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Traveling to foreign countries opens endless doors for culture shock and to trip over a language faux-pas, and France is no exception. One of your first interactions is likely to be in a café, restaurant, or with hotel staff, so it will come in handy to know about this one ahead of time.
To avoid a Mr. Bean moment when calling the server in a café or restaurant, avoid calling out “garçon!” across the crowded room. It’s not just outdated but borderline condescending, and worth stating the obvious—not all servers are male. It’s cringe-worthy for all other French-speakers around you and the server in question is likely to be either slightly discomfited or worse. You know what they say about antagonizing the person serving you food—you never know what goes on in the kitchen.
French waiters get a bad rap. They are not smiley, as it’s just not in the culture. They have usually trained for years and take their trade very seriously, particularly in traditional bistros and upscale restaurants, with their tablier de service neatly tucked around their waist like a badge of honor. A server worth his salt can flambée crêpes Suzette at the table, match the fish of the day to the right wine, and knows how to carve a duck à l’orange from scratch without batting an eyelash.
As a nod of respect to this venerable profession, the safe phrase to use is a simple “s’il vous plaît?” It’s hard to go wrong with a polite “please.” Try to catch the server’s eye but even if you are not within earshot, a simple raised finger and silent mouthing of “s’il vous plaît?” should also work. This phrase is a magical open sesame for any situation, like when asking a question of a shop attendant or buying a baguette.
The word garçon is French for boy, so it is safe to use when referring to a small boy in the third person as if asking when you hear someone has had a baby: “c’est une fille ou un garçon?” If you are addressing a little boy directly, then you can call him “jeune homme” or “petit bonhomme” for a boy under the age of five or so. Or if it’s easier to remember, just smile and with pretend formality, call him “Monsieur.” He may find it funny and reward you with a smile.