Friday’s French – savoir-faire, savoir-vivre, savoir-être, know-how, expertise, interpersonal skills

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Savoir-faire looks like a word that should mean the same in French and in English. But it doesn’t! Savoir-faire in English is the ability to act or speak appropriately in social situations.

What do you think is illustrated here? Savoir faire, savoir vivre or savoir être and in which language ?
What do you think is illustrated here? Savoir faire, savoir vivre or savoir être and in which language ?

Savoir-faire in French, however, means skills acquired by experience in various practical problems when doing one’s work.

Savoir-vivre in French is knowing and practising the rules of politeness and usages in social situations, which sounds suspiciously like the English savoir-faire.

Savoir-vivre in English is good breeding and knowledge of polite usages.

In French, but not in English, we then have savoir-être which is the capacity to adapt to different situations and adjust behaviour according to the characteristics of the environment, the issues involved and the type of person concerned.

That seems to correspond to some extent to our interpersonal skills in English which are the life skills we use every day to communicate and interact with other people, both individually and in groups. They are also called social skills and people skills.

How about a few examples to make it all a bit clearer.

We’ll start with savoir-faire in French and go from there. I’ve chosen “real-life” sentences from the web because the subject is a little complicated.

Les maîtres artisans expriment leur savoir-faire ancestral associant des prouesses techniques et des innovations dans leurs créations.

Rough diamonds are brought to life by master craftsmen using skill and artistry that has been passed down through generations.

So here, the French savoir-faire is rendered by skill and artistry in English.

Même s’ils ont récupéré du matériel hautement technologique, du matériel militaire américain en Irak, ils n’ont pas le savoir-faire pour mettre en place un missile.

Syria’s stockpile is potentially “like a gift from God” for militants since they don’t have the know-how to assemble such weapons, while some of Syria’s chemical agents are believed to have already been fitted into missile warheads.

Here, know-how is used in English, which is by far the most common equivalent of the French savoir-faire.

Now, savoir-faire in English.

It betrays your lack of savoir-faire, of good taste, of any sort of culinary judgement. You can almost hear the stifled gasps of fellow diners.

Il n’y a rien de pire que les chuchotements et autres bavardages à l’opéra, même si vous avez l’impression que personne ne vous entend. Vos voisins pourraient s’agacer de votre manque de savoir-vivre et vous décocher un rappel à l’ordre poli… dans un premier temps.

Certainly not know-how, skills or artistry, is it?

Next, savoir-vivre in French

Au travail, certaines interactions sociales peuvent mettre mal à l’aise. Et malheureusement, beaucoup de personnes se couvrent de ridicule car elles ne savent pas que les règles de savoir-vivre au travail sont différentes de celles qui s’appliquent dans d’autres contextes.

We all know that the essence of good manners and etiquette is to be respectful and courteous to all – all the time. But what about in the workplace, what’s expected of us? When it comes to workplace etiquette, there are written and unwritten rules.

So the French savoir-vivre corresponds to good manners and etiquette in English.

And what about savoir-vivre in English?

How can something as instinctive as the need to create your own nest or space be so unimportant to so many people? A futon just doesn’t do it. Some people have “it” — savoir-vivre — and some don’t.

Then we have savoir-être in French

La différence entre deux candidatures a priori égales se fait désormais sur le « savoir-être ». Plus le candidat est « adaptable », « optimiste », « créatif » ou « doté d’un esprit d’équipe », plus il séduira le recruteur.

To succeed in management you need good interpersonal skills, you need to understand how to deal with other people.

So savoir-être in French corresponds to interpersonal skills in English.

A little summary to end with:

French savoir-faire Savoir-vivre Savoir-être
English skills, artistry, know-how Savoir-faire, good manners, etiquette Interpersonal skills

Now, before you go, which of these concepts do you think are illustrated in the photo – don’t forget to specify the language and explain why!

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9 thoughts on “Friday’s French – savoir-faire, savoir-vivre, savoir-être, know-how, expertise, interpersonal skills”

  1. It occurs to me that savoir vivre seems rarely used in English, though sometimes we do use savoir faire.

    I think the photo conveys the English version of savoir faire- in an inappropriate way, since I’ve always been of the impression you’re not supposed to have your feet up like that where you’re sitting.

    1. Yes, I agree – a definite lack of savoir-faire. This is also French savoir-fairee in the planted wall.

  2. A now popular vertical growing system that Jeff Koons did with Puppy at the Bilbao Guggenheim years ago.
    I don’t think I have ever used Savoir-Faire as anything but ‘ knowing the right thing to do’, ‘common sense’ or ‘tact’. I am now sure that most French words in English are a minefield to use when in France!

    1. Yes, planted walls have become immensely popular. Yes, French words borrowed from English are a minefield to use in France but they rarely have the same meaning.

  3. Not being a student of the French language, I believe I now understand both the French and English versions of “savoir-faire,” “savoir-vivre,” and “savoir-être.” Let’s see if I can explain the picture in the article and base my conclusions only using my observations and descriptions of the photo’s contents.

    First, the photo above depicts the lady’s lack of *savoir-vivre* because she is sitting on a public bench in a manner that is taking up more space than she should. No one would want to sit next to her for fear of invading her personal space. She seems unaware that if someone /did/ occupy the space next to her, the other person might be uncomfortable sitting so close to her backside. Therefore, she demonstrates that she lacks *savoir-virve* in the French sense because of her general disregard to common courtesy, good manners, and respect for others.

    Second, the lady is looking in the exact direction of an older gentleman who appears to be searching for a place to sit and perhaps use his cell phone. Someone with *savoir-être* would have “the capacity to adapt to different situations and adjust behaviour according to the characteristics of the environment, the issues involved and the type of person concerned” (quoted from the author Kneipp, para 5). Due to the absense of self-awareness and interpersonal skills, the younger lady is unable to recognize that the older man might also need the public bench to rest, especially during warm weather and with limited seating available.

    Ultimately, the lady failed to adapt her behavior given the characteristics of the environment and the state of the man’s condition–which is indicative of one lacking *savoir-être*, as explained by the author.

    Great examples and you helped resolve my confusion regarding the terms. Thank you, Ms. Kneipp

    1. Summed up very well! It’s amazing how one language can help to explain another. In fact, quite often, exploring French vocabulary makes me dig deeper into my own language. But then, I’ve always been a dictionary lover. I had my first pocket Oxford when I was about 9 or 10 and it was kept constantly next to me when I was reading. Now that I have a Kindle, I can use the built-in Oxford even more easily!

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