Invitation to Incivilities: Getting a Grip on the French

No need to cower in the corner the next time a Parisian picks a fight. With a little perseverance, you, too, can master the art of the pointless quarrel.

First published in Paris Passion, 1985

To the novice, Paris seems at times to be a city of sullen salesclerks, churlish café waiters, and surly ticket sellers. True, the occasional shopkeeper may serve you with serf-like politeness, but this is not the norm. Au contraire.

Far more typical and, for visitors, more memorable is the glacial lack of co-operation encountered when dealing with Parisians condemned to work with the general public. Examples easily come to mind: taxi drivers who wax indignant when instructed to drive somewhere that is not on their way home; salesclerks in big department stores who give you their I-don’t-usually-speak-to-lepers look when asked for information; or bank tellers who treat any request for money as an insolent and vulgar distraction from their form-filling vocation.

Foreigners put out by this behavior lack sophistication, for they have not realized that showing discourtesy is a Parisian way of paying a compliment. They know nothing of Paris’s code incivil, the Gallic equivalent of Miss Manners, and its golden rule: the ruder you are to people, the greater the value you give to their existence. Thus, Parisians who respect you will shower you with pleasant little incivilities from time to time — but only after you’ve shown yourself worthy of insult. To attain this status you must master the art of the pointless quarrel, the engueulade (pronounced ahn-guh-lad). Arguing is to the modern Frenchman what thinking was to Descartes, a proof of existence. Vitupero ergo sum: I bicker, therefore I am. And the better you bicker the bigger you are.

Keep that in mind the next time a postal clerk refuses to weigh your parcel because it’s the wrong color or a municipal employee snarls in response to a civil question. These people are inviting you to start an engueulade, to take part in la vie parisienne. They are saying, “Welcome stranger, jump into the mainstream!” You can either sink by being meekly polite or swim by behaving like a boor. Those brave souls who choose the latter should read on.

At the outset of an engueulade combatants are obliged to announce their intention to fight by uttering the sacred formula,“Oh là là!” This means they believe something out of the ordinary – something which can be a bone of contention – is occurring. Please note the expression is “Oh là là!”, not “Ooh là là!” The latter exists only in the minds of lecherous foreigners who have seen too many Maurice Chevalier films.

Unless you’re facing an abnormally foul-tempered Parisian (i.e., one who issues working papers), the neutral “Oh là là!” hasn’t enough strength to get the bile flowing. Next on your list must be,“Ça va pas, non?!” Said with rising inflection, this common phrase becomes an all-purpose provocation meaning that things are not happening as they should. If your target remains obstinately polite, a variant, “Ça va pas la tête, non?!” (“Your head isn’t working, is it?”), can be trotted out. You are calling the person a dummy. At this point, unless your Parisian interlocutor is deaf or dead, you will be buffeted by a wave of invective, reducing you to a quivering blob of pâté. Bad tactics, manners and taste: remember, the engueulade is not a real argument, but a stylized initiation ritual. Lose your cool and you’ll be unable to perform the rite properly.

What is next called for on your part is a general statement of incredulity. By doing this you moving the dispute from the particular to the absolute, temporarily ignoring your opponent (a futher goad) to complain about the human condition. There are four ways to do this, corresponding to your social pretensions:

Suburban Hooligan: “C’est pas vrai!” (“It’s untrue!” pronouncedsay BAW vrayyyyy). The BAW must be said in a deep kettledrum voice, and the last word must be drawn out to absurd lengths.

Middle Class: “C’est pas possible!” (“It’s impossible!” pron. say paw poss-SEEB). This pretty p-popping phrase should be said rapidly, perhaps repeated four or five times in mantra-like fashion.

Upper Middle Class: “C’est scandaleux!” (“It’s a scandal!” pron.say SCAWN-daleuh). The correct tone is indignant falsetto. The more highly pitched the voice in France, the more money stashed in Switzerland.

Filthy Rich: “C’est insensé!” (“It’s insane!” pron. say EHN-saw-say). This is convincing only if you’re wrapped in furs, and your poodle in sealskin. Your voice should shatter glass.

Do not stand on the principle of customer service. For most Parisians, Swahili is more easily understood than this notion. Selling in France is an act of charity which a seller performs for a buyer. The same holds true for the giving of information: a phone call to directory assistance, for example, often puts you into direct contact with Franz Kafka. In the minds of Parisian telephone operators, seekers of information are misguided, dishonest, apt to invent street names, and, at best, uninvited guests at the switchboard salon.

Nor should you argue from the notion of responsibility in a graduated hierarchy (“Let me speak with your superior!”). Parisians work at a company, not for it, each in his own carefully circumscribed compartment. Thus, it’s quite possible the man in the hardware department really does not know where the furniture department is; in any case, he is by no means obliged to tell you. It is not his job.

In an engueulade, any argument must proceed from custom. “I’ve always done it this way,” or, better still, “Your colleague/predecessor did not behave like a cow.” Here we have custom (how it used to be done) mixed with that other essential ingredient, personal affront. When faced with a male Parisian, give him a look that calls his manhood into question. When dealing with a Parisienne, give her a look – or say it aloud if you wish – showing that you think she dresses like a plouc (provincial hick). These methods will open the floodgates and submerge you in the scalding waters of a full-scale Parisian tirade. Enjoy.

When your tormentor wearies of abusing you, show your appreciation by addressing a third person, imaginary or real. Turn to one side and, depending on how you’ve played your cards thus far, say:

Formal: “Il exagère…” (“He’s gone too far.” pron. eel eggza-ZHERR-reuhhhh). A nice musical phrase with the high note on ZHERR and the very Parisian reuhhhh at the end. Done properly, you might be applauded.

Informal: “Il est gonflé.” (“He’s full of it.” standard pron.). A good snappy line that can be salted according to taste with its indecorous companion gesture: hands holding imaginary oranges beneath the chin.

Cool: “Complètement jeté, ce mec!” or “Complètement jetée, cette nana!” (“This guy/girl is a total reject!” Pronounce the jeté(e) asshtay). A very effective expression. A 10-year-old Parisian and, as such, an expert on invective, told me so.

The engueulade is nearing its end. Battle has been joined, nothing has been accomplished, everyone is happy. It is now up to your opponent to set the tone for the final exchange.

Some prefer the invincible shrug – arms outstretched, palms upward – accompanied by the expression, “Bof!” (“I don’t care, go away cretin!”). Since imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, you should do likewise, changing the “Bof!” to “Beuh!” (“Very well, peasant, I’ll leave!”). Others prefer to save their biggest guns for the final salvo. When the going gets very rough, prepare to storm out the door yelling, “Allez vous faire soigner!” (“Go get yourself looked after!”) Left-wing Parisians will think you’re recommending a psychiatrist; right-wing Parisians, a veterinarian. Either will do. And on those glorious days when you’re shown thebras d’honneur, the Continental “up yours!”, you can respond in kind by pushing the person in the chest and sneering, “Tu me cherches?” (“You lookin’ for me?”). Then run like hell.

Follow this advice and you’ll be provoking engueulades three times daily: morning pick-me-up, afternoon delight, and eveningapéritif. Paris will change from a city of hostile strangers to a city of hostile friends. Sitting in your local café trembling from caffeine withdrawal as the waiter slowly re-reads his France-Soir, you can finally revert to your native sarcasm by saying, “C’est loin le Brésil, hein?” (“Gosh, isn’t Brazil far away?”), secure in the knowledge that you can withstand, repay and enjoy any abuse. Soon your temperament will change: you’ll begin to feel at home.

And one day, perhaps, you may even want to drive a car in Paris.“Ça va pas la tête, non?!”