Last week, I wrote to the préfecture in Bobigny to ask about the status of my carte de séjour, which is now a month late to arrive.
Because I know how busy they are – and that they don’t answer their phones – I wasn’t really expecting them to reply.
So imagine my surprise when I got an answer a mere six days later. And a nice one, to boot. The woman told me that my card was being processed, and that I could email her back in a week and she’d personally let me know by email when it was ready.
The truth is, I’ve gotten a lot better at playing French in the past four years of living here, and I approach people differently now than I did when I arrived. Instead of expecting help because it’s someone’s job – as I showed in this post on how to get your way in France – I now do everything in my power to make my correspondence as nice as possible.
It’s a bit manipulative, sure, but that’s just how it works.
Here are five things I’ve learned about how to write emails in French that get answers:
1) Don’t begin with an informal greeting like “cher / chère.”
Students of French are often confused about how to start their emails, because in English, we always begin correspondance with “dear,” regardless of whether the person to whom we’re writing is actually dear to us.
In French, the equivalent, “cher,” or “chère,” in the feminine, is too familiar for a first encounter.
While you may use “Chère Madame” to address a professor you’ve known for a while, it’s hardly appropriate to use such an informal greeting with someone you’ve never met. And if you do, the person is turned off right away.
Begin your emails with a simple “Bonjour Monsieur,” or “Bonjour Madame,” if you’re writing to an identifiable person, i.e., someone whose name you know. If you’re writing to a French administrative email address, like firstname.lastname@example.org or something, you have two options: the simple “Bonjour,” or the generic, “Madame, Monsieur”.
Conversely, “A qui de droit,” the French equivalent of “To whom it may concern,” is considered too distant and cold for regular correspondance, and should be reserved for formal letters to your tax office.
2) Avoid starting the email with your needs.
On our side of the pond, we’re often straightforward and direct, and we like to get straight to the point in our email correspondance.
That’s not the case in France.
Start an email with “I’m writing you to know whether ABC” will immediately turn off the person reading your email.
Instead, start with pleasantries. “J’espère que vous allez bien et que vous avez passé de bonnes vacances / un bon weekend / un agréable jour férié,” depending on how recent the holidays were.
I like to begin with something about the weather. Last week’s email to the préfecture began with “J’espère que vous allez bien et que vous ne souffrez pas trop du froid qu’on a eu récemment.”
If it’s nice out, “J’espère que vous allez bien et que vous avez profité du beau temps ce weekend.”
And if it’s raining, “J’espère que vous allez bien et que vous n’êtes pas trop mouillé à cause de toute cette pluie!”
Beginning with pleasantries before getting to the crux of your question will differentiate you from everyone else who sends emails to this person and will help you get a reply.
3) Ask your question in the conditional tense.
While it may not be rude, per se, to ask a question directly, it’s a lot nicer to ask in the conditional tense.
“Je voulais savoir si vous pourriez me renseigner sur le statut de ma carte de séjour n°123456789.”
Meandering towards your question rather than getting straight to the point will make the person answering you feel less pressure to reply – and thus, more likely to feel like he’s doing you a favor.
4) Close with the magic formula.
French written correspondance has a certain number of rules that must be followed, including the addition of a standard sign-off phrase. While the rules have been relaxed with the advent of email, including the phrase shows you master written French and the rules of politeness, even if your execution isn’t grammatically perfect.
Here’s the magic formula:
“En vous remerciant de votre aide, Monsieur, Madame, je vous prie de croire à mes sentiments distingués.”
If there could be follow up questions about your email, you can indicate that you’re available to provide more information:
“Je reste à votre disposition pour fournir tout renseignment complémentaire, et je vous prie de croire, monsieur, madame, à mes sentiments distingués.”
Finally, the turn of phrase “mes sentiments distingués” implies that the person with whom you’re corresponding has a respected position. In other words, a supervisor or other part of the heirarchy rather than a peon.
Using this phrase, rather than its less impressive counterpart, “à mes sentiments les meilleurs,” flatters the person on the receiving end a bit, as it makes them think that YOU think they’re important.
Wins all around.
5) Sign off with “Cordialement”.
French President François Hollande famously signed off a letter to Obama, “Friendly,” when he meant “Sincerely,” and the press couldn’t stop making fun of him.
In French, the sign off “Amicalement” is reserved for your actual friends, as it’s relatively informal. While you’re technically not required to use another closing if you’ve used the magic formula from #4, you can opt to close your letter with “Cordialement,” or the slighlty less formal, “Bien à vous.”