When in France, don't ever wear brown shoes after 6 pm

 26th November, 2006

A la fin d’une première entrevue, on ne donne pas non plus sa main, si des relations mondaines ultérieures ne doivent pas s’établir entre les deux interlocuteurs. Toutefois il arrive qu’à première vue naisse une sympathie aussi vive que soudaine entre deux personnes. Alors on peut avancer sa main ; c’est la manifestation extérieure de ce sentiment. Mais on mettra dans ce geste spontané une nuance de réserve, de timidité, comme si l’on disait : Je risque de me faire trouver bien familier. Et, en effet, cette manière rapide de procéder pourrait fournir matière à critiques1.

Baroness Staffe . Usages du Monde, règles du savoir-vivre dans la société moderne. Victor Havard, 1891

Modern man no longer wonders whether he should offer his hand or, if he does so, in what way. Many people don’t even know it’s rude to extend you hand to someone who is older or more senior. In Baroness Staffe’s manual, rules on introductions, hand-shaking and hand-kissing take up an entire chapter: in France, kissing an unmarried girl’s hand, or kissing anywoman’s hand out of doors, is to be avoided, two rules many modern Frenchmen don’t even know. Of course, in some cases, you are required to genuflect (on the left knee, the right one being reserved for showing respect to the Sacrament) and kiss a ring.

This outlook hasn’t yet completely disappeared. Just before being sent off to an embassy internship after I joined the French administration, I remember attending a briefing at which each of us was given a manual on modern manners. The retired ambassador who was in charge of the proceedings engaged in some light-hearted banter with me afterwards and concluded by pointing a warning finger at my feet, warning me never to wear brown shoes after 6 pm. I didn’t point out that in England, one wouldn’t wear brown shoes in town in any circumstances, as they are reserved for the country.

It’s easy to poke fun at people who were often bored, because in those days, it was unusual to work for a living in society. Manners were a way of keeping oneself busy. But I feel it was probably rather a good one. Modern man’s rudeness can have devastating consequences. Benjamin Constant’s lovers in Adolphe defy convention, by the standards of their time. Yet between themselves, they agree rules of conduct from which they do not depart. Modern man is in the reverse situation: he has won the right to love whomever he pleases. But only his own conscience, if he has one, stands between the weaknesses of the flesh or of the mind and the cruelties, great or small, that he can inflict on someone he no longer loves. I’m not sure the previous set of arrangements was not preferable.

  1. At the end of that very first meeting, you shouldn’t extend your hand if you do not anticipate a regular relationship will necessarily follow. Sometimes, though, the initial liking is obvious and mutual: then, and only then, you might consider proffering your hand to demonstrate outwardly that you feel that way. But that spontaneous gesture should also show enough reserve, so as to say: I might look as I lack decorum. And do be warned that doing things so quickly will expose you to criticism. ↩︎