Monday, April 7, 2014

Putting On Our Face. . .

       

          While at the airport in Chicago last week, I met a chic, charming woman. We struck up a conversation when I heard her say to her husband, "I'm going to find a macaron the minute we land." Obviously I couldn't just ignore a proclamation like that. (I probably would have if I were French because when you think about it, listening in and then participating in a private exchange is not a display of the world's best manners.)

           "Ladurée?" said I. "Of course," said she. And, off we went into a flurry of chatter.

           Eventually we established where we lived, she in Chicago, moi Paris. She explained that it had been a few years since her last visit to Paris and she was very excited about how much she could squeeze into a week. At one point she asked me if I would mind taking a look at a several page printout that a friend of a friend had given her on what one does and what one does not do in Paris.

           I love looking at dictums like that. An American telling another American "the rules" of the game is fascinating for me.

           One piece of good advice on the list was: "Always say 'Bonjour Madame' or 'Bonjour Monsieur' when entering a boutique." It's more polite and demonstrates that one is  bien élevé (well brought-up) to say Madame and Monsieur and not a simple "bonjour." Children learn this at an early age and their parents constantly remind them.

           There were various other recommendations like not asking for a "bathroom" but rather the toilet because the former would indicate one wished to take a bath or a shower which, admittedly, would be an odd request to a stranger.

           Another reminder: "Do not make eye-contact with people on the metro." Good thinking. I imagine one would avoid that gesture in any major city in the world, but maybe little reminders are helpful.


            Then, slipped into the advice was the the caution to "not smile all the time" the way we Americans have the tendency to do because the French, particularly Parisians, do not smile. If I've heard this reproach once, I've heard it hundreds of times over the years.

            I've been told that smiles are little cadeaux that are not given out indiscriminately in this country and perhaps that's true to a certain extent. A smile doesn't necessary accompany the "Bonjour Madame" upon entering a shop, but a small smile might compliment the au revoir Madame when leaving because  theoretically a bit of time was passed with a salesperson.

          When a tourist asks a local for directions or information I can't imagine the request would be made without a smile and I can assure you a smile will be returned.

           After thinking about this so-called cultural conundrum I believe smiling is one of the most charming characteristics of Americans. I've heard us accused of being "too friendly" and maybe that means invasive in some countries, like my rude interruption in a private conversation, but what in the world is wrong with a smile? We don't want to be everyone's best friend, but we do consider a smile a gesture of our politesse.


          For us, I think, a smile is an expression of kindness and appreciation, our little cadeau perhaps.

23 comments:

hostess of the humble bungalow said...

Funny about the smiling comment, I have read that very thing...although if would be difficult not smiling when one finds oneself in Paris. I know when I go next year it will be such a joy that smiling will be difficult to stifle.
Nice to see you back on the blog Tish!

Pam @ over50feeling40 said...

Hope your travels went well, Tish! I think smiles are my favorite accessory...especially when they are sincere and not forced. I know were I in Paris...I would smile most of the time...for I long to see it some day!

une femme said...

I'm always so happy to be in Paris I'm sure I walk around like a grinning idiot. :-) But I have learned some reserve in the years we've been visiting, I hope.

LPC said...

I agree - let's ditch the rough spots of American culture but keep the good ones.

Sue said...

I tend to smile when I go into a shop, bar or restaurant and greet people, so I suspect that I've done so when in Paris. I can't remember being rebuffed for it though! Interestingly enough I was having a conversation with a Spanish friend about a fellow Brit who had said he found people in our Spanish town unfriendly. I told her that I found this strange as I'd always found the local people friendly. Her response was that she'd noticed that I always smiled at people whereas he never did!

Cornelia said...

As a European living in the US, I have come used to the friendly smile. Took a while though. :) Now I smile much more while in Europe. It is no more invasive to smile as it is to wish someone a good morning.

D. A. Wolf said...

I recall being lectured on "oversmiling" by my European father-in-law.

I remain very American in that way, still, and happily so.

Karena Albert said...

The cultural differences are so interesting. I do feel that a lovely smile can really make another person's day!

xoxo
Karena
The Arts by Karena

therelishedroost said...

