The Rule is that You’re Wrong

When I was studying in Rome, my friends and I rented a car and drove to Cannes, France on the Côte d’Azur. I was the only French speaker, so K was asking me about how to greet people in French.

I had studied in Avignon, and it seemed there were cultural difference in the blue collar south that they hadn’t taught us about in college. First of all, in Avignon there are three cheek kisses, as opposed to the northern custom of two. In Avignon, all of our declarative sentences ended in “quand même,” and I didn’t even know that the rest of the francophone world ended declaratives with “quoi.” Finally, there was a very strict good morning/good evening dichotomy that we had to observe with greetings.

I’ve found that with most of my French speaking friends, “bonjour” is ok to say even if it’s night and the moon and stars are out.  In Avignon, however, while I was studying there, “Bonjour” was good morning, good afternoon, and “bonsoir” was good evening. when you’re saying goodbye at night, you could say “bonne nuit.” This is exactly the same system we were doing in Rome at the time, with “buongiorno, buona sera, buona notte,” a system which was making K crazy. Whenever he would greet somebody, they would correct him with the proper time of day, he wasn’t able to deduce what the rules were.

So we get to France and K asks me, what’s the system in French? What time is the cut off between saying “good day” and “good evening” so we can quit being wrong all the time.

It’s just like Italian, I replied, which caused him to clench his fists; all his anxieties about being corrected every day by everyone started to spill out.

Americans don’t like being corrected all the time. It’s cultural, we’re not a nation of language correctors. Sure, there are occasional grammar mavens, but mostly we do not stop a conversation to repair damaged language. I was telling a Taiwanese friend about this cultural tendency not to correct, especially if the person is ESL.  After a few months in St. Louis, she confirmed it to me; no, Americans don’t care to correct ESL mistakes.  I, personally, sometimes don’t even hear them.

Anyway, I thought about it for a second.  “The rule is that you’re wrong,” I explained.  If you’re anywhere near the border between “bonjour” and “bonsoir,” whichever you choose will be wrong, and they will correct you.

I was kind of just being facetious.  But then K came back to me the next day and told me that he had tested my hypothesis and confirmed it; he greeted a stranger with “bonjour” as he was passing him in the street.  The man responded with a correction saying “bonsoir…” and then fumbled a bit to correct himself when he realized it was only 10 in the morning.

Present day:  I don’t hear French speakers say “bonsoir” at all anymore, I seem to be hearing “bonjour” at all hours of the day or night.  I don’t know if society has changed, or if it was just a regional thing in the first place.

Or maybe it was a vast conspiracy, now that I’ve figured them out, to ensure that I remain wrong when I’m speaking French; they all got together and decided that me speaking correctly could not be tolerated.

I wouldn’t put it past them.

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