French Etiquette- 10 Essential Tips
“When in Rome, do as the Romans do”, you may have heard this often without paying attention to this expression. In this age of globalisation, it is truer than ever. Living or travelling in France requires tact and adaptation to manners and to the French etiquette. French à La Carte has listed 10 tips that will hopefully be useful if you live in France or even if you just have short social interactions with natives in shops and restaurants. My expat students often comment how incredibly helpful strangers and waiters are when you at least attempt to say a few words in French.
1 Always “hello” – toujours “bonjour” !
A polite formality governs daily life in Paris. Say “Bonjour” (hello ), “Merci” (thank you) and “au revoir” ( goodbye ) whenever you leave a place. At first it can be quite disconcerting being greeted by a complete stranger in the close confines of an elevator. But that’s the French way, and it is quite lovely in such a densely-populated city such as Paris. Address strangers (including waiters) as “Monsieur” or “Madame”. Natalie Portman sums up beautifully just how important Bonjour is to getting the best service in a store here.
2 The kingdom of politeness
Another tip to respect the French etiquette is politeness. Manners are very important to French people and can be tricky for overseas visitors. “Please” (s’il voul plait ) “Thank you” ( merci ) and “You’re welcome” ( je vous en prie or de rien) are used in any circumstances, whenever given the chance. If “Je vous en prie”, which corresponds to the proper French etiquette is too difficult for you to pronounce, you can answer by the more casual “De rien”. In both cases add a large smile to your sentence.
3 Kissing not hugging
Shake hands when you are introduced to someone. Parisians do l”es bises” (one, sometimes two, kisses on each cheek) when meeting people they know; it could be considered as a faux pas to try la bise with people you have just met, unless they kiss first. So how do you start the cheek kissing process then? When one traveller asked “which cheek do I kiss first? The reply was very well summed up as:
“I am French and I never thought of which cheek should be first kissed! I don’t think there is a definite rule. The protocol I identified is:
- first protagonist tends his or her cheek (left or right)
- second protagonist adapts and tends the same cheek.
- if it fails, both smile or laugh and the procedure starts again”
American-style hugging strikes the French as inappropriate.
4 Punctuality : never be on time !
I know, it rounds crazy to foreigners, right? Don’t arrive exactly on time in France. When you are invited to diner, never arrive on time. Fifteen minutes late is ideal. While in many countries this may be considered rude, in France this is a golden rule. But be warned: for meeting in a company with French colleagues, this rule obviously doesn’t work. In this situation, it will be very appreciated to arrive right on time. Same thing with dinners reservations at restaurant.
5 Table manners
On that topic, French etiquette is complex and a book could be entirely dedicated to this topic! I will avoid detailing all the codes explaining how to place elbows, hands, pick up a forks…and have just selected a few tips that can be useful when you are invited to someone’s home:
– As mentioned above, arriving 15 minutes late is considered as normal.
– Offer to bring something: wine, sparkling, dessert. If you go to an informal diner to close friends’, people tend more and more to offer to prepare a dish : starter, dessert. If you are invited to a more conservative dinner party, and the host tells you not to bring anything, do bring something anyhow! (maybe a box of chocolate or some flowers ).
– You are not served as you would be in a restaurant, so offer assistance to your French host (before, during and after the party)
– Aperitif: L’Aperitif is an established tradition in France. If you are invited for dinner, expect to start the festivities with pre-drinks for at least one hour before the meal is served.
– Do not start eating before your French host.
– Compliment your host : it is the appropriate moment to use all the adjectives connected to food that you have learnt during your French lessons such as “C’est vraiment délicieux” (it’s very delicious!), “excellent, original !”. If you wish to initiate a conversation, just ask her how she cooked that delicious dish. There is a chance that the conversation continues for hours on that topic! You will learn at point 7 that French love talking about food.
6 Clothes: less is more
When it comes to clothing, we often read and hear that French are elegant, classy and conservative. How to distinguish myth from reality? I sometime wonder if writers, journalists and bloggers who spread this reputation of elegance only stroll in the 6th, 7th arrondissement of Paris which doesn’t reflect the rest of France. Recommendations such as “Be clean and well-dressed at all times” are very outdated and a slightly conservative. It is probably appropriate to be very elegant if you are invited to the Ambassador’s party but rather restrictive, isn’t it? If you receive an invitation for a formal dinner party, it’s recommended to dress in a chic way, with quality fabrics, a nice cut, but avoid overdressing as this can easily be considered bad taste. And don’ t forget that you can be very chic with a nice pair of Jeans! In term of clothes the golden rule remain “Less is more”. And that is possibly why French women nail that “effortlessly chic” look.
7 Don’t talk too much about money
Historically, France’s love of ideas and learning has always taken precedent over making money. France’s obsession with thought, beauty and art has always overshadowed the wealth, unlike the United States or other western countries who revere capitalism. Since President Nicolas Sarkozy, it became more acceptable to have money and to flaunt it. Nevertheless, it is not in the culture to talk about money and it remains rather taboo. This means that if you want to meld into French life, avoid asking people what they do for a living or how much they earn (of course you wouldn’t !!). It would considered as vulgar, tacky and even boring, except by the nouveaux riches of course!
8 Food, politics, art: the top 3 topics of conversation
Avoid talking about money and stick to safer routes such as French culture, art, food, music, philosophy, architecture, and popular events. As an example, the French love to talk about food, so, if you are invited, it is appreciated to comment on the different dishes served. French people can speak with passion about their best pâtisserie, boulangerie, fromager and from personal experience, it can last at least 2 hours! Other topics like current affairs can also be on the list. So do make sure you brush up on French current news before accepting an invitation. If you live in Paris, discussions about the latest exhibitions can be a good topic as well.
9 A few words in French are welcome
Don’t just assume everyone speaks English. If you don’t speak French, ask politely if they speak English before continuing. This can be done in English or, better yet, in French “Vous parlez anglais?” It is always a good idea to learn a few key phrases, as it demonstrates your interest for the country and the culture. Even if you do make mistakes, which is perfectly normal for a non-native, people will be thankful that you have made an effort to speak the language and immersed yourself in the culture. As I said earlier, the French truly appreciate at least attempting to converse in French and they will respect you for it.
10 : “Chut” – silence please !
Silence can be very appropriate in France, especially among strangers. Even if you feel very excited about something and want to share your enthusiasm, try to temper it specially with strangers. If you are in a lift, don’t go further than “Bonjour”. At a grocery store, if the wait is long, a French person might throw a look of exasperation, you might also hear “rrrrrroh !” (which is a mark of exasperation and for you a good opportunity to practise your rolling R’s ! . The French rarely strike up a conversation with their neighbours in the queue or discuss some intimate detail of their personal life. The French like to preserve their privacy and will respect yours.
Do you wish to learn more about French Etiquette ?
If you wish to learn French in Paris with personalized on a one-to-one basis French à La Carte offer customized French private lessons in Paris to match your needs, learning abilities, your schedule, and your location in Paris. We provide cultural coaching to our students explaining the differences between Anglophone and French culture. If you are interested to learn more about us, call us or contact us.
In addition to your lessons, if you decide to learn French in real life situation such as going in a bakery or in a food market to practise your speaking skills with your tutor, we also offer French immersion in Paris.