French social customs 5: Monsieur, Madame or first names?

For my other posts about French customs, please see Customs under Topics in the right-hand sidebar. 

The French are more formal than the Americans or the English and are sticklers for politeness.  Many an unsuspecting foreigner has got stuck in the swamp of French etiquette.  Thankfully, there are some rules of thumb, but even those are not always clear.  My next few posts will focus on these social minefields.

If you don’t know someone, you should certainly address him or her as Monsieur or MadameMademoiselle is reserved for young ladies whom you know to be single.  There is no equivalent of Ms, and French women over a certain age are addressed as Madame, married or not.  What that certain age is, I find difficult to say.  As far as I know, it’s not codified anywhere, but as with so many things is something French people just imbibe with their mother’s milk.  If in doubt, use Madame.

It’s not easy to know at what point you can start using first names.  With some people, it will be never.  We have known our farmer neighbours for 13 years, but will never be on anything but formal terms, although they are perfectly friendly.  Monsieur F addresses me as Madame, but my husband as Monsieur followed by his first name.  Similarly, we will never be on first-name terms with most of the local shopkeepers or artisans even though we’ve know them for years.  On the other hand, some people have used first name terms with us almost immediately.  If unsure, it’s best to stick to the more formal mode and then follow what they do.

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