Friday, December 26, 2008

A lesson in “savoire faire”?

I read this somewhere:

An American was writing a book on French idioms-phrases that cannot be translated directly and often mean something other than their literal meaning, such as "to catch his eye." He was particularly vexed with the correct translation of the phrase savoire faire.

At a cocktail party in Paris, he happened upon three French businessmen conversing in a corner of the room. He approached them, explained the purpose for his visit to France and asked each of them what they thought "savoire faire" really meant.

The first one said, "Suppose I come home from work early one afternoon and find my wife in a liaison with another man. I would say to them 'Excuse me.' That would be savoire faire."

"I somewhat agree," said the second man, "but I would say to them, 'Excuse me, please continue.' That would show real savoire faire."

Finally, the third man, with an amused smile on his face, spoke up and said, "I have a totally different perspective than you do. I would say to them, 'Excuse me, please continue.' If they did, they would have savoire faire!"

Savoire faire in French means “to know how” or “world wisdom”. It defines a person who is refine, cultured, sophisticated, wise and basically knows what to do or say in a social setting.

The French pride themselves as the creator and master of savoire faire and they would like to dispute how Brits are well-known for their gentlemanly manners, if they can.

When I first met my husband, he gave me some lessons on savoire faire. For instance, when a man and a woman climb up a flight of stairs, the man should go before the woman. It is deemed rude to have a full view of the woman’s derriere from behind. And if a man dines with a woman, he must always allow the woman to choose the seat first before he settles down to sit. This is so that the woman will be given the best seat in the restaurant.

I must confess that coming from a patriarchal society, I was not used to such treatment, but be rest assured that I am getting to used to it!

You’ll notice that a lot of the savoire faire the French talk about have to do with how men treat women. (At the end of the day, it’s how well the men behave which will get the women in bed. If you don’t believe me, read Stephen Clarke’s books which make fun of the French culture.)

Anyway, tonight I had another lesson on savoire faire (I’ve said it enough times now that the words are starting to grow on me).

My husband and I went to this much rave about French restaurant in Phnom Penh called Van’s Restaurant. It’s probably one of the most chic and high end restaurant in Cambodia. Not surprising since it is set in a majestic old colonial mansion on Street 13.

You know right away that it would be a costly meal as soon as you enter the restaurant. So, as soon as we settled down, we were given two menus toute suite by a waitress who did some sort of a curtsy every time she set something on our table, much to our amusement. I couldn’t help but giggled every time she did it. Yes, not very savoire faire of me but I couldn’t control myself.

After surfing through the mouth watering array of gourmet food, I realised that there was no price attached to any of the dish. I turned to my husband and pointed out the error. He reassured me that this was normal in such a restaurant.

I was confused and I told him that this was just not right. How could we order whatever we wanted without knowing how much it would be? I feared that I might get a heart attack when the bill arrives later.

My husband, probably tired of my often frugal attitude, asked me to choose my dish and stop questioning. I managed to shut up for awhile but the price-less menu kept nagging me throughout the meal. I would ask my husband to guess how much would this and that cost, etc.

He finally gave up and in order to shut me up, he told me that he knew precisely how much everything we ordered cost.

Well, you such a restaurant, it is customary that only the men’s menu comes with the price but not the women’s. It is considered rude if a woman knows how much the man would be paying for her meal.

Now, what would a feminist say about that??



  1. I love Stephen Clarke's books too!

    I think the 'lady's menu' thing used to be common here too. You still often get a raised eyebrow if the woman pays for the meal: I took Julian out a few years ago to celebrate a promotion I'd had. We had a lovely meal in a new Indian restuarant in town, the bill came, I gave them my card and they came back with the slip to be signed...and put it in front of Julian. When I pulled the tray over to me so that I could sign it they put it in front of him, and I had to explain that I was paying. Much whispering from the waiters and disapproving looks shot at the pair of us. I have to confess I found it quite funny!

    Hope you enjoyed the meal!

  2. Hi Hannah!

    I understand what you mean but I often wonder how the men feel in front of such an "audience". Such open display of disapprovement may cause the men to feel ashamed or judged.

    So, in UK, they don't do the "lady menu" anymore? Anything to do with the feminist movement? The French might use this to say how unsavoire faire the Brits are! ;P

    I enjoy Stephen Clarke's books and find it hilarious and sometimes, oh so true! Unfortunately, he tends to generalise the whole French population when really it's the Parisians he's talking about.

    The meal was excellent and when the bill came, I didn't get a heart attack and in fact was rather reasonable for what we had!

  3. As long as the meal is free, eat up. Your stomach won't know if a feminist or a chauvanist who paid for it!

  4. Hi Ka Ea
    Julian found it funny too - but then he's not really a very typical man!

    The last time I remember there being a 'lady's menu' was in a very stuck up restaurant in Bournemouth when I was 10 or so and we were eating with my grandfather's cousin. I couldn't understand why mum's menu didn't have any prices on and it had to be explained to me ... I remember feeling slightly outraged!

    I think the French, in general, would say that the British have no savoir faire at all... but in my opinion, from the very limited experience I have of France/the French it is more a case of being completely different. You're far better placed to have an opinion on this though!

  5. Dear Hannah,

    well,I can't speak on behalf of the majority of French. In fact, I don't speak to them at all since my French is absolutely rubbish and their English is often poor!

    But, I can speak on behalf of V, my husband. According to him, Brits are known for their manners, perhaps too polite even for their taste!

    I find the relationship between the French and British rather intriguing. I reckon there's a love and hate thing going on like they envy each other for the things which are unique in their respective culture but too bloody proud to admit it.