“One of the characteristics of the people of Paris, for which they are known the world over, is their politeness,” wrote David W. Bartlett, an American author, who visited Paris during the Second Empire (1852-1870). Reading this, the immediate reaction of today’s visitors would be an utter disbelief since Parisians are known world-wide for their unpleasant behavior. The only consolation for the foreigner is that they don’t treat each other any better. During my last visit, my Parisian friend was called “une conne” (and a few more choice words) because of a tiny mistake she had made. The aggressor was a middle-class, middle-aged man. Things are looking up though. Well-aware of their bad reputation, Parisians are trying to soften their manners. In my experience (compared to ten, twenty years ago) there is a noticeable improvement.
Yet if we are to believe Mr. Bartlett, present-day Parisians come nowhere close to their ancestors’ civility. “I noticed this politeness in all circles and in all places,” he writes, and goes on: “In England John Bull stares at your dress if it differs from his own, and hunts you to the wall. Or if anything in your speech or manners pleases him, he laughs in your face. But in Paris, the Frenchman never is guilty of so ill-bred an action as to laugh at anybody in his presence, however provoking the occasion. If you are lost and inquire the way, he will run half a mile to show you, and will not even hear of thanks. The only time that I ever experienced anything but politeness in Paris, was when in a great hurry I chanced to hit a workman with a basket upon his head. The concussion was so great that the basket was dashed to the pavement. He turned round very slowly, and with a grin upon his countenance said, “Thank you, sir!” This was politeness with a little too much sarcasm. It was spoken so finely that I burst into a laugh, and the Frenchman joined me in it.”
Lucky Mr. Bartlett!