Anyone who has spent a serious amount of time in Paris knows the word well. Non, Monsieur, it is not possible to have green beans instead of fries with your tartare… Non, you can not have a reservation for 20h, we have two seatings: 19h30 or 21h30… Non, I do not take credit cards in my taxi…
Negotiating à la française is something of an art. Here are a few of the nons you may hear on your Parisian adventure, and my best advice for replying:
The polite non. You are at a friend’s house for a casual dinner. You ask if you can help in the kitchen and she answers non. You could obey and head to the living room for a flûte of champagne with the others, but that would cost you your friendship for two reasons: because you didn’t hear the“au secours!” – or “help!” -undercurrent in her voice and because you’re out there drinking champagne with her husband. To keep the friendship, politely inform your friend that you are going to dry the lettuce for her salad. That gives her the perfect opportunity to tell you what she’d really like you to do.
The power trip non. Expats have epic tales of power trip nons that have ruined a day, a month, or a lifetime in Paris. This is not a treat reserved for foreigners. One day I was sitting on a bench at city hall, my five-year-old by my side. She was uncharacteristically calm, carefully observing the fonctionnaire who was the reason for our wait. After 20 minutes or so, she leaned over and whispered, “Mommy, it’s not your accent. That man is mean to everybody.” When faced with a power trip non, the best counterattack is to attempt to masterfully charm your way to a oui. If that does not work, it is time to fight power with power: ask for the boss, bring out your smartphone with the right information, or sit on a bench with an adorable five-year-old until you hear yes.
The automatic pilot non. I ran into this recently when trying to pay at the Café de la Mairie. “Non,” said the waiter as we handed over our credit card, “the minimum is 15€, your bill is 13.40€.” We didn’t have any cash on hand, so he suggested a nearby ATM. This is the policy at most Paris cafés, but it is a suggestion rather than a rule, and most cafés are happy to take your credit card. We asked again, and he said non.
If not handled according to the naysayer’s whim, the automatic pilot non soon becomes a power trip non. Once we scrounged together the cash to pay our bill, the waiter did not come. And he did not come. And he did not come. We took our bill to the counter, the woman at the cash register took the bill and with no hesitation charged the card. We had our satisfactory yes!
The best way to handle the auto pilot non is to ask again until you get the answer you need. Ask it three different ways, ask it in different languages. And when that doesn’t work, ask someone else. This may mean having to hang up after 20 minutes on the phone, getting back in a long line, or returning later in the day. Normally, you will succeed.
The flirty non. This is a favorite with waiters. They refuse your request to engage your interest. No! You can not have an extra spoon with your dessert or that extra plate for sharing. It’s a fun non used on solo diners, couples, and large groups alike. The flirty non is not a serious no. In the end, you’ll get what you want, with a side of giggles.
The non. And in the end, sometimes non really does mean no.
- Are the French actually rude? Read up on some common French language and cultural misconceptions, here on the HiP Paris Blog.
- Planning a trip to Paris? Read this HiP Paris Blog article on a new Parisian service, Insidr, which can help you unlock the city in the most positive way.
- Learn how to potentially avoid non with this guide on how not to look like a tourist in Paris, from Condé Nast Traveller.