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Offensive or French? by Keri Radford


An English friend ordered a cup of chamomile tea in a smart Parisian café. She was taken aback when the waiter promptly asked "Chamomile, madame? You are constipated?" His eyebrow was scarcely raised. There was no smirk, no smile, no hint of anything remotely mischievous or ironic in the oiled monotony of his voice. My friend didn't quite know how to take his comment. She is not alone.

In a country where you risk straining your wrist signing off a letter with the requisite courtesy, where using the familiar 'tu' form out of context is a transgression akin to admitting that you eat junior school children for supper (and without a cheese course to finish!) and where the lady you buy your bread from will regularly wish you a good day, or a good afternoon, or a good end of afternoon , you may nevertheless get the feeling of being surrounded by rude and ignorant cretins. And of being unable to tell whether they mean to give offence, or whether they are just going about their everyday business of being French in what they consider to be a mild and innocuous way, doling out incivilities as nonchalantly as they drink sludgy black coffee or smoke rough gallois cigarettes. Blackadder once described a hangover as 'a feeling that my head has a Frenchman living in it', and anyone who has tried to open a bank account in this country knows exactly what he means. But for all those awkward moments when you really can't fathom whether you're the target of particular hostility or general gallic insouciance, here's a rough guide…

All Waiters
The sneer, the glance at you and then at their notepad which substitutes for 'bonjour', the utter contempt if you order a sandwich (from the menu). A vegetarian friend explained as politely as possible that she really would eat anything they could prepare her as long as it didn't contain meat. She was rewarded with icy disdain and a bowl of peas with fried pieces of bacon mixed in. All French waiters went to the same charm school as Attila the Hun.

All Postal Workers
The most simple task of sending a letter or a parcel can prove as challenging as keeping a straight face was when France went out of the World Cup without scoring a single goal. The same hapless chamomile tea victim wished to send a fax to Italy - after first being asked brusquely whether Italy was in Europe, she was then told it was a great inconvenience which would cost her 30 euros.

All SNCF Guichet Staff
Ok, the French rail system is not afflicted by rusting rails, clapped-out carriages and the wrong sort of snow, but it does bear the burden of some of the most unfriendly employees known to man. The desire to travel from Paris to Fontainebleau (a mere 50km) necessitated waiting in three different queues with three different officials refusing to sell a ticket and gesturing vaguely at the next swelling line of discontented passengers.

"Je vous ecoute..."
For the uninitiated, the standard telephone phrase of "I'm listening" is deeply offensive. It's not intended to be. It's just a handy way of prompting someone to go ahead and read out their address without all the British throat clearing of "have you got a pen?…" Same goes for "je vous attend" - it just means that you'll be expected, rather than that your French host will be counting the minutes and tapping his foot impatiently until your arrival.

"Ecoutez, jeune fille..."
Saying "now listen to me, young girl" in a formal situation would be unthinkable, but the matronly bureaucrat addressing me as such was not actually being rude. If you are under 30 and in France you will inevitably at some point be called a "petit jeune" or a "petite anglaise" (don't even think about trying to be Welsh, Scottish or Irish. It won't wash.) In fact, take heart: if anything, "petit" is a term of endearment - "petite amie" means girlfriend, after all. Probably best not to go back to Britain and call your loved one "little friend", though…

So for a few phrases and situations, offensiveness really does just lie in the language barrier. As for the rest, most French people are the first to complain about how uncivil their compatriots are, imagining Britain as a Utopia of orderly queues and perpetually beaming gentlemen doffing their top hats at the first opportunity. French waiters, postal workers and sncf guichet staff are not of woman born. They are grown in jars much like in A Brave New World, ranked in a dank cellar, deprived of light and poems and frolicking farm-yard animal books, until their warped and sallow souls are let out to glower at the general public. It is not you, it is them. Go armed with a blank, bored expression and an ability to say "boff".

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