When you’re on holiday walking in France, you’re going to have a much more realistic experience of the lifestyle if you integrate and communicate with local people. This sometimes is perceived to be tricky – but there’s no need to be apprehensive!
French people and their language
The first point to grasp is that the locals don’t expect foreign visitors to speak perfect or even good French, but they do appreciate people making at least some effort. There is no more reason to presume a local shopkeeper will be able to speak perfect English than there is to expect a shopkeeper in the UK to speak perfect French or German.
Therefore, your holiday walking in France may be far more enjoyable if you have mastered at least a few basic parts of the language – including things such as “I would like”, “do you have”, “where is” and “how much”.
France has changed hugely over the past 30 years and, unlike previously, many younger French people now will have learned some English at school and may be keen to practice. Even so, if you make some effort to use French it will usually be appreciated as a courtesy.
Foreign visitors are sometimes a little inhibited by what they perceive as the complexities of social customs here. This is often hugely over-exaggerated and French people won’t expect you to understand all the subtle nuances of their social conventions (incidentally, these may also vary from one part of the country to another).
Here are a few tips worth keeping in mind though if you’re on holiday walking in France and want to make a good impression:
- Vous/tu forms. French, unlike English, has a formal polite and familiar form embedded into the language. The polite form is “Vous” and the familiar “Tu”. Some modern language guides will tell you that the “vous” form is disappearing and isn’t worth bothering with – ignore that advice! It is widely used and people, particularly once out of their teens, will expect strangers to use it with them.
- Be polite. French people, like English speakers, expect the courtesy of “si vous plait” and “merci” when being asked for something. Use them in shops and restaurants – locals are invariably courteous to shop and restaurant staff. When you enter a shop or restaurant, it is also customary to say “Bonjour/Bonsoir” to staff and, in smaller more intimate restaurants, to other guests sitting around your table.
- Avoid stereotypes. Hollywood has always had a very odd idea of what life here is like, so avoid addressing waiters as “Garçon”. This means “boy” and will get the same reaction as if you called a waiter in the UK or USA “boy”.
- Don’t use “Mademoiselle”. At least, not unless you’re doing so to a very young girl. The term is now seen as patronising and it is customary to address all adult females as “Madame” even if they are apparently unmarried.
- Bonsoir/Bonjour – don’t worry! Most French people can’t even agree amongst themselves when the day becomes evening so don’t fret about getting it wrong – though if it’s dark, “bonsoir” is a fairly safe bet!
- Be patient. Service in shops and restaurants is still, on the whole, genteel and unfortunately that may mean ‘leisurely’ in some cases. Huffing, puffing and trying to rush people is considered to be very bad manners – unless it is absolutely unavoidable of course!