Fleeting everyday conversations contain plenty of phrases that seem, on reflection, to bear no real meaning or to disguise different meanings.
Have a nice day now ... No, honestly, I mean it
My French newsagent is back to her old ways. As she handed change to a man who had bought an English newspaper, she said: "Have a nice day." Marie-Noëlle had clearly forgotten my note of caution of some months ago: that this phrase irritates many Britons. While I am sure she wished nothing other than a pleasant day for her customer, the words have become discredited by the excessive use that arouses suspicion of insincerity.
"Have a nice day" is not alone. Fleeting everyday conversations contain plenty of phrases that seem, on reflection, to bear no real meaning or to disguise different meanings. When the voice on an automated telephone system informs you, several minutes into an attempt to speak to someone, that "Your call is important to us", the temptation is to shout back very crossly: "Then why don't you answer it?" The message is simply a source of further exasperation to a caller who may already have been sent through a series of annoying hoops - choosing between various options - before reaching this impasse. The one thing that is certain is that the call is not important enough to persuade the company or organisation to employ sufficient staff to deal with it.
Consider other examples. Airline staff who announce, "We are here to serve you," sometimes proceed to give the impression they cannot wait to see the back of you. The phrase, "With all respect," is invariably followed by a statement that is not respectful at all. If someone in public services says, "No problem," the likelihood is that there is one; even "Yes" means in effect "No" if followed by "but".
Then there is the greeting, "How are you?". People posing the question rarely want to hear a full medical report, but expect a swift, positive response. An acquaintance who says vaguely, "We must meet for lunch some time," or "You must come and stay," probably intends neither event to occur. For the most part, this is all quite harmless, merely the small talk that personalises otherwise businesslike encounters. And it is obviously preferable if someone who bumps into you says, "Sorry," rather than, "Get out of my way, you ------- retard", which is what he may be thinking if the French writer Agnès Catherine Poirier is right in her amusing observations on the English.
But Ms Poirier must know that the French have their moments too. If you do not say, "Bonjour monsieur, bonjour madame," or, if both sexes are present, "Bonjour, monsieur-dame," on entering a shop, you can expect frosty service. It is also advisable to offer an au revoir on leaving the premises, even if the shop assistant or manager is no longer nearby and the phrase has to be aimed generally at anyone else in earshot. Minor functionaries seem to like nothing more than to pounce on breaches of etiquette. Try asking a uniformed person the way in any French town. However politely the question may be put, failure to start with a greeting may produce a tart retort designed to put you in your place: "On recommence. Bonjour, monsieur." Amid such stiff formality, the meaning of the word - good day - is all but lost.
But although I winced when Marie-Noëlle committed her little faux pas with the English customer, I decided against reminding her of the earlier conversation in which I had explained the British aversion to "Have a nice day". After all, she was acting with the best of intentions, her courtesy was genuine and the chances are that in the delightful part of the south of France where her shop is located, customers do go on to have a perfectly nice day.
Colin Randall is a contributing editor to The National and may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org