OH wow, now I know what I bothered me in Monaco, no one did smile! Of course I probably smiled far too much for their liking, I will remember that when I go to Paris!

Anonymous said...

Kudos to the lovely American woman
who was traveling to France with her dos and don't. She will do really
well. It would be interesting to
know, Tish, if the same holds true for your French friends who travel
to the U.S. Is there a comparable
list of behaviors? The risk of really offending someone is probably
minute either U.S. to France or
France to U.S. but how wonderful to be aware of cultural differences and to try to act appropriately.

Diane S. said...

Hasn't the magnificent Ines de La Fressange said that a smile is the best accessory? I don't think I have ever seen her photographed without one. Not smiling "too much" was bad advice, says I!

Heather Robinson said...

Just yesterday I was talking with Jean-Michel - the handsome wine merchant in our neighborhood - and he said that he always knows when he sees an American in Arles because they are smiling! And it is true. And it is lovely. Only Americans (or Canadians) smile at my dogs...or even I see them just smiling at nothing in particular, with contentment (as several of the above commenters have mentioned). It is just lovely and makes me smile in return. :) See?

After twelve years of living here, I will admit to have learned to "hold back" my smile in one particular situation: with men. I quickly learned that although "friendly" can translate to "chaleureuse " they don't quite mean the same thing!

Anonymous said...

Travelling from England to France I've found a great difference between the city & country folk . Lots of smiles in the country & the UK is much the same , Big city folk are perhaps too busy to be friendly .
Travelling to the US , we needed to lose our natural shyness & be ready to respond to strangers . Once we got used to it we loved it
Wendy

Melissa Hebbard said...

Never try to give up your natural inclination to smile, or to try to be anything other than your true self.
Australians also smile a lot and are naturally friendly, and I always find my cheery smile much appreciated wherever in the world I travel.
I don't think it is ever fashionable, or in good taste to be surly, unfriendly or unwelcoming, even if you are a Parisian!!

Anonymous said...

Perhaps after smiling "inappropriately" you could say...
Un source ouvre l'ame. (A smile opens the soul)

La Contessa said...

SMILING is one of OUR better qualities!Where we need HELP is the dressing part!When I lived in Florence I could see an AMERICAN a mile away………especially THE MEN!Knee socks with shorts and sandals!Would make me cringe.As I'm sure you know we have become to comfortable in our clothing.Comfort is a good thing but a little more CARE in how you appear would be a good way to represent the USA!

Diane S. said...

To La Contessa, I know! You are so right. Although, when I lived in Florence (admittedly 20 years ago - but isn't it wonderful!?), it was the Germans who wore shorts with socks and sandals;-) The Americans wore wrinkled t-shirts, baggy shorts, socks and enormous white sneakers. The sloppiest people I would see would inevitably be Americans - so sad. I rebelled and went in the opposite direction - I pelted around town in a pair of vintage Chanel pumps (bought secondhand) and pencil skirts. It was not flattering to my country that no one ever pegged me as an American.

peggybraswell said...

I agree with la contessa + show the americans how to dress + do not take away their smiles.xxpeggybraswelldesign.com

Marsha Splenderosa said...

I've been around the world with a smile on my face, even when I'm asking impossible questions. It makes my life so much happier and I seriously do not think anyone objects. But, I know, I know about the "rules" of tourism and what they say we should do. If I did it correctly I wouldn't meet anyone fun! xx's

Marsha Splenderosa said...

Ahem, I forgot to say that no New Yorker smiles at any thing, unless it's after 6pm and they're at a bar, and this is when they're in New York City.

Eleanorjane said...

Interesting! I've been to France a few times and never clocked this 'don't smile' thing.

But I guess I'm generally reserved with strangers anyway (especially those who might expect me to speak more than a few halting words of a foreign language!)

Mumbai said...

Smile and the world will smile with you.

Tish Jett said...

Why wouldn't we smile? It's so crazy.

To your question: Do the French wonder about our cultural quirks and ask questions when they travel to the United States?

As far as I know they do not. The definitely don't ask any about what to wear, but friends have often asked what to see as in museums. As far as shopping is concerned many have caught on to our outlet culture and head right to them for great American things like Levis for example.

Thank you so, so much for commenting.

I'll be back tomorrow.

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