Working in France as a corporate consultant, I was quick to observe and, when appropriate, adopt the habits and mannerisms of the French managers I worked with and reported to. I do not know whether it was typical, but teams members often took lunch at the same time and sat at the same table. Conversation was seldom work related and more often quite interesting: best bakeries, crunchiest baguette, family, travels, automobiles, and, of course, the United Sates, particularly our then-President, George W.
Before I left for my assignment in Paris, a number of my American friends called to tell their stories about Paris, their long lunches of 4-7 courses, followed by a walk before returning to the office. That was something to look forward to after years of hurried lunches at my desk, chatting briefly with co-workers on the other side of the cubicles.
Once on the job in Paris, my dream of the two-hour lunch quickly vanished. Lunch took closer to twenty minutes, thirty on Fridays. And my co-workers ate quickly, devouring three typical courses: a vegetable or soup followed by fish, meat, or poultry with a vegetable and possibly a tasty starchy dish, ending with a cheese selection or dessert and coffee.
Because we ate at tables for six or eight, I did not notice the lack of use of the “serviette” (napkin) until I went out to a restaurant with my boss and a couple of teammates.
The shocker: I was the only one who touched the napkin to my mouth. Yes, everyone unfolded their napkin, spread it out, and placed it on the lap, but I was the only one who used it from that point on.
Okay, so you are wondering, “What in the heck is she talking about? She wiped her mouth and the French tablemates did not?”
Oui. They did not lightly brush their mouths with their napkins because they did not need to! They were such neat eaters that there was no sauce at the corners of their mouths, no crumb on the lower lip, and not a speck of mustard on the upper lip.
How can this be?? With extraordinary culinary engineering skills, my tablemates cut their food to the size and shape that fit neatly into their mouths. And, if a bite turned out to be too large, they gracefully turned the fork until a clean entry was guaranteed. Stunning!
Their napkins were crisp and clean at the end of the meal, and could have been used again, while mine definitely showed a few traces of my meal.
To defend myself, I am not a sloppy eater. As a child, I was called Miss Fussbudget at the dinner table because I ate slowly and savored each bite. I eat pizza or a Danish with a knife and fork.
But, no matter how I practiced, I never did manage to eat as neatly as my French counterparts. While I had to concentrate on it, it was unconscious with them, as though they learned it as children.
Disclaimer: I have no idea whether this is typical of the French in general. My co-workers were managers in the IT industry and from all over France.