One of the first expressions everyone learns when settling in France is “Je voudrais” (I would like), which works very well for simple everyday life transactions in stores, at the markets, or for obtaining general information. But, when you wish to ask for a favour or some additional information, “Je voudrais” might seem too demanding! It would be more appropriate and polite to use one of the following forms of how to be polite in French:
- Serait-il possible de… ? = Would it be possible to…?
- Pourriez-vous… ? = Could you…?
- Est-ce que ça vous dérangerait de… ? = Would you mind …?
In French grammar, we use the “conditionnel” when forming polite requests (the equivalent of ‘would’ and ‘could’ in English). This is how the construction works:
Serait-il possible de + 2nd verb in the infinitive form (you leave that 2nd verb alone, you don’t need to conjugate it!).
This is how we form ‘could’ in the conditional according to the different subject pronouns:
- Est-ce que je pourrais ? = Could I?
- Est-ce que vous pourriez ? Pourriez-vous ? (with the ‘vous’ form) = Could you?
- Est-ce qu’il/elle pourrait ? ¨Pourrait-il/elle ? = Could he/she?
- Est-ce que nous pourrions ? Pourrions-nous ? = Could we? Est-ce qu’ils pourraient ? Pourraient-ils ? = Could they?
Note : “Could I?” can be said in two different ways : “Est-ce que je pourrais ?”
(frequently used and less formal) or “Puis-je?”‘ (old fashioned or formal).
If you have never used these polite forms, I strongly suggest that you learn these three expressions for questions and use them in your everyday life. The French will appreciate your efforts and will usually reply positively with a smile!
How and when do we use these polite forms?
Imagine you are sitting in a brasserie and you’ve just ordered a café. You would like to have a glass of water with the coffee but it is not customary for the French to provide it spontaneously.
In this situation, using “Je voudrais” might seem again a bit demanding! If you approach the waiter by using one of the polite expressions, you will sound kind and respectful to the waiter. This is what you could say:
Excusez-moi, Monsieur, est-ce qu’il serait possible d’avoir un verre d’eau, s’il vous plaît ? = Excuse me Sir, would it be possible to have a glass water, please?
Excusez-moi, Monsieur, est-ce que je pourrais avoir un verre d’eau, s’il vous plaît ? = Excuse me Sir, could I have a glass of water, please?
Note : at a café, you may call a waiter ” Monsieur”‘ or simply say “S’il vous plaît”. Calling a waiter “Garçon” has become old fashioned or overrated (you might still hear some people use the term “Garçon” but it is now-a-days more customary and up to date simply to say ” S’il vous plaît”)