Service of Hello

February 11th, 2016

Categories: Customs, Greeting, Hello, Manners

Hello Bonjour

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.

Vintage ParisSo 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.

Liberte, egalite, fraterniteHer 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?

Tipping hat

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10 Responses to “Service of Hello”

  1. David Reich Said:

    Add to this all those who never say thank you, from cashiers when they take your money to people (more young women) who don’t utter a word when you hold a door open for them.

  2. Jeanne Byington Said:

    David,

    Along with silence instead of hearing “thank you,” I dislike “no problem” when I ask a clerk for something. Problem? Doing your job is a problem? Along with being too lazy to respond, people often repeat words without thinking of their meanings.

  3. Donna Boyle Schwartz Said:

    Donna wrote on Facebook: In the words of the immortal Robert Heinlein: For me, politeness is a sine qua non of civilization.” It doesn’t hurt to add a smile and a hello/hi/bonjour/guten taag/buon giorno/hola/shalom. You may just make someone’s day!

  4. Jeanne Byington Said:

    Donna,

    When I landed in Turkey for a two year stint as an Air Force wife one of the first things I did was to take a basic Turkish course on the base and learned to say “Merhaba” –hello–“Nasilsiniz?” “How are you?” and “I’m fine thank you,”–iyiyim tesekkur ederim.” I think Americans are better than they were. In the day Americans expected everyone to speak English and didn’t seem to try to fit in. Those elementary spoken Turkish classes were tiny.

  5. Martha Takayama Said:

    Your latest very timely posting is wonderfully succinct and to the point. It also raised a number of very simple questions about Emily Monaco, the Wall Street Journal, and our culture or lack thereof. It should be absolutely unnecessary to explain to any person young or old the basic manners or rudimentary custom of saying “hello” and “good-bye”. When I taught English as a Second Language to early grade primary school students they learned introductions and greetings as part of basic English.

    I recently read that mega-art dealer Larry Gagosian finds the niceties of hello, good-bye or anything not specifically about a deal, a waste of time. I wondered why he is tolerated and why Ms. Monaco has a job covering anything anywhere. She certainly has no grasp of basic human relations. Everyone should be and likes to be acknowledged. She also has not grasped the concept of cultural differences or behaviour appropriate to a situation, environment or location. These limitations render her unfit for the task assigned to her. How can she understand the topics she is to write about? She should probably confine her interactions to Mr. Gagosian, or other like minded people she may be able to find at home. Why does the WSJ pay her to write about in France and why does she stay there?

    So many unpleasant references come to mind from this attitude of self-centered ignorance. Lets start with the image of the “Ugly American”. However, this kind of behaviour can have enormous political and diplomatic consequences in an arena far beyond the annoyance of a petulant individual.

    It is important to observe appropriate social customs always because they are designed to make life easier, and to eliminate anarchy. At this moment as a nation we have to avoid at all costs the dangers of extreme lack of consideration for our fellow man, which ultimately results in Trump-like behaviour, Fascism or Nazism.

  6. Jeanne Byington Said:

    Martha,

    President George Herbert Walker Bush spoke of a kinder, gentler nation. Republican rhetoric has raced past that concept but fast. With just such an attitude today he wouldn’t have garnered 1 percent of caucus and primary votes. Governor Kasich who tips his hat at such an approach doesn’t get a mention in most newscasts. To gain respect and attention today you must say what pops into your mind, regardless of how painful it might be to others–how unfiltered five year old children speak–and you’re considered to be honest. A person with measured speech and thoughtful conversation is considered to be a loon. Are we all in the violent spinning part of a Pin the Tail on the Donkey game? Everything is mixed up.

  7. hb Said:

    Having lived abroad or worked with foreigners all my life and knowing France fairly well, I was sufficiently taken aback by your description of Emily Monaco’s Wall Street Journal article that I went and read it.

    You are absolutely right about this lady. I’m no moonstruck, giddy Francophile, but no one could have lived in Paris for nine years and write the way she does about the country and not be either a blithering idiot, or worse, what we used to call an “ugly American.”

    She is right about the country’s reverence for “Liberté, Egalite and Fraternité,” but she does not understand how conceptually the French can believe in the ideal, but accept what they perceive to be reality. It is a little like so many Americans who think they believe in democracy, but fervently support a Fascist like Donald Trump for President. Incidentally, I’ve never met a Frenchman, no matter how worldly-wise, who did not deep in his heart believe that his being French made him superior to me. So much for Egalite!

    As to the greetings, “Bonjour Monsieur,” “Bonsoir Madame” and so forth, the French value their privacy, and the use of the formal address establishes a little space between them in what is rapidly becoming a very crowded world. I like the custom. When I go to my doctors, their nurses mostly call me by my first name (I think on purpose because it annoys me), but my doctors still call me by my last name, which I think does soften the sting of the intimacy of medicine. And none of them are French.

  8. Jeanne Byington Said:

    hb,

    I’m a little too close to the subject and caught in the middle to be able to agree or disagree with your observation that you never met a Frenchman who didn’t believe that he was superior to you but reading it made me giggle. My father was a Frenchman and I’m proud of that heritage while at the same time being an American through-and-through. Maybe that combination should make me feel superior to everyone? I’ve got to work on that. My father loved being a Frenchman but he was not arrogant–the opposite in fact. Courageous is an understatement to describe his war record and the aftermath which he, like most his age, never discussed.

    As for the egalite issue, I had French relatives who would ask if someone was from a good family before anything else so to quote you, “so much for egalite.”

    One reason this column slapped me in the face was because of my vivid memories of all the times I heard “bonjour madame” on entering or leaving a place when in France. Maybe Ms. Monaco was busy texting and she didn’t notice.

  9. Lucrezia Said:

    Everyone being different, the most effective policy is to play it by ear, and not take failure to return a greeting so seriously. When it comes to those paid to serve, failure to tip appropriately may be at the root of the problem.

    How about enjoying those whose behavior lives up to your standards? Giving rudeness, real or imagined undue importance is a waste of time and emotions, and is not worth it.

  10. Jeanne Byington Said:

    Lucrezia,

    Inappropriate tipping might be the issue for some but I don’t think that was the case for us in the apt. house I called out. For one, when we left, we were told that we were some of the nicest tenants in the building by several of the sourballs who finally smiled. For another, I’ve lived in a few apartment houses with doormen and it was only in that place that we felt animoisity. There was a morale problem between management and staff but as we were not at fault and were paying too much for the “priviledge” of being there, we resented being welcomed poorly. I’ve worked in places where morale is horrible yet I didn’t pass along that impression to clients. I don’t have sympathy for those who do especially when I’m the client.

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