mardi, novembre 16, 2004


I once correctly guessed, when presented with several options, that the French culture was closest to:

The Germans

The Chinese

The Japanese

The Americans

Can you?

It's the Japanese. What led me to this, other than just being incredibly clever, was that there are several formalities that the French must observe upon greeting each other. There are forms of address for those you don't know, for those you do, for those close in age to you whom you don't necessarily know, but who you might as well since you are automatically in the same category, for your boss, for the shopkeeper, etc. This always of course followed by niceties such as how are you, how is your family, did you enjoy your obscure Catholic holiday off, is your digestive system working properly, etc. Most of the formality has to do with the formal or informal 'you' , but some of it concerns whether you shake hands, don't, or kiss each other on the cheek. Then there is what region of France you come from and how many times you kiss on the cheek (two in Paris, three in the South, four in some parts, etc.)

I was aware of this before coming, but of course I make mistakes all the time. I tend to guess wrong with the informal and formal 'you.' I learned at the French Alliance long ago that you should never use the informal for someone you don't know unless they give you permission, but I suppose my problem is that now I am in an age group that borders on automatically being formal, but teeters on the edge of the French equivalent of "whassup" for those a little younger than me. I have made countless twenty somethings feel old by addressing them with "vous" and offended a handful of thirtysomethings by being so presumptious as to say "tu." Some people I can't get used to saying "tu" to once I've been given permission, so I end up switching back and forth, which adds to the already perplexing impression I must give.

This I came prepared for. What I remained unaware of is the apparently very pressing need for French people to acknowledge you first off with a "bonjour" - but ONLY ONCE. If you have said "bonjour" the first time you see or speak to a person, by no circumstances within that same 12 hour period are you to say "bonjour" again without categorically, absolutely, acknowledging that you have already done so by emphatically and loudly saying "RE!" (pronounced 'ruh') - as in, "Hello - AGAIN!" As if saying "hello" the exact same way you said it the first time would completely negate, nay, add injury to, to the first acknowledgement. I have not yet got the hang of this, as I don't quite know how to re-acknowledge someone correctly. I can't bring myself to say the "RE!" because it isn't innate for me that to say "bonjour" a second time would be a problem. I will see someone at the office, for example, say "bonjour," and then get a phone call from them an hour later. I mostly make the mistake of saying "bonjour" again, because this, if you follow me people, is hello, and where I come from, you can say hello til the cows come home. Invariably, there is a slight pause. I know what is coming. A slightly ironic, inner smiling, faintly patronizing, we-all-know-about-this-now-don't-we-dear "RE!"

I think I'll stick with "oui", although it feels a bit too much like, yeah, you, whom I already deigned to address, whaddya want?

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