“Ladies and Gentlemen,
We have the honor of informing you that a team from our company will proceed to clean the parking garage on the morning of Thursday, June 12. We thank you in advance for kindly removing your vehicles.”
It is not at all unusual here to receive official letters from banks, plumbers, or other service industries that sound like an invitation to a fancy dress ball. However rude a clerk may seem at the post office in person, in writing that same institution will sign off with “je vous prie d’agréer, Madame, l’assurance de ma consideration distinguée,” which roughly translates as “I beg you to accept, Madam, the guarantee of my distinguished regards.”
It is difficult for an American (particularly one that lived a long time in New York) to understand why the note in my box didn’t just say “Garage cleaning June 12, please move your car before that date,” or something more menacing like “garage cleaning June 12, all cars must be removed by sundown.” I’m used to taking orders from faceless authorities, but apparently, the French are not. Maybe it’s a leftover sentiment from the French Revolution, when outrage over being subject to the oppressive whims of the aristocracy led to a summary chopping off of its collective head. Maybe that’s why my husband gets furious when I ask him to do something in my direct, American way, like “can you take out the trash?” instead of “my, but the trash bin is full, do you think you might be able to take it out?”
It might a stretch to take a historic view of marital squabbles, but there has got to be some explanation for the overblown importance of politesse in certain French circumstances. After all, in neighboring Spain, perfect strangers use the familiar form of “you” (tu). In nearby Italy, locals will enthusiastically throw themselves at your baby and ask if they can take pictures. Maybe it’s a question of personal space. In France, you must wait to be invited into someone’s personal space, and politeness creates a neutral territory where the two sides can check each other out. Maybe the French just need more time to connect, unlike Americans, who hurl themselves at each other like overexcited puppies.
That still doesn’t explain the letters, however, or why my health insurance center keeps thanking me for confidence that I have in them. Or why the sign on the bus about ticket prices “thanks me for my understanding.” Or, for that matter, why a subway strike is described as a “social movement” on the monitors in the metro station. Oh well, I guess some things just can’t be explained. And so, in closing, I beg you to accept my most cordial regards.