The key to living in Paris is politeness, says Sophie Pedder. She offers an expat's-eye view of the city

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, Spring 2009

Everyone thinks that people in Paris are impossibly rude. The longer I spend in the city, the more I realise that this is untrue. In fact, they are impossibly polite.

Understanding this is the secret to an effortless life in the French capital. Mastering lift etiquette is a good case in point. I arrived in Paris a few years ago from London, where even colleagues would rather stare blankly at the closed doors than venture a greeting. In Paris, by contrast, there is a tightly observed ritual. When the lift doors part, you step in and say “Bonjour”. Everybody says “Bonjour” back. Whenever anyone steps out, you wish them a “Bonne journée”. They do the same. And that’s not all. If later in the day you bump into anyone again, you start all over again with (I’m not making this up) “Re-bonjour”.

At first, I found this exasperating. You approach a pair of shop assistants in the wonderfully chaotic DIY basement at BHV, the department store next to the Hôtel de Ville, who appear to have been trained not to interrupt their conversation as you draw near. In fact, they have perfected the art of not even catching your eye, while you wait in disbelief in front of them. I didn’t realise it then, but a “Bonjour Madame” would have brought their conversation to an instant halt, and located those 5cm masonry nails in moments. (If in doubt, it’s best to stick to Madame, not Mademoiselle, unless the shop assistant looks about 17; the French tend to use Madame as a term of respect for an older woman, not a factual reference to marital status.)

I soon worked out the value of the right greeting. Those studiedly grumpy Parisian waiters in starched white aprons and black bow ties? Any table in the brasserie is yours if you begin with “Bonsoir Monsieur”. The frosty lady behind the counter at the boulangerie? A “Bonjour Madame” will secure you an oven-fresh baguette. 

All this takes getting used to. The first time a little girl in our children’s school playground came towards me and said “Bonjour Madame”, I looked around to see who she might be speaking to. It was me. Our French nanny is horrified by visiting English children who fail to greet her properly (Bonjour alone won’t do). I used to try to explain that this failing was in fact a cultural difference. “Peut-être,” she would say, which roughly translates as: I don’t think so. 

The general French respect for formality and form is nowhere more finely observed than in Paris. Flowers don’t come in bunches with elastic bands, but in artfully arranged bouquets, with crackly layers of cellophane and tissue paper. Canapés at dinner parties are miniature culinary works of art. When my son was learning to write, his school report gave him marks for whether his boucles, or loops, of his joined-up letters respected to the millimetre the inter-line boundaries printed on the page. At the same time, he would bring back English exercise books filled with a chaotic caterpillar of mismatched letters. Why didn’t he use his neat handwriting in those books too, I asked him? He looked perplexed: “But that’s not how you write in English!”

The culture of elegance can be extremely stressful. One thing I’ve still not worked out is why Parisians don’t get dirty. My children come home from school with scuffed shoes and mud-splashed coats. Their French classmates, in round-collar shirts and corduroy, with dreamy names like Clementine or Aurélie, look as if they have just stepped out of a catalogue. Mothers at the school gate are always immaculately turned-out, silk scarf knotted just so. Children are taught from a young age to value look and appearance. In Parisian apartments, white sofas on parquet floors are there to be sat on, not used as gymnastics apparatus for infants. 

Perhaps living amid the geometric elegance of Paris itself, with its tree-lined Haussmann boulevards and enchanting bridges, imposes an ordered form of style. Even now I find it almost an affront to spot a grown man dressed in belted shorts and trainers walking through the Place des Vosges, or across the Pont Neuf. Tourists in garish anoraks cluster around monuments and museums. But domestic, historic central Paris—the local boulangerie, the école maternelle next to the office building—still belongs firmly to the French. 

Or maybe the answer lies beyond Paris, in the wider French mindset. From Descartes to Dior, the French have long prized rational order and clean lines. It is learned in school, where maths is rigorously taught from an early age and considered the most prestigious speciality in the baccalauréat school-leaving exam. My daughter’s English teacher here once tried to explain to me why they did so little creative writing in French in primary school: it takes so many years to master the strict rules of French grammar, she said, that there’s just no time left.