Q. Can one word be magic? A. Yes!
By Michele Reed
If you are planning a trip to anywhere in France — or even the French-speaking Canadian province of Quebec — learning one little word can make your life so much easier. It is truly a miraculous word, opening doors, making friends and smoothing the way for pleasant relationships. You may ask: Can one word really be that magic? Yes, if that word is “Bonjour.”
Whole books have been written about the power of politesse, or politeness among the French, most recently 2016’s “The Bonjour Effect: The Secret Codes of French Conversation Revealed” by Julie Barlow and Jean-Benoit Nadeau.
We witness the importance of politesse every day we are in France.
Whether it’s greeting a neighbor or shopkeeper with a friendly “Bonjour” or thanking the bus driver as you exit after every ride, there are certain rules you must follow in France. But the benefit is that good things flow your way. The French open up their hearts to you and you make friends, learn new things and even get gifts.
As I opened the door of our house one day, my market basket slung over my arm, I heard a noise like a gaggle of geese. A group of about 25 schoolchildren who looked to be no more than 6 years old was walking up our narrow street on a field trip to the mairie, or city hall. They were accompanied by one young teacher at the front and another bringing up the rear, like the goose girls from the fairy tales. I stood on our doorstep to let them pass and every one of those little schoolchildren greeted me politely, “Bonjour, Madame.” They said it seriously, and didn’t even poke each other and giggle. I even got some smiles and a few waves along with the required greeting.
In France it is important for kids to be “bien élevé,” literally well-raised, or as we would say, well brought up. They learn it from the cradle. One day, the young mother across the street held her 2-year-old up so he could see over the terrace wall while we were chatting from rooftop to rooftop, hanging out our laundry. “Say Bonjour,” she told him. He did, just before shyly hiding his face on his mother’s shoulder. Another neighbor walks her dog at the same time Bill, my husband, and I take an evening promenade. She has one of those automatic leashes. She releases the catch and the leash spools out while the dog runs over to us for a pat. “Say Bonjour,” she tells him and we all laugh.
Often as we wait for the bus, we pass the time with an older villager, originally from Morocco. We always talk, although early on in our sojourn in France it was more one-sided, with him talking and us listening and nodding. As our skills have gotten better our conversations have gotten longer. One day we greeted him, “Bonjour, Monsieur,” and made some small talk about the weather.
Just then a guy came out of the café and walked past us. Our friend nodded to him, but the man walked by without a greeting. As soon as he turned the corner, our friend said, “Did you see that? He didn’t even say ‘Bonjour.’ There is something wrong with him,” and then he gave a few grunts like a pig oinking.
That’s the thing about “Bonjour.” Say it and the world is your gourmet-prepared French oyster. Omit it, and you are instantly marked as an uncultured foreigner.
At our first visit to the brocante, or open air antiques market, I saw an object that caught my eye, a vintage inkwell. I picked it up, turning it over and over in my hands. It was beautifully forged metal and looked to be an Art Deco treasure. No price tag. I looked around but the proprietor was not there. It turned out she was having lunch with other vendors a few booths away. (On market days vendors will frequently set up a little table complete with table cloth and crystal glasses and share a full French lunch, including wine, with one keeping watch to alert them of any potential customers.) A few minutes later, she came over, wiping her hands on a linen napkin. I held up the item, asking about the price. She fixed me with a steely look, as she said, “Bonjour, Madame?” in a stern voice. I quickly realized my mistake. “Bonjour, Madame,” I replied, “Please, what does this item cost?” But the damage had been done. I think she priced it a full 10 euros higher because of my rudeness. It was out of my range, and, red-faced, I left without it.
At the next brocante, I remembered my manners, and greeted a seller with a polite “Bonjour, Monsieur,” before inquiring about a lovely set of bookends. He gave me a fair price, and I bought them immediately and didn’t even haggle, thanking him with a polite, “Merci. Bonne journee (have a nice day).” My politesse must have impressed him. A couple of minutes later, I heard, “Madame, madame!” He had trotted down the aisle of booths to catch up with us and present me with small gift — a silver teaspoon — at no extra charge.
It may not be “Open sesame,” but a simple “Bonjour,” uttered with a friendly smile in the presence of any French speaking person, will definitely open doors for you.
Michele Reed retired after a career spanning four decades in public relations, advertising, journalism and higher education. She now writes travel articles, book reviews, haiku poetry and fiction. Bill Reed retired after four decades in social services with the county of Oswego, and now works at travel photography and photojournalism, along with writing book reviews.