Understanding French Shopping Etiquette, or “La Politesse”
Almost all aspects of life in French society are subject to certain long-established social conventions. Shopping is one of those areas…
Walking into a shop in France can feel intimidating at first, especially if you don’t speak the language. This is a case, however, when being ready with just a few simple words and phrases, along with an understanding of “la politesse” – basic rules of French politeness – is all you will really need to get along very well. Knowing that there is a kind of protocol that is practiced almost without fail, one that every child in France grows up learning, will help you to relax and enjoy the experience. Here are the basics:
- Upon entering a shop – When you first walk in, scan the shop to see if you can spot the proprietor. When you do, immediately smile and greet him or her with a pleasant “Bonjour Monsieur/Madame,” and also nod to include in your greeting any other customers that may be in the store within earshot. You will undoubtedly receive immediate acknowledgement.
- “Puis-je vous aider?” – “Can I help you?” – a sales person is likely to ask you. This is the perfect time to make it known that you do not speak French. Here is a nice progression of responses you can make, beginning with a bit of an apology:
- Please… “S’il vous plait..” (Seal-voo-play)
- …Excuse me. “Excusez-moi.” (Es-cue-say mwa)
- I do not speak French. “Je ne parle pas Français.” (Juh- nuh parl pa frahn-say.)
- I am American. “Je suis Americain.” (juh-sweez-a-mare-ee-can)
- Do you speak English? “Parlez-vous anglais?” (Par-lay vooz ahn-glay?)
- Speak slowly, simply, and clearly – If the sales person indicates that he or she speaks some English, please remember that this is that person’s second (or third) language. Always speak slowly and clearly, taking care to not make your sentences too complex.
- May I look around? – Another polite thing to do is to simply ask if you can look around the shop on your own. To do this in French is pretty simple: ” Je peux regarder?” (Juh puh ruh-gar-day?) Then, of course, when you have obviously been given permission to do so, always respond with a smile and a “Merci!” (mare-see!)
- Do not touch (at least not at first…) – Unlike in shops in the US, it is often seen as rude to pick up or otherwise touch objects for sale in shops without first asking. If you see something you would like to look at a little more closely, you can ask politely, or just ask for help:
- Can I touch? “Je peux toucher?” (Juh puh too-shay?)
- Can you help me? “Pouvez-vous m’aider?” (Poo-vay-voo may-day?)
- Attention to each customer, in turn – Another difference between shopping in the US and in France has to do with the process of being served. Instead of “multi-tasking” to attempt to attend to several customers simultaneously, in France, each customer will usually have the complete attention of the sales person, in the order in which they came into the shop. This is especially true in food shops such as boulangeries (bakeries), patisseries (pastry shops), charcuteries (butcher shops), etc. This pattern is particularly evident when a shop is a bit crowded. Customers will patiently wait their turn to be served, standing quietly, taking careful note of who is next and not ever cutting in front of someone else who arrived first. But then, when it finally is your turn, you will be able to ask as many questions as you wish and take your time to decide on which luscious pastries or excellent cuts of beef you wish to purchase!
- How many? – Politely gesturing is a good way to non-verbally communicate your needs. However, it is important to know that when using fingers to count, the French always begin with their thumbs. Holding one thumb up indicates you want one of something. To indicate that you want two, hold up your thumb and index finger. For three, thumb, index, and middle finger.
- How much? – To ask the price of something in French, ask “Combien coûte?” (comb-bee-en coot?). It is always a good idea to carry a little note pad and pen, which will allow the sales person to write down the price for you. Again, polite gestures along just a few words in French can work just fine. Offering your pad and pen and saying, “Write the price, please?” “Ecrivez le prix, s’il vous plait?” (aye-cree-vay luh pree, see-voo-play?)
- Transaction complete! – When you have finished selecting and paying for your items (and even if you have not made a purchase) and you are getting ready to leave the store, always smile, say, “Thank you!” “Merci!,” and “Good Bye,” “Au revoir“). And, be sure to include any other customers or sales people who may be within earshot in your “au revoir.” It is just good manners to do so!
- Bring your own shopping bags – While many clothing and specialty stores may offer bags for the items you purchase, this is not the case in most shops that sell food items. Carrying at least a fold-up shopping bag with you is always a good idea.