Savoir-Vivre

In France, Etiquette Remains an Important Part of Upbringing, Making Inter-Cultural Meals a Challenge

Being French, I have faith in my savoir-vivre. But my good manners have often caught up with me in unaccustomed situations — where they sometimes represent just the opposite.

Invited to Macedonia recently by a friend, Milena, a student of psychotherapy at the Sigmund Freud Institute, I saw that good manners in one culture do not always translate to another.

Macedonians  want to make you feel at home. So here I was, sitting around that large wooden table with Milena’s family and friends.  The Ouzo was flowing, and dishes were being arranged in the middle of the table.

With my good manners encrypted in me, I waited for everybody to be served to start eating. The trouble was, they never served themselves, but picked into each dish and ate directly from platter to lips.

I was shocked. This would be considered extremely impolite in France. I was confused. But my friends soon invited me to do the same and slowly I allowed myself to join in, daydreaming about my mother’s disapproving glare, looking at me with big round eyes. I realized how relaxing and enjoyable eating had suddenly become…

Societies share various codes and conventions, which regulate the behavior of those within. These codes ease relations between individuals and contribute to a social harmony. They define what is expected, allowed or forbidden, dictate people’s obligations about society hierarchy, and the expectations between men and women. They also serve to place an individual in relation to the norm: ignorance proves a lack of education, knowledge,  a “well rounded” one.

In France these codes and conventions are extremely important, and I learned the traditional savoir-vivre from an early age. Today, though, most of it has been forgotten. It’s partly a lack of practice. But protocols also get readjusted: One young Frenchman in Vienna told me he considered manners “a great waste of time.”

However, many disagree. In the business world, it is not all that rare for an employer to invite a potential employee for lunch, in the context of an interview, so that his manners can be observed. The way he behaves at the table will not alone determine whether he will get the job, but it will certainly have an influence.

In France, codes of savoir-vivre are strict. Above all, there are “inappropriate actions,” as Francoise Dehestru-Hudelist, member of the Association for the Defense of the French Language of the Academie Francaise, explained to me. They range from “not talking with your mouth full, to not blowing on soup if it is too hot, or not cutting salad, eggs or pasta.” Potatoes must not be mashed: “they are cut with the side of the fork,” and assembling pieces of food in your fork with the help of the knife is improper. In that case, “the use of a piece of bread” is greatly recommended.

A lot of this takes real skill: “Fish bones are not to be taken away from the mouth with fingers,” said Dehestru-Hudelist, “but rather deposited from the tips of the lips on the fork and then put aside on the plate.” A baguette is to be broken by hand rather than cut, but the bread should never be used to mop up the plate by hand, but rather with a fork.

Finally, saying “Bon Appétit” at the beginning of the dinner is considered very impolite in social contexts, although it can be mentioned within a more intimate circumstance, such as a family dinner.

Common manners are mainly shared between nations of the Western World. The origins of gallantry between men and women for instance “trace back to Middle Ages, when knights were to honor, serve and protect their ladies,” claims Jean-Christophe Minot, member of the Chamber of Commerce of Lille, France. It is perhaps surprising then that women are still felt to be second class citizens in most societies in spite of this formal deference. That’s the paradox: It is honor deprived of action or, all too often, of choice.

Now gentlemen, read carefully about how to behave in the company of a lady. A gallant man opens the door for a woman to let her enter first. However, in case of a public place, such as a bar or a casino, the man generally precedes the woman, probably to assure that the place is safe and appropriate.

In the street, the man walks on the sidewalk next to the road to protect the woman from possible risk, or splashes of mud from the street.

On a staircase, the man precedes the lady when going down to retain her in case of falling. He should also precede her when going up so as not to embarrass her by watching her from below.

Finally, a man, without any affectation, should compliment a woman on her manner of dress and her elegance: “You look very elegant tonight; this color fits you to perfection.” She will then thank him with a smile to accept the compliment.

Being French, I have faith in my savoir-vivre. But my good manners have often caught up with me in unaccustomed situations — where they sometimes represent just the opposite.

Invited to Macedonia recently by a friend, Milena, a student of psychotherapy at the Sigmund Freud Institute, I saw that good manners in one culture do not always translate to another.

Macedonians  want to make you feel at home. So here I was, sitting around that large wooden table with Milena’s family and friends.  The Ouzo was flowing, and dishes were being arranged in the middle of the table.

With my good manners encrypted in me, I waited for everybody to be served to start eating. The trouble was, they never served themselves, but picked into each dish and ate directly from platter to lips.

I was shocked. This would be considered extremely impolite in France. I was confused. But my friends soon invited me to do the same and slowly I allowed myself to join in, daydreaming about my mother’s disapproving glare, looking at me with big round eyes. I realized how relaxing and enjoyable eating had suddenly become…

Societies share various codes and conventions, which regulate the behavior of those within. These codes ease relations between individuals and contribute to a social harmony. They define what is expected, allowed or forbidden, dictate people’s obligations about society hierarchy, and the expectations between men and women. They also serve to place an individual in relation to the norm: ignorance proves a lack of education, knowledge,  a “well rounded” one.

In France these codes and conventions are extremely important, and I learned the traditional savoir-vivre from an early age. Today, though, most of it has been forgotten. It’s partly a lack of practice. But protocols also get readjusted: One young Frenchman in Vienna told me he considered manners “a great waste of time.”

However, many disagree. In the business world, it is not all that rare for an employer to invite a potential employee for lunch, in the context of an interview, so that his manners can be observed. The way he behaves at the table will not alone determine whether he will get the job, but it will certainly have an influence.

In France, codes of savoir-vivre are strict. Above all, there are “inappropriate actions,” as Francoise Dehestru-Hudelist, member of the Association for the Defense of the French Language of the Academie Francaise, explained to me. They range from “not talking with your mouth full, to not blowing on soup if it is too hot, or not cutting salad, eggs or pasta.” Potatoes must not be mashed: “they are cut with the side of the fork,” and assembling pieces of food in your fork with the help of the knife is improper. In that case, “the use of a piece of bread” is greatly recommended.

A lot of this takes real skill: “Fish bones are not to be taken away from the mouth with fingers,” said Dehestru-Hudelist, “but rather deposited from the tips of the lips on the fork and then put aside on the plate.” A baguette is to be broken by hand rather than cut, but the bread should never be used to mop up the plate by hand, but rather with a fork.

Finally, saying “Bon Appétit” at the beginning of the dinner is considered very impolite in social contexts, although it can be mentioned within a more intimate circumstance, such as a family dinner.

Common manners are mainly shared between nations of the Western World. The origins of gallantry between men and women for instance “trace back to Middle Ages, when knights were to honor, serve and protect their ladies,” claims Jean-Christophe Minot, member of the Chamber of Commerce of Lille, France. It is perhaps surprising then that women are still felt to be second class citizens in most societies in spite of this formal deference. That’s the paradox: It is honor deprived of action or, all too often, of choice.

Now gentlemen, read carefully about how to behave in the company of a lady. A gallant man opens the door for a woman to let her enter first. However, in case of a public place, such as a bar or a casino, the man generally precedes the woman, probably to assure that the place is safe and appropriate.

In the street, the man walks on the sidewalk next to the road to protect the woman from possible risk, or splashes of mud from the street.

On a staircase, the man precedes the lady when going down to retain her in case of falling. He should also precede her when going up so as not to embarrass her by watching her from below.

Finally, a man, without any affectation, should compliment a woman on her manner of dress and her elegance: “You look very elegant tonight; this color fits you to perfection.” She will then thank him with a smile to accept the compliment.

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