Before arriving in France, I read all the books I could find about french politesse, not wanting to offend anyone with the forgotten "Bonjour!" or the accidental smile at an inappropriate time. This was a struggle for my Midwestern Upbringing, between the desire to not offend (for Norwegian-Americans this is one of the main tenets of our existence) and the natural habit to smile at people when they meet my eyes (which in France is considered rude or a come-on.) After a few weeks, I stopped caring quite so much if I bumped into people accidentally, because I noticed that they slammed into me all the time without a care in the world. The more I observed, the more I learned and soon, I began to "get" french politeness, and was Bonjouring and Au Revoiring with the best of them.
Then yesterday, at the grocery store, I was treated more rudely than I ever have been in Paris.
The line for the caisse was about five people long, and my basket was heavy due to the purchase of several different beverages. The surrounding lines were empty, with no one tending them, so I grabbed an extra order seperator (those little metal bars you put between your groceries and the person's ahead of you.) As she moved the belt toward her, the cashier picked up the metal bar, looked down to see another on the belt after the order, and despite the fact that there were three more people behind me, put the first order seperator under the cash register.
How RUDE! The older lady behind me looked around, bewildered, and proceeded to continue holding her groceries, waiting for the release of the only order seperator allowed on this woman's line.
As I came up to my turn in line, she ignored me, giving no eye contact, and not even a response to my "Bonjour, Madame." She rang up my order, pausing in the middle to have a conversation with another Champion worker, and rang it up. She turned toward me, not meeting my eyes, and said, "How are you gonna pay?" I indicated the bank card I had been holding since I walked past the stolen item detector in line and said, "Carte bancaire." She pushed the appropriate buttons, and I began to type in my personal code to authorize the payment.
When I was finished, I picked up my bags, and thanked her for the receipt she tossed in my direction. The older lady behind me, noticing that there were few plastic sacs left, said to our lovely checker, "Madame, there are not many bags, we need some more..."
The checker ignored her.
That was it. I had had it. She can be nasty to me, but this lady was someone's grandma! In my sharpest, most irritated tone, I said, "Madame! There are not enough sacs! She needs more sacs! AU REVOIR!!!!"
And finally, she snapped out of her stupor, and replied, "Au Revoir. Merci, Madame."
Politesse. It's the French/Midwestern Way.
Photo from M. B. ecole-plus.com.