Imagine this. You’re in Harris Teeter, looking for the seasoned salt, the fancy vinegar, the borax – it doesn’t matter.
Can you find a stock clerk? Not to be seen, of course. They’re never there when you need them.
You’re in a hurry. You’re always in a hurry, of course. You’re an American.
Ah, there’s one. You quicken your pace, need to get her attention before she sallies off on some other assignment.
“Good day, madam? Pardon me, if you please, where can I find –?”
Lost her. She took off somewhere between madam and pardon.
Of course, you’d never have started the interaction like that. You might say, “Excuse me.” But even that little touch of politesse might have risked a few crucial seconds of attention. No, you simply chirp as brightly as possible, “Where’s the balsamic vinegar?”
That’s it. And the extent of the response just might be, “Aisle four.” And off you go.
How about exchanges in other countries? Say, France, for example.
I didn’t choose France arbitrarily. France, in fact, is a country in which you not only would use the bulky niceties above, but heaven help you if you don’t.
My husband once observed that French strangers always seem to have so much to chatter about, until you realize that half of what they’re saying is boilerplate. I have to add that he does not speak French, but he’s a pretty sharp observer of human behavior. And when we traveled in France it didn’t take him long to realize that one reason Americans abroad think the French are so rude is that they – I should say we – don’t know how to start a formal conversational exchange between strangers. Thus we end up getting the same kind of cold treatment anyone might who blundered into, say, a church and tried to start a conversation in Pig Latin.
Ritual exchanges are nothing new. They go back to the dawn of recorded history and probably farther, when in vast stretches of any country there was no law and you had no idea what to expect from a chance encounter with a stranger.
These necessities survive even today, symbolically anyway, in phrases and particularly gestures, like the handshake. It was originally a sign of peaceful intent between armed men. You can’t very well swing a sword at another guy’s head, if he’s holding your weapons hand.
Nowadays, more often that not, in America at least, what we have to worry about is getting anybody’s attention.
I was in France last month and really appreciated the patter of chatter, even if it was ritualized and even though my French is a bit rusty. I love the welcome – “Bonjour Madame” – that comes your way upon entering a store, even in a supermarket. Clerks have time for customers. Consumers don’t shop wearing ear buds. You make small talk, everywhere.
When I came home, I did a little experiment at the Franklin Street post office, a place where you don’t have to chase around looking for a clerk – which incidentally, I didn’t have to do a single time in France. I watched and listened, hovering by the counter.
“A roll of first class,” a man said, in a too-loud voice. Guess why? His ears were full of music. “Anything else?” asked the clerk. A head shake. No. They were done, finished.
Next person. “I need to send this media mail,” the customer said by way of greeting. She did say “Thank you” when she got her receipt. A third customer shoved her mailer across the counter: “How much to overnight this?”
These barely civil scenes simply would not happen in France, at least not in a small city comparable to Chapel Hill.
The rigid French patterns of set phrases that have been the same as long as anyone can remember might, to some, seem silly and unnecessary, but to this harried American, they are music.