”This must be Thursday. I never could get the hang of Thursdays.”–Douglas Adams
This week I’m so excited to welcome Kassandra Lamb, author of best-selling mysteries including the Kate Huntington series. Writing and psychology have always vied for #1 on Kassandra Lamb’s Greatest Passions list. In her youth, she had to decide between writing and paying the bills. Partial to electricity and food, she studied psychology. Now retired from a career as a psychotherapist and college professor, she spends most of her time in an alternate universe with her protagonist and alter ego, Kate Huntington. The magical portal to this universe (i.e., her computer) is located in Florida, where Kassandra’s husband and dog catch occasional glimpses of her.
Kassandra has advice for authors incorporating exotic locales or for anyone planning that romantic visit to France.
A Tourist’s Guide to Polite Conversation in France, by guest author Kassandra Lamb:
I love traveling to Europe, which is one reason why I enjoy Barb’s blog so much. (The other is her great sense of humor, which I am not even going to try to match. 😀 )
When I talk to other Americans about the countries I’ve visited, I’m sometimes shocked by the misconceptions they hold. I run into assumptions that the Irish lack modern technology (because they all live in thatch-covered cottages, don’t they?), the British all have bad teeth (thank you, Jay Leno, for keeping that one alive) and everybody knows that the French are rude and unfriendly.
We Americans tend to be a tad ethnocentric when we travel to other countries. Without realizing we’re doing it, we apply American cultural standards to other cultures. We also tend to ignore factors that are fairly universal, like whether or not we’re in a big city or a small rural town. After all, would we want the French to judge Americans based on New Yorkers’ behavior on the street?Also we tend not to research the standards for behavior in the culture we’re visiting. Which is why even the French in rural towns may act rude and unfriendly toward American tourists, because they perceive us as extremely rude!
You see, in France, the standard for behavior is la politesse, i.e., politeness. This is especially true if you’re dealing with anyone over forty. The young people in France have been influenced by the more casual attitudes of America. But before you run off to Europe all prepared to be American-style polite to anyone with any gray in their hair, you need to know a bit more. What we consider politeness is much, much less formal than the French la politesse. The expectation in France is that one will be very polite (by American standards), especially when addressing a stranger.
For example, in France, if you just ask a stranger for directions or for the time of day, you are likely to be snubbed. Then you walk away thinking “How rude!” While the French person you just spoke to is thinking exactly the same thing! Because in France, you are not supposed to address a stranger without a bonjour, madame or bonjour, monsieur in front of whatever else you have to say.
Bonjour, madame, could we have a table outside, please?
Bonjour, monsieur, two tickets please.
Bonjour, madame, is this the way to the Louvre?
Actually, you’re supposed to take it a bit further. If you are asking something of the person, such as what time it is, you are supposed to also say, “Excusez moi de vous déranger” before you ask your question. This means “excuse me for bothering you.”
So in America:
Hey, do you know what time it is?
Yeah, it’s ten after five.
Thanks! (End of exchange.)
Bonjour, madame, excusez moi de vous déranger, mais quelle heure est-t-il?
Il est cinq heures dix, monsieur.
Merci beaucoup, madame.
De rien, monsieur.
Phew! You just hope and pray that the first person you ask knows the answer to your question. Otherwise, you could get quite breathless by the time you obtain the info you need. And here’s another kicker. You are supposed to say all that even if the person’s job is to answer your question. An example from the first time I went to France with my husband (he is, btw, the expert on all things French):
We enter a train station in Paris. As we approach the information desk, another American races past us. He goes up to the older gentleman behind the info counter and says (in too loud and poorly accented French, although I’ve got to give him credit for at least trying to speak the local language): “Ou est le metro?”
The man behind the counter doesn’t say a word. He just scowls and briskly snaps his head in the direction of a sign that says “Metro” with an arrow indicating it is down one flight of stairs.
A bit intimidated by this grumpy old man, I hang back as my husband approaches the desk. We’re trying to find a certain address on the other side of the city. The last person we asked said we needed to take the train to la gare du nord (the north station). My husband goes through the whole bonjour, monsieur, dérangez vous bit, then asks where the platform is for that train. The man asks a question. Tom responds with the name of the street we’re trying to find. The man gives him a small smile, then starts speaking in rapid-fire French, gesturing several times. About thirty seconds later, he winds down and Tom says, “Merci, monsieur.”
“What’d he say?” I ask as we walk away.
“He not only told me what platform number, but what stop to get off on the other end and which way to turn when we come out on the street.”
Another belief about the French is that they are argumentative. Well, yes and no. If you cut off a Paris taxi driver on the street, you will definitely get an earful. But then you would in New York City as well. In discourse between friends, however, the French are somewhat more open-minded than Americans. But they love to debate. They will discuss things for hours, often with great fervor but rarely disrespectfully. Sometimes they will debate the smallest of things, such as whether it is more logical to put the adjective before the noun (as in English) or after the noun (as in French) – an actual discussion Tom had with one of our French friends.
There are a few topics that are considered impolite to bring up, as I discovered when I mentioned menopause. The French refer to a woman who is in that prone-to-hot-flashes stage as une femme d’un certain age–a woman of a certain age. But for the most part, you can say just about anything in France, as long as you say it politely. Oh, and at least try to speak their language, even if you’re lousy at it like me. I can’t tell you how many times (in Paris even) I got a small smile from a shopkeeper as I started blathering away in French. The smile was usually followed by a heavily accented, “How can I help you, madame?”
As if to say, thank you for trying to speak French, now let us converse in a language we both understand–English. 🙂
Kass also hangs out on Twitter and Facebook, so feel free to track her down there @KassandraLamb and http://www.facebook.com/kassandralambauthor. And if you’d like to explore Kate’s World a bit more, check out the photo galleries at where you can sign up for newsletter updates on new releases.http://kassandralamb.com
Okay, time to play Lie-dar. All that has come before this is the truth as I understand it, so help me God. But only one of the statements listed below is true. First person to guess which it is will win a free e-book copy of any of my books, other than the one I’m pushing right now.
Cause, heck, it’s already just 99¢! (£0.77)
Or if the winner prefers (and lives in the U.S.), I’ll send a signed copy of Multiple Motives in trade paperback format.
Which is the truth (the other two are lies):
- Kassandra once owned a pony that was smarter than she was.
- Kassandra has a tattoo of a small fleur-de-lis, at the base of her spine.
- Kassandra once won a contest for being the best baton-twirler in second grade.
Last week Linda Gilman challenged readers to spot her true talent if competing in the Miss America contest?
Congratulations to fellow mystery author Amanda Capper who is on a red-hot two week streak to again correctly guess that the answer is stand up comic.
Please add your guess to your comment below, and you will be entered to win a digital (eBook) copy of your choice of any of Kassandra Lamb’s books OR an autographed copy of Multiple Motives in trade paperback format. Winner will be announced next Thursday, June 12.
***Would you like to be a guest on Thursday Lie-dar? I’d love to feature you and your work here! (interview, contest, book review, guest post) For information, send email to firstname.lastname@example.org***