Ah – La Politesse. You know how annoying the French can be – That je-ne-sais-quoi that gets under your skin and makes you want to drop-kick the French right into a gutter? Well, it doesn’t have to be that way. You just have to learn to love that very Parisian form of social jujitsu: La Politesse.
La Politesse is a tacit code of social conduct which demands politeness in all social situations (well almost). The French use it mostly to genuinely express kindness to others. It is what makes a bustling city like Paris function civilly and with decorum. Without it, Paris would have all the charm of The South Bronx. [Warning: Strong Language] In France a humble: “excusez-moi, madame” will go a long way in winning friends and gaining respect.
La Politesse is also used in situations where every fibre of your being wants to throttle the neck your fellow man, but you don’t. It keeps and resolves confrontations before they turn ugly and violent (for the most part). The French do not like direct confrontation. Instead they prefer to attack the resistance to their problems and issues tangentially; in other words passive-aggressively. They still achieve their goals of smacking some one down, or overcoming a bureaucratic obstacle, but without all the nastiness and overt drama. Because of this the French are masters of irony, sarcasm, and double entendre. Once they break-down the resistance on their opponents, they can then deal directly and frankly with their issues (but always politely). The goal is to win people over to your side, without drawing blood.
On occasion, the French will become violent; but only when their opponent is waaay over bounds: physically violent, or egregiously insulting. They will also escalate to direct confrontation if while being polite, your opponent doesn’t get the point. They will however do so only after a final warning. It may go like: “Monsieur, it would be of bad form if I cast aside mon Politesse, to get my point through to you”. Then and only then if you don’t get the point, you will bring out the old Vercingetorix out of them.
While I do not know the direct sequence of these two pictures, one thing is clear. Both are being VERY aggressive to each other. But because of the skills that "La Politesse" allows you to have, Carla Bruni comes out of that clash smelling like roses. Michelle Obama, on the other hand looks like a stinking fool.
Americans always prefer the direct confrontation to resolve conflicts. But it is very clear by these pictures, that the French indirect approach works best in high visibility situations such as this.
Back in May of ’06 my wife and I went to a seafood restaurant in Paris. As we were leaving, I thanked the Maître d' for an excellent service, and wonderful dinner. Though customary to do in France, this I did with full honesty, and appreciation. This made the Maître d' was glow with pride – the magic of La Politesse at work. As I was about to conclude, this local couple walks into the foyer of the restaurant. The gentleman seizes us up with a flick of the upper lip and scrunch of his nose. He then gruffly demands to the Maître d': “Hey, when are we gonna get service here”?
*What a rude Mudder Fökk’n Apsehole - You don’t treat us like Crotte de Chien.* - I said to my self.
Though we weren’t dressed like two Americans out of EuroDisney, my French is heavily accented. It was clear to all, that I wasn’t neither Parisian, nor (perish the thought) French. To the French ear I was probably either from Spain or Italy; though my wife screamed “American” to the trained eye. That rude SOB just thought that he could bully this pair of tourists out of his way
*I will cede this foyer when I’m good and ready*
I then turn my back to the rude bassid, and now obsequiously sucked-up to the Maître d'. I complimented the chef on those fresh water Anchovy Carpaccio Appetizer (they were really stupendous). Both the Maître d' and the rude SOB immediately picked-up on this for what it was: Aggressive Politesse. I thanked him once again, and then turned to the rude couple. The Maître d' now tensed-up a bit, not knowing whether I would turn ugly and rude back to the bassid.
“Madame” I said addressing the lady.
“Monsieur” I now slightly bowed to the rude one.
And with a note of acid sarcasm I said:
“I wish you both a Bon Appétit”.
*ZING – Back at you. And I hope you choke on a bone.*
The Maître d' immediately relaxed, as La Politesse was safeguarded toujours.
As we stepped back into the busy Boulevard, that fish in my belly tasted even better, for this ‘Rican got’s game.