Understanding the nuances of French communication can be challenging, but it’s essential to understand that the French place politeness standards are pretty high.
From the use of formal language and expressions of politeness to the importance of body language and tone of voice, the French art of subtle communication is both complex and fascinating.
In this article, we will explore some key strategies and techniques to help you sound more polite in your French conversations.
The Ultimate Guide to French Politeness
French people believe that showing respect and consideration towards others is crucial for maintaining harmonious relationships, in the workplace, among friends or family, or in public.
Politeness is also seen as a way of showing one’s education and social status. In addition, France has a long history of social hierarchy, and politeness is a way of acknowledging and maintaining these social structures.
Overall, the French view politeness as a way of demonstrating civility, courtesy, and respect, and it’s an important part of their cultural identity. Not using the French standard politeness forms will make you sound rude at the very least.
What is the Polite Form in French?
In French, addressing formally means that you are using the plural pronoun vous, while adressing informally means using singular pronoun tu. Even though it can sound weird to some, many languages actually have the same way of addressing formally.
Of course, when addressing more than one person, regardless of your relationship with them, “vous” should always be used.
However, when speaking to a single person, the choice between “tu” and “vous” is significant and can impact verb conjugations, adjectives, and pronouns, as well as define the relationship and social etiquette between the two parties.
Generally, “tu” should be used with close friends, family members, children, and anyone who uses “tu” with you, while “vous” is appropriate for strangers, acquaintances, colleagues, superiors, and elders, as well as in group settings.
The topic is deeply embedded in French history, and incorrect usage of pronouns can be interpreted as impolite behavior.
When unsure, you can ask the person if it’s okay to use “tu” by saying :
On peut se tutoyer?
Can we address each other in more familiar terms? (using tu or 2nd person singular)
Using French Titles: Monsieur, Madame, and Mademoiselle
In French, it is customary to address adult men with “Monsieur”, adult women with “Madame” (regardless of their marital status as long as they are over 18), and young girls under 18 with “Mademoiselle”.
However, it’s worth noting that waitresses are typically addressed as “Mademoiselle”.
While this level of formality may be considered excessive in some English-speaking countries, it is widely practiced and appreciated in France.
Miss, with younger (too young to be married) women
French Phrases of Politeness
This list highlights the most common French courteous expressions that can be utilized in various social contexts.
S’il vous plaît – please (using vous)/ S’il te plaît
please (saying tu)
Je vous en prie. (using vous-formal)
Je t’en prie. (saying tu-informal)
You are welcome!
Excuse me! – (when you couldn’t hear someone)
Excusez-moi (for vous) / excuse-moi (for tu)
À vos souhaits (for vous) / à tes souhaits (for tu)
Bless you!(after someone sneezes)
All Ways to Say Thank You in French
There are many ways to express your gratitude in French, and we’ll extract the most common French phrases.
Thank you very much!
Thank you very much!
Mille fois merci!
A thousand times thank you.
You’re welcome. it literally means “it’s nothing”
Pas de quoi.
Don’t mention it.
Je vous en prie! (formal and plural)
It’s my pleasure.
Je t’en prie! (singular and informal)
It’s my pleasure.
Saying “Please” in French
In French, the word for “please” is “s’il vous plaît” or “s’il te plaît” when addressing someone informally.
These phrases are commonly used to make polite requests and are often added at the end of a sentence.
Pouvez-vous me passer le sel, s’il vous plaît?
Can you pass me the salt, please?
Using “s’il vous plaît” or “s’il te plaît” shows respect and consideration towards the person you are speaking to and is highly recommended to be used as much as possible.
S’il vous plaît (formal / plural)
S’il te plaît. singular and informal
Learn more polite ways to Express Doubt and Possibilities in French.
What Tense is Polite in French?
To be polite, you can use conditional tense or the inversion form of the verb pouvoir.
For example, instead of saying Tu peux m’aider?” (Can you help me?), you can say:
Pourrais-tu m’aider, s’il te plaît?
Could you help me, please?
Another example of the polite form of “pouvoir” is :
Pourrais-je avoir une serviette, s’il vous plaît?
Could I have a towel, please?
Je voudrais le pain.
I would like bread.
Tu pourrais me prêter de l’argent ?
Could you lend me some money?
Other verbs in the conditional tense can also be used, such as avoir in the following example.
Vous auriez du feu, s’il vous plaît ?
Do you have a light, please?
It is considered impolite to use the present tense je veux instead of the conditional je voudrais.
Handshake or Faire la Bise?
In France, greetings are an essential part of social interactions, and the most common way to greet someone is by either shaking hands or doing “la bise” (the kiss on the cheek).
Shaking hands is more common in professional settings, between acquaintances or people who just met. On the other hand, “la bise” is more common in personal situations between friends, family, and people you know well.
However, the number of kisses can vary depending on the region in France; some people do two kisses, some three, and others four. It’s essential to pay attention to the other person’s body language and follow their lead.
Lean forward and slightly brush cheeks with the other person while mimicking a kiss (with the sound and lips gesture). Then, switch cheeks and repeat.
A French handshake should be brisk and firm, with one or two up-and-down movements while looking at the other person straight.
How Many Kisses do the French do?
Ah! Here’s another important question in French. How many kisses on the cheek are considered a norm?
You might think you have an answer, but wait the number of kisses or “bises” can vary depending on the region or the relationship between the individuals.
In general, two kisses on the cheek are the most common in France, one on each cheek.
However, some regions or people may do three or four kisses, while others may only do one. It’s always best to follow the lead of the person you’re greeting and adapt accordingly.
Enjoy this funny video about French Bise, and learn when, where and whom to kiss in French.
Understanding French Body Language
Body language, also known as nonverbal communication, is an essential component of human interaction. It involves the use of gestures, facial expressions, eye contact, posture, and other physical movements to convey emotions, thoughts, and intentions.
Before you’ve said a word, your posture and attitude speak volumes and people form an opinion right away based on your gestures as well as the way you stand or how you occupy space in the room.
French people tend to be more restrained in their movements compared to Americans. They maintain an upright chest, and a horizontal pelvis, and keep their shoulders still with their arms close to their body.
Some refer to it as tense or stiff, which contributes to the impression that the French are cold and unwelcoming.
This controlled manner of movement may appear rigid and tense to some, which explains why French clothing tends to be narrower and tighter than what Americans typically wear.
Due to their reserved body language, the French tend to rely more heavily on verbal expression as a means of communication, whereas Americans tend to require more physical space for movement.
Polite Requests in French in a Nutshell
Making polite requests in French requires the use of formal language and expressions of politeness.
The most common way to make a request is by using the verb pouvoir and the phrase Est-ce que vous pouvez (Can you). You get extra points if you add s’il vous plaît (please) at the end of the request.
It’s also important to start the request with Excusez-moi (Excuse me) or Pardon (Sorry) can help convey respect and manners.
It’s also essential to use the correct form of vous for formal situations and tu for informal settings.
Even if it’s not in your cultural code to express politeness to a high degree, remember that going that extra mile in French will be much rewarded.
Learn more polite ways to Express Your Wants Politely