returned our “Hello” or “Good morning.” There were days I didn’t want to come home.
When I enter a taxi I say “hello,” or “hi,” and am often greeted by silence. The driver might be foreign but he is working here. There’s one librarian who never responds to my greeting when I walk past her desk at the entrance. It happened again this Saturday. It’s not because she thinks people should be quiet in a library: In fact, she speaks at the top of her lungs when she deigns to address someone. All the other librarians are responsive and pleasant. Her attitude rankles as she knows better.
So I was surprised when Emily Monaco made such a big deal about having to say “bonjour” in her Wall Street Journal article, “In France, Learning to Say ‘Bonjour’ a Lot.” She wondered why she was having trouble being accepted by her colleagues at her new job at a small media company in Paris. She was annoyed that the grin she used in the States didn’t hack it as a greeting in France where smiles, she wrote, are saved for close friends. A colleague told her she was expected to say “bonjour” to her officemates.
Her reaction struck me as whiney and naive, especially for a woman who claimed that she has lived in France for nine years. [You can hardly enter any place in France without being greeted this way.] Isn’t almost a decade enough time to learn the social ropes? Monaco wrote that having to say “bonjour” to all those she encountered every morning “seemed like a waste of time to me,” and explained that the custom “was rooted in that all-important French concept: égalité, equality.” She continued, “Modern France was envisioned as a country of equality; bonjour is an acknowledgment of your interlocutor, a nod to your coexistence. Omitting it isn’t just rude, it’s a refusal to see the other as an equal.”
Balderdash. Not to follow local custom is rude in France, rude in America, rude everywhere, period.
Most people like to be acknowledged, whether it’s Eric the security guard at the office who always says good morning and I always respond, or Luis the morning doorman at our apartment who always wishes me a good day and I wish him the same, or my husband who says good morning or hugs me when I return home at night.
I also think it’s important for a foreigner who wants to fit in–regardless of the country–to find out what basic greetings are expected, make them, stop complaining, criticizing or analyzing, or leave. And you?