Are you polite? I used to think I was, until I moved to Reunion. Now it seems everything I do is inappropriate or offensive.
The most shocking difference I noticed upon arriving here was the attitude toward smoking. In Australia, smoking is prohibited at the beach, at playgrounds, and at restaurants (even outside). It’s considered very impolite to smoke next to others. In contrast, it seems that in France anything goes. You can smell cigarettes in every public place you visit. I once went to a restaurant where the owner smoked while he cooked and served the meal. I was so shocked I didn’t even know how to react.
Another difference in manners is the very particular expectations people have here in serving food. Pouring wine, slicing cheese, serving rice, beans and curry properly… everything has a specific order and technique. In Australia, we’re not fancy enough to have these rules. We believe that cheese is delicious no matter the shape it’s cut into.
In Reunion everyone cleans their house before their friends visit. In Australia we don’t really do that, unless we’ve invited our boss. It’s ok to ask a friend over for a cup of tea and biscuits while the house looks like a dump. And if we’re planning a party, it’s common to go see the neighbours and warn them in advance that there will be music and noise that night. In Reunion, I’ve gotten used to parties so loud that windows shake with the vibrations.
In case you think I believe Anglophones are more polite, there are some mannerisms I really appreciate here. For example, I love that everyone is greeted with a ‘bonjour’ when they step into a shop, office or even at a stall at the markets. And don’t get me started on saying ‘bon appetit’ when you see someone – even a stranger – eating. It’s another beautiful French habit that draws suspicion in my country.
There are hundreds of other differences, from being politically correct to how we take turns talking in conversations to how French kids all stand up when an adult enters the classroom. And don’t get me started on kissing and hugging or tu and vous!
But the biggest difference between the two cultures has to be the importance placed on these rituals. In the English speaking world, we have hundreds of newspaper columns, websites and books advising us on ‘social etiquette’ and how to behave appropriately in each context. The only advice I’ve found for how to be polite in France has been in articles written by English expats living in France. Apparently locals either all have perfect manners, or don’t take it as seriously as we do.
playgrounds – aires de jeux
anything goes – tout est permis
even – même
pouring – verser
slicing – trancher / couper
fancy enough – assez sophistiqué
unless – à moins que
dump – taudis
warn – prévenir
loud – bruyant
shake – secouer
greeted – salué
stall – étal
take turns – prendre la parole, chacun son tour
hugging – une accolade
to advise – conseiller
either / or – soit /soit