“Stop saying désolée,” a friend once hissed at me a few years into my arrival in France, as I was still just learning to use the language. “It’s too grovelly.” The Anglo apology—which must include the words “I’m sorry”—is part of the contract we make with our public figures. Make us believe the emotional display that comes with your acknowledgment of wrongdoing, and we’ll think you care, even if we suspect it’s transactional. It’s a matter of respect.
Something very different is at work in France, an ostensibly Catholic country that seems to have long ago dispensed with guilt. Sitting on my bookshelf in Paris is Comment Recevoir à la Française. It’s a manners guide the size of a phone book. “How to apologize à la Française” could be expressed in one word: “Don’t.”