So I went to the French doctor again today and it brought up something I’ve started wondering about since beginning my second year in northeastern France, which is–when is it okay to be friendly to strangers?
The French doctor is different in a few ways from American ones. The doctor has his/her own office with a desk and examination table. You pay the doctor directly right afterward. The receptionist is there mostly to make appointments and not much else, it seems. On entering and leaving the doctor’s office the doctor will shake your hand, which means you should make sure you’re not holding anything in your right hand or it can lead to an awkward shuffle (I’m quite good at forgetting about this if you can’t tell).
But the weirdest thing is that when you enter the waiting room you are supposed to greet everyone as a group, usually by saying “Bonjour messieurs/dames,” and they all say bonjour back. Then when the doctor comes to get you, you say goodbye on the way out. The first couple of times I couldn’t bring myself to do this (it just felt very strange) and I’m sure I came off as kind of unfriendly. Today I managed to say bonjour when I walked in but couldn’t do the au revoir at the end.
I don’t really get this. I think it’s nice, but it just seems inconsistent with the general culture of ignoring-other-people. The only other situations where I’ve noticed you should say hello even if you don’t know the person are
1) passing by people in the residence hallways. I find it odd, especially because the residence (and most university residences, I’ve heard) is not very open. It’s not like American dorms where you can leave your door open and you know most of your neighbors. I know two people on my floor of about fifteen, and one of them I just met recently. So these people I say bonjour and bon soir to are people I never recognize and who will probably never talk to me.
2) walking past reception desks upon entering or leaving a building.
3) buying things in stores. You’re always supposed to say hello and goodbye, but all the same, the cashier usually isn’t very friendly (small shops and boulangeries being a very pleasant exception). In fact in between the smile-less hello and goodbye they are prone to taking up conversations with the cashier opposite them and ignoring you altogether.
People have warned me that it’s not a good idea to smile at people who pass you on the street so I generally never do. It makes me feel a bit rude and snobbish but what can you do. Also the French don’t seem to have small talk. You step onto a usually very small elevator, say bonjour (if it’s the residence), and then stand in awkward silence even if there are only two of you and you live in the same building.
Buses are also strange. They’re so much busier in France than in the states that of course they sometimes fill up. So people take to sitting on the outside seat of the two-seat groupings to discourage people from sitting next to them. Even if there are people standing. The first time I noticed this I was appalled. Now I do it a lot myself, but mostly because 1) I’m slightly claustrophobic and hate the sense of being trapped and 2) I don’t like making people get up to let me off. My stop is right after a huge roundabout. And the drivers do not go easy on the brakes.
On a related note, I’m not too fond of standing in lines with strangers. The generalization about the French being unable to wait in line patiently is so, so, so (generally) true, and it drives me nuts. I hate having to defend my spot in line. It’s like all these friendly, normal people suddenly feel like they can treat each other like less than people and so cut and dodge and ignore each other in order to get to the end as fast as possible. (I have to confess that over time I have once or twice taken advantage of this attitude. Resistance is futile.) If you can ignore someone in line like this, why so friendly in a doctor’s office? I dun get.*
I was on the verge of tears a lot on my return trip to Texas last May, but I do remember the feeling when I stepped onto the airport bus, nearly fell off, and an older Texan man caught me, saying “Don’t worry, I got ya” and smiling. Speaking in English doesn’t give me much of a sense of relief anymore, but laughing with this guy was like returning to a familiar language where I could let my guard down.
Anyway, people say that it’s hard to make friends with the French (or maybe just northerners), but once you’re in, you’re in for good. So theoretically there is an upside. I’ll let you know in ten years.
*There is a notable exception to the line rule. People waiting in pharmacies seem to put a lot of care into watching for who’s next in line and making sure everyone goes in the order they arrived. But pharmacies would go under my small shop heading anyway.