Sunday, January 23, 2011


Politeness makes man appear outwardly as he should be within
I didn't pay attention to the middle-aged couple huddled in a corner with their backs turned to me--until they approached me from behind and the man said with panache, "Ne bougez pas, madame." (Don't move, madam.)

This was in my early days in France on a Sunday morning in the underground parking garage of a pied-à-terre apartment. I scarcely knew any of the neighbors so hadn't given the man and woman a second thought as I hunted for something in the car trunk we had forgotten to take upstairs.

Scrapbook snapshot from way back when.
What in the world and could this be happening to me, I asked myself. At least he had used the customary polite address "madame."  (Arsène Lupin, the gentleman cambrioleur, a well-loved burglar in French literature, was being immortalized at the time in a television series, Le Retour d'Arsène Lupin--The Return of Arsène Lupin.) I felt a rush of power, reared up and turned to face them. "Je vous demande pardon?"

That must have done the trick. The woman rolled her eyes as the man said he wanted to know where I had bought the triangular reflective warning sign mounted on the interior of the trunk's hood. Likely story, I thought as I explained it was simply a built-in feature. We parted ways uneasily with ersatz salutations.

Nothing untoward happened so I'll never know whether if by turning around I had foiled non-violent would-be car thieves who didn't want to be identified from making off with the berline, or if the man was simply an oaf who didn't know better than to approach a lone woman from behind in a parking garage and brandish hold-up lingo.

A well-placed polite term can go a long way
Needless to say, never underestimate the power of politeness. All the tips and do's and don'ts directed toward people visiting or staying in France say the same thing: the French generally place high importance on being polite and using good manners. Indeed, being pleasant and polite in all circumstances helps people be well-accepted in most places. The greater the socioculture difference, the greater the need for politeness.

Jean de la Bruyère
Deciphering codes of conduct
Great 17th century satiric moralist and literary stylist Jean de la Bruyère wrote in his masterpiece, Les Caractères ou les Moeurs de ce Siècle, "La politesse n'inspire pas toujours la bonté, l'équité, la complaisance, la gratitude; elle en donne du moins les apparences, et fait paraître l'homme au dehors comme il devrait être intérieurement." For readers in far-flung places with limited library access, I've found the full text of this work, Characters, or The Manners of the Age, available online at the Internet Archive. It's translated by Henri Van Laun, who renders the aphorism in English as: "Politeness does not always produce kindness of heart, justice, complacency, or gratitude, but it gives to a man at least the appearances of it, and makes him seem externally what he really should be."

The first stylist...Well-coiffed Jean de la Bruyère is credited with being the first writer for whom literary style had its own value in and of itself.

Vocabulary lesson
Panache: flamboyant confidence
Bouger: to move
Pied-à-terre: a small apartment or house kept for occasional use, literally 'foot to earth'
Cambrioleur: burglar, housebreaker (as opposed to voleur)
Je vous demande pardon: I beg your pardon
Voleur: thieve
Voiture: car
Berline: four-door automobile
Caractères: characters

For English translation of the full text of Les Caractères click here.

©2011 P.B.Lecron

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