Paris’s New Metro Etiquette Manual is a Rosetta Stone for Travelers

A new rulebook for people in Paris public transports also serves as a helpful key to decoding the idiosyncrasies of French public behavior.

No test of common humanity is quite so commonplace or so trying as public transport. Millions of strangers are crushed together in the shared ordeal of the commute, and it’s a minor miracle more of them don’t turn on each other like savages in some dystopian fantasy—especially in Paris.

Yes, yes, it’s a very beautiful city, the Enlightenment’s ville des lumières, and the métro stations are pristine, Art Nouveau masterpieces compared to New York’s dank, dripping caverns. But tens of millions of visitors a year can attest to the Parisians’ darker tendencies: the snub, the snort, the wagging finger and the puffing cheeks. If you understand what they are muttering under their breaths, it’s even worse.

What may be less well known and appreciated is that the French think the foreigners are pretty damned rude as well. One of their most devastating insults: “Obviously we don’t share the same values!”

Now the Parisian public transport authority, the RATP, is trying to solve this problem of politesse. Over the last few months 2,000 suggestions from métro and bus users have been winnowed down to 12 slightly tongue-in-cheek commandments published in a little e-book, Manuel de savoir-vivre a l’usage du voyageur moderne, or, roughly, “a guide to good manners for the modern traveler.”

It’s not available in English, of course, and it’s already the subject of ridicule in the British press, which focused on one admonition not to inflict your armpits on fellow passengers. (As if that never happens on the London Underground.)

But translated and decoded, the booklet’s twelve rules provide some rather useful information for anyone visiting Paris, and some insights into the French character as well.

1. Being courteous means “understanding that the enormous cigarette with the red line through it on the platform is not a work of contemporary art, but a no-smoking sign.”

Yes, smoking has been banned in the cafés of France, once so redolent of Gauloises and Gitanes, but people still try to light up wherever they think they can.

2. Being helpful means “offering to help someone in Bermuda shorts who has a métro map in one hand while pulling their hair with the other.”

Now, the way this common sense advice about being nice to tourists is presented is very French indeed. Sometimes, despite the Parisians’ best intentions, their snobbery is bigger than they are. And it’s not just that they don’t wear Bermudas in the city. There are several little essays interpolated among the RATP commandments, and the one attached to Number 2 tells the French Samaritan that “hearing a traveler struggling to pronounce ‘Trinité d’Estienne d’Orves’ or ‘La Motte-Piquet-Grenelle’, that’s worth losing a couple of minutes of your time.”

3. Being polite means “not making your mobile phone unbearable.”

This one is particularly nice in French: C’est ne pas faire de son portable un insupportable. (Cell phones work for voice calls just about everywhere in the Paris métro.)

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4. Being helpful “is holding the exit door for the person behind you. Never in your life should you miss the chance for a nice exchange of glances.

This is actually an important bit of advice. Somewhere in their early education, or maybe in their genes, Parisians are trained to keep the heavy exit doors open for the person following them out of the subway. To fail to do so is regarded as extremely bad manners and can lead to much huffing and puffing.

5. Being polite “is using your handkerchief, but not just to wave goodbye from the platform.”

This should be obvious anywhere, but I do recall rather vividly a conversation between a woman bus driver and one of her passengers on 2nd Avenue in New York about how gross they found it when riders blew their noses on their hands or straight into the air. One doesn’t see that so much in Paris.

6. Being helpful “is carrying the bag of an aged woman … and giving it back to her at the top of the stairs.”

Yes, the French do have Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, even if they call them “scoots.”

7. Behaving properly means “sharing your latest musical discoveries over social media,” but “these days one expresses oneself as well through silence.”

It’s not just a matter of boom boxes. There are times in Paris, as in other cities, when earphones are cranked up so loud they fill the car with unwanted melodies. (Note: Smartphones get data connections in some parts of the Paris Métro, but slowly.)

8. Being polite is “greeting the driver, especially if it’s a man or a woman.”

This refers to something too few travelers learn in their high school French classes, and it’s not just about bus drivers. It’s expected in France that you will not only greet service personnel and sales clerks with a “bonjour,” but with “bonjour, madame” or “bonjour, monsieur.” If you leave off that little title, a measure of respect, you may get no response, or an unpleasant one.

9. Being courteous “is not staring at a woman passenger, even if her looks could kill.”

Fair enough.

10. Being courteous “is not demanding a duel when somebody accidentally steps on your foot.”

The French do get testy when they bump into each other, which happens all the time, and these encounters often escalate with insults, as the RATP guide points out. In other more violent cultures like, say, Chicago, one might be more careful about such a confrontation.

11. Behaving properly means “on days when it’s really hot, keep your arms down alongside your body like an emperor penguin, and grip the lower handholds, not the upper ones.”

Okay, there is a longstanding joke among Anglo-Saxons about the French being malodorous, never washing all of their body at the same time, and so on. Indeed, there was a time when the smell in Paris public transport could knock you off your feet. As recently as the 1980s, the cover of a Paris news weekly asked rhetorically, “Are the French dirty?” But the fact is, these days they’re not. With the exception of the occasional street person sleeping on a bus or in a métro car, body odor isn’t much of a problem—or no more than in many another subway system.

12. Behaving properly means “not confusing the métro with a bathroom, even if you find the walls covered with tiles.”

You’d think this would be common sense, but there are corners of some stations where it’s better to hold one’s breath. The reference is not just to those who can’t make it to les toilettes however, it’s to those who put on their makeup or mousse their hair in the midst of the maddening crowd.

The reaction of the French to this new publication, it should be said, has not been altogether favorable. As one commented to the tabloid Le Parisien, there’s no mention of the strikes that often shut down the system altogether, which many commuters consider very bad manners indeed